A bill that would fully legalize hemp production throughout Hawaii is only a few steps away from becoming law, although many are unhappy with its final form.
A joint meeting of the state Senate Judiciary and Ways and Means committees approved House Bill 1819, which would end the state’s current Industrial Hemp Pilot Program and replace it with a general purpose hemp production program designed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Hemp was decriminalized nationwide by the USDA in 2018, but the state has not legalized its production beyond the Industrial Hemp Pilot Program, which has awarded licenses to growers throughout the state for the past two years. Of the 59 licenses awarded, 18 have been to growers on the Big Island.
However, Rep. Richard Creagan of Kailua-Kona, who co-introduced the bill and a similar measure in 2019, said the current state of the bill attracted criticism from hemp advocates who fear certain aspects of the measure will stifle production.
In particular, Creagan said, many testifiers took issue with a provision in the bill that sets mandatory buffer zones around any hemp production facility. Under the bill, hemp cannot be grown within 750 feet of property comprising a playground, child care facility or school nor within 250 feet of any existing residence not owned by the grower.
In a letter submitted to the committees, the Hawaii Hemp Farmers Association wrote that the buffer zones would be disastrous for many of the current pilot program licensees.
“The data show that with a 250-foot buffer, 17 farmers are immediately out of business and will suffer a loss of $27.1 million,” the letter read. “With a 500-foot buffer, 21 farmers are out of business with losses of $35.3 million. At 100-foot buffers, eight farmers are out of business with $16.8 million lost and with buffers less than 100 feet, six farmers are immediately out of business with losses of $8.2 million.”
While the committees voted to amend the bill to exempt pilot program licensees from the buffer zone requirement, other testifiers argued the buffer zone requirements are prohibitive for would-be growers. Gail Baber, a Big Island grower who was the first to be awarded a license under the pilot program, submitted written testimony arguing that a maximum 100-foot buffer would be reasonable, but no more.
Creagan also said that deferring to the USDA to create the state program is less than ideal, but is a byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They told us, for a bill to show up this session, it has to have no financial impact,” Creagan said, explaining that leaving the program to the USDA saves Hawaii the cost of managing the program itself. Furthermore, he said, the state can still propose changes to the program in the future.
“It all comes down to whether people think something is better than nothing,” Creagan said. “Most people seem to think they’d rather have this than nothing, when it comes down to it.”
Creagan added there is no guarantee that the bill will pass this session. The bill still needs to pass a full reading in the Senate before returning to the House, and there is no more time to make any further changes to the text of the bill.
“If we don’t like what the bill says, there’s nothing we can do, we vote it down and it just doesn’t pass,” Creagan said.
If that happens, the pilot program will continue for another year.
Furthermore, the bill is not immune to the circumstances that sank Creagan’s 2019 attempt at hemp legalization. That bill successfully passed through both chambers of the Legislature only to be vetoed at the eleventh hour by Gov. David Ige.
Creagan said the current bill has some of the same flaws that led Ige to veto the previous one. In particular, he said, the USDA has somewhat “loose” regulations for the program, while Ige last year wanted more oversight. Creagan said he would not be surprised if the state Department of the Attorney General requests another veto this year.
The AG’s office did, in fact, submit testimony to Thursday’s hearing warning that USDA’s program is undertested and, without sufficient penalties in place for violators of the program’s regulations, could lead to the program becoming a source for black market marijuana products. That said, the Department of the Attorney General did not explicitly oppose the measure.