By JAKE ZUCKERMAN, Charleston Gazette-Mail
VIENNA, W.Va. (AP) — American Independence Day aside, this past Tuesday marked the first day West Virginians could apply to the agriculture commissioner for a license to grow industrial hemp for commercial purposes, although several industry pioneers already are well into their second growing season and thinking big.
Morgan Leach serves as the president of the West Virginia Hemp Industries Association and executive director of the West Virginia Farmers Cooperative, some of whose members already hold 14 licenses to produce hemp through the commissioner of agriculture and grow 30 acres of the crop over 11 counties. Although they obtained their licenses as members of a research institution, independent growers can now get into the industry under the amended law.
Along with other members of the cooperative, Leach has been growing the cannabis plant — specifically hemp — to research some of the best production practices, to raise awareness of its potential and to educate the public on the critical differences between hemp and marijuana.
"Industrial hemp is defined as varieties of cannabis that are below 0.3 percent THC," he said, referring to the psychoactive component of marijuana. "So we can have a plant that's got less than a third of a percentage of THC and still have high levels of CBD that have a lot of applications in the nutraceutical world."
CBD, or cannabidiol, is a chemical compound derived from the cannabis plant. CBD products are legally sold in West Virginia, and Leach said medical research is ongoing regarding CBD's potential for combating anxiety, PTSD, epilepsy, gastrointestinal disorders and others. For instance, a May study in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that CBD can reduce the rate of seizures from a form of epilepsy.
Along with CBD, Leach said, just about every part of the plant can be converted into a consumer product. He said the seeds can be used as food products, the flowers for oils and the rest for a versatile fiber.
On the consumer end of the hemp spectrum, David Hawkins owns Mother Earth Foods, in Parkersburg, a natural-food and supplement store that sells roughly 30 hemp-based products, ranging from CBD oils, hemp seeds, hemp hearts, topicals, hemp-based protein powder and even a hemp beer.
Hawkins, who is a master herbalist, nutritional consultant and hemp farmer, said there are some pitfalls within the emerging industry. He said regulations might need some time to catch up with the market and that he has to keep a careful eye on what he sells in the meantime.
"I started carrying hemp, and I'm only carrying three companies, because I'm picky about the quality, because it's kind of the Wild West in the hemp and CBD arena," he said. "There are legalities in labeling, which some are better at than others, with the (Food and Drug Administration) and (Federal Trade Commission). There's also the issue of consistency in the product, when you're looking at it from a medical perspective."
Hawkins said he's careful about the standardization of dosages, purity and other factors, and he usually requires an independent analysis of a product before he puts it on his shelves.
Leach and Hawkins said some people are tepid about the industry, probably because of its proximity to marijuana. Although hemp emanates a similar aroma, Leach stressed that it cannot get you high, and once people come to understand this, they start to see the plant for its economic potential for the state.
"What people are worried about is its use as a drug, and hemp just really doesn't have that," he said. "When you have those low levels of THC, you don't have those same challenges you do with marijuana. Educating people in that, usually by the time we're done having that conversation, people have a whole new idea of what the hemp industry is and what it could be for a state like West Virginia.
"We need new business, we need new people coming in and creating new industry and, if we can do it with this plant, a lot of people are really behind that."
Hawkins said he also works a lot to educate consumers on the difference between hemp and marijuana. However, he said, as word has gotten out, he's seen customers weary of the side effects of their prescribed pharmaceuticals and willing to give hemp products a try.
If the winds do change for the industry like the two predict, hemp industrialization could breathe new life into the state.
"Our economy is in trouble. We have this huge budget deficit, we have the decline of coal, all these severance taxes are down, you have counties that are struggling, they've lost 30 percent of their job base, or more, in a year. It's really hard to rebound from that," Leach said. "If we can bring something in like hemp, to help produce commodity items like food and these supplements and different things we use every day, that can really help us climb out of the hole here."
To Hawkins, speed could be the name of the game for West Virginia. He said, along with production, there are a number of related industries the state could take the lead on, such as processing the plant into end products or cultivating seeds. As an example, Leach still relies on seeds imported from Italy. Hawkins imports seeds, as well, costing as much as $200 per acre, because there is no domestic commercial source.
He said the next few years could be critical for the state to position itself with a competitive advantage.
"Maybe West Virginia could be a processing state, as opposed to a growing state," he said. "If you have more land for acreage in Ohio and it ends up coming here for processing, that's okay. So we have to be able to position ourselves as a long range, what are we going to be, where could it be. Could it be a multi-million-dollar-per-year business? Yes, it has the potential to do so."
As West Virginia's economy continues to list away from coal, and its operators look for means of diversification, Hawkins and Leach said, hemp's versatility should make it an obvious candidate. Hawkins pointed out that hemp also has uses in sucking toxic chemicals from the soil, which could be a method of cleaning up abandoned mines.
Leach pointed to the farmer on West Virginia's state flag and said the two characters on the flag tell a story among themselves, because one has gotten a lot more attention than the other.
"Look at our state flag; there's two guys on it," he said. "One's a coal miner, one's a farmer. We need to do some more farming and play to our assets and our strengths, and (farming) is one of them."