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Hemp panel meets 

The Industrial Hemp Committee held its first meeting Tuesday, passing draft regulations to the full Plant Board for approval and moving the state nearer to creating a bureaucracy for the new industry in Arkansas

The board hopes that farmers will plant the first batch of industrial hemp this year.

In the last legislative session, the Industrial Hemp Act — passed in near-unanimous fashion (only one «nay» vote in the House) — created a 10-year research program for growing the plant. Hemp, which contains less than .3 percent THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, can be used for cosmetics, food, fibers and, increasingly, a concrete-like building material called hempcrete.

The plant is federally approved to be grown for research under the 2014 Farm Bill. Hemp grown for research hemp can be sold and marketed. Arkansas's law set up a research pilot program to align with federal laws and tasked the Plant Board with creating rules for the new industry.

The newly drafted regulations presented today — largely uncontroversial — drew on the 30-plus other states that have approved hemp for research. The rules would require both growers and processors (who take the hemp and create products from it) to apply for licenses from the Plant Board. The licenses would be valid for 12 months (starting July 1 to accommodate the need to budget around the fiscal year).

If farmers intend to market the hemp beyond research, Terry Walker, Plant Board director, said the regulations will require them to "have a document in hand ... [explaining] a mechanism to move [the hemp] from the field to the processor."

But less clear is how the seed to grow hemp will get into Arkansas in the first place. While federal regulations allow the growing of hemp in research programs, laws on moving the seeds across state lines are murky.

"That is a big hiccup right now," said Mary Smith, the seed division director for the Plant Board and author of the regulations.

Jason Martin, CEO of Tree of Life, an Arkansas-based hemp seed seller operating in six states and hoping to sell seeds in Arkansas, said the seeds could be mailed to the Plant Board. Asked if this was illegal, he told the committee, "It's being done."

"It's a pretty simple process. In the rules and regulations here, the seed has to be shipped here. It has to arrive at the Plant Board," he told the Times after the meeting. "It's not really difficult."

Martin said his company labels mail as containing hemp seeds and has had no problems.

"It just shows up," Martin told committee members of the hemp seeds arriving at the Plant Board.

"So do the DEA officials; they just show up too," said Jerry Hyde, chairman of the hemp committee, to laughs.

The board is trying not to wade into legal areas outside its control.

"We're not going to authorize movement across state lines. We run the program in this state," Walker said. He noted that other states, including North Carolina, have sought state attorney general authorization to receive hemp seed. "The AG decrees it's OK to bring seed into the state. Maybe that's something that we approach."

In whatever way the hemp gets to Arkansas, once it's here the board will certify whether it meets the low THC content standard. In the future, the state will work to create further certification specifications — personalizing national standards for industrial hemp created by the Association of Official Certifying Agencies (AOCA), which has a chapter in Arkansas. AOCA creates standards for crops such as soybeans, rice and corn.

The Plant Board can limit the scale of a hemp farm to one acre. There will not be a set number of licenses issued to either growers or processors, but regulation author Smith said the board hopes to start small and grow the industry.

"We want to keep it small — if we can," Smith said. "But we don't want to limit someone that has a processor that says he needs 100 acres when we're only wanting to let him grow one acre. So, we will work with the applicant."

Walker said growers who need more than one acre for processing should "put the two [requests] together ... bring it in as a package" in their applications.

Certain requirements discussed Tuesday were contentious, including a rule that disallows growers and processors "within 1,000 feet of a school, daycare or similar public areas frequented by children." A first draft had not allowed growers or processors within 1,000 feet of any residence.

Martin pushed back on the 1,000-foot rule, saying 300 or 400 feet would be sufficient. He asked for further clarification on why 1,000 feet was the rule. The committee — and Plant Board staff — could not give a reasoning for 1,000 feet, beyond its being in other regulations.

Walker, after the meeting, called 1,000 feet part of a "conservative" approach.

"At some point in time, it may be that the concern about industrial hemp lessens and it could be treated more as a conventional crop. And if that happens it would be logical that the regulations governing the crop would be somewhat less," he said. "No guarantees on that. It just depends on what develops over time."

The Plant Board did not begin the process to regulate hemp until early October 2017. Walker said it took time to decide how to begin to regulate a new industry. The board was also busy, Walker said, dealing with the "hot button" decision to ban the Monsanto herbicide Dicamba, a decision that resulted in multiple lawsuits.

"Our concern is to do everything we can to get our rules in place. And then how everything else works out; well, it will just work out," Walker said.

Planting this year could be a squeeze as the regulations settle into place, said University of Central Arkansas biologist Nicholas Dial, who helped write the Hemp Act and is president of the Arkansas Hemp Association.

"It's disappointing that we're not yet tilling our land up, getting everything ready, having seeds — just waiting for the weather to break," he said. "But we just have to deal with the cards that are dealt. That's the way it played out. ... If we can get a crop in this year, that's a successful year."

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