Farm groups touting bill to bolster hemp industry

Farm groups in the state are touting new legislation to bolster Wisconsin’s revamped hemp industry.

“Wisconsin has a long, storied history with hemp and I am excited to have another crop for farmers to consider in their crop rotations so we can once again become leaders in hemp production,” Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation President Jim Holte said.

WFBF and the Wisconsin Hemp Alliance are urging state lawmakers to co-sponsor the Growing Opportunities Act, which was introduced by a bipartisan group of legislators and is currently circulating for co-sponsorship.

Wisconsin Hemp Alliance General Counsel Larry Konopacki says the bill is “exactly what the industry needs to continue to evolve,” while also creating “comfort and certainty” for both consumers and law enforcement.

If the bill were to become law, he says regulation of the industry would become more efficient as DATCP receives greater resources around hemp.

“This bill is a significant step forward, but it is also done in a way that carefully respects the need for appropriate regulation,” Konopacki said.

Since the state’s pilot program for legal hemp was introduced, interest in growing and producing the crop has skyrocketed. DATCP licensed 248 growers and 99 processors in 2018, the first year that it was possible to do so. This year, DATCP has already received applications from more than 1,400 growers and over 700 potential processors.

As noted in the co-sponsorship memo sent to legislators Friday, the rising interest comes after the federal farm bill was signed near the end of 2018. That national legislation removed hemp from the controlled substances list, and also gave states the choice to either apply to the USDA to manage their own programs, or allow USDA to manage the program.

The Growing Opportunities Act would create a framework for the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to develop a plan to keep state control over the hemp program “as it transitions from pilot to permanent,” the memo shows.

The bill would change a number of other hemp regulations in Wisconsin to conform to standards set in federal law. It would also create an appropriation for the hemp program from the state’s general fund in the 2019-21 biennium and would boost funding for DATCP for the current fiscal year to buy machinery and other assets for the hemp program.

To lower the barrier of entry, the bill would also allow DATCP to lower the fees for hemp licenses for research or noncommercial purposes.

And for growers who violate the state’s regulations for the program, the bill would establish a compliance plan. Under the proposed plan, growers that violate the provisions of the program would have to correct their mistake and report to DATCP for more than two years about continued compliance.

As part of that provision, a hemp producer that “negligently violates” the provisions of the hemp program or DATCP’s rules wouldn’t be criminally prosecuted. But if that producer violates the provisions three times in five years, that person would be ineligible to participate in the program for five years.

The bill also seems to give consumers a little wiggle room with the amount of THC that can be present in the hemp products they buy. THC is the main chemical that gives marijuana its psychoactive effects. Hemp only has 0.3 percent or less of THC, while cannabis strains sold in states where it’s been legalized regularly exceed 20 percent.

Under the bill, a person who buys s hemp or hemp products couldn’t be prosecuted if the product is no more than 0.7 percent over the permissible THC limit, and if the person “has no reason to believe” their product is over the legal limit.

The bill would also remove THC from the state’s definition of a “restricted controlled substance” as applied to handling firearms, or operating multiple kinds of motor vehicles including dirt bikes, snowmobiles and motorboats.

The legislation was introduced by Sens. Patrick Testin, R-Stevens Point, and Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee; as well as Reps. Tony Kurtz, R-Wonewoc, and Dave Considine, D-Baraboo.

“The main goal of this legislation is to build on last year’s successes to continue to increase confidence at all levels of the industry,” the lawmakers wrote in their co-sponsorship memo. “We accomplish this in several ways that are detailed in the analysis, including the application of truth in labeling requirements to hemp products in an effort to protect Wisconsin consumers.”

The legislation was developed with input from the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation as well as the Wisconsin Farmers Union and DATCP. The deadline for co-sponsorship is April 17 at 5 p.m.

See the bill text: