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Washington became one of the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use in 2012. But there are a lot of challenges ahead: the state must set up a licensing system for marijuana growers and sellers, the federal government may mount a challenge, the need to set a new limit on amount of marijuana in the bloodstream for safe driving. And medical marijuana is still in the picture.Over the next several months we will be exploring the issue and tracking the impact of I-502.

Sen. Kohl-Welles Discusses Future Of Hemp Production In Wash.

Flickr Photo/Colleen Danger

Initiative 502, which took effect in December 2012, decriminalizes the production of hemp in Washington state, though it remains illegal under federal law.

Hemp production has deep roots in the early colonial United States. In fact, the Virginia colony required that hemp be grown by farmers to produce rope. Benjamin Franklin started a hemp paper mill to avoid importing paper from Great Britain. One particularly important document did not utilize paper at all, but hemp instead: the Declaration of Independence.

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, a Democrat representing the 36th District, has a bill that would research the desirability and feasibility of industrial hemp production in Washington state. She wants Washington State University to provide the legwork, but the university has some concerns about taking part.

“There was some hesitation in their willingness to participate in this," Kohl-Welles explained. "Initially I was looking at the case where they would actually test out some hemp production, but there was some reluctance based on the federal prohibitions. With this approach they don’t have to touch the plants at all, they can just determine if it can be feasible for production in our state.”

There are different varieties of cannabis sativa; some varieties are better suited for industrial production and some are suitable for human consumption. One argument is for the federal government to be able to differentiate between the types and uses of the plant.

“I would hope for a change in federal law also regarding marijuana for medical purposes – 18 states and the District of Columbia have that, including our state – and also for decriminalizing it, or hopefully at some point legalizing it,” Kohl-Welles said. “Certainly of all those three, hemp production I think would be the most likely to have federal restrictions lifted.”

But until this time, Kohl-Welles stresses that her bill is completely in line with both state and Federal laws. “[WSU] would be free and clear to conduct the study of it – that doesn't involve anything that would be restricted federally. In fact I had WSU, through Legislation, conduct a study on effectiveness of medical marijuana back in 1995. So, researchers can study things without actually handling any plant or drug. It would be more like a literature review and determining whether our soil in the state would be conducive to having hemp production, if there would be a market for it and so forth.”

Kohl-Welles sees the potential of hemp as a viable industrial product with uses extending much further than just colonial rope. “As I understand it, hops growers would be particularly pleased with this because their products could be used in the growing of hemp. Vice-versa, the hemp could be used in the growing of hops. There is also some significant interest in the agricultural community in terms of its propensity for erosion control. And in fact the Agricultural and Rural Economic Development Committee here in the Senate amended the bill to ensure that soil erosion efforts would be added to the topics of study.”

According to the senator, her bill has bipartisan support, citing that the agricultural committee is half Republican. The bill was reported out of the Senate committee unanimously, and Kohl-Welles believes that it stands a good chance to pass, which could open doors down the line to new crops for Washington farmers.

Listen to the interview from February 5, 2013, with KUOW’s Steve Scher.