For the first time in about 15 years, legally sanctioned industrial hemp is growing in Hawaii's soil — and local advocates hope that new economic growth will stem from the plant in the Aloha State.
But hemp's success in Hawaii could depend on whether federal drug enforcement officials make it easier to import hemp seeds to the islands.
Researchers, lawmakers and farmers used traditional oo sticks Friday to sprinkle newly acquired hemp seeds into a small soil patch at the University of Hawaii's Waimanalo Research Station, in the shadow of the Koolau mountain range.
Their private blessing and seed-planting ceremony follows federal and state measures signed into law last year that permit universities such as UH to grow industrial hemp for research purposes.
UH professor Harry Ako and others with the school's College of Tropical Agriculture & Human Resources will use their first 5½ pounds or so of seed to study how tall the hemp plants will grow locally, how much water and fertilizer they'll require, how well they purify the soil and whether they can grow three hemp crops a year.
For state Rep. Cynthia Thielen (R, Kailua-Kaneohe), the planting was part of a 20-year push to bring the multi-use crop to the islands. She said her son first suggested it to her as a way to help replace jobs lost amid the local sugar industry's decline. Thielen led efforts last year to pass into law a bill authorizing a two-year UH research study into hemp.
Obstacles to local hemp study on Hawaii remain, however.
Researchers had planned to start planting hemp this past summer, but Thielen said it took nearly a year to secure proper federal approvals to bring three small bags of seeds to Waimanalo. Last year's federal Agricultural Act allows universities to grow hemp without a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration permit, but they still need a DEA permit to ship the seed to the U.S. and between states, officials say.
"The DEA has held this up for 11 months," Thielen said. "If our state wants this, and the federal government recognizes it, the DEA is acting irrational. They're insisting they control the import" and hope "you just give up."
UH researchers are prohibited from using the seeds produced by any of the school's first batch of hemp plants to grow subsequent ones per an agreement with the Australian company that provided the original hemp seeds planted Friday, Ako said. The hemp researchers and supporters will thus have to import more seeds if they're to keep the project going, but Thielen called the process of getting the DEA permits for these first seeds a "nightmare."
Washington, D.C.-based DEA representatives were unavailable for comment Friday.
Although hemp is part of the cannabis sativa plant species along with marijuana, it contains a small fraction of the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) needed to get a user high. But in 1957 the DEA began interpreting the Controlled Substances Act to include prevention of industrial hemp growth.
Both Ako and Thielen said Friday that there's no way a person can get high via hemp, and Thielen and others have called for it to be removed from the federal Controlled Substances list, which classifies illicit drugs. Hawaii Democratic U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has co-sponsored a federal bill, HR 525, that would remove industrial hemp from the list. Gabbard's father, state Sen. Mike Gabbard (D, Kapolei-Makakilo), said at Friday's event that he wants to see the bill succeed in the current Congress.
A measure that's still alive in this year's state Legislative session, House Bill 508, would allow others in Hawaii to work with UH to conduct more hemp research.
"We've been waiting for this a long time," said Clarence Baber, owner of Island Herbs Hawaii, who traveled to Oahu for Friday's ceremony. Hemp could provide local farmers with cheaper alternatives for fuel to power their equipment, food for livestock and people, and building materials, he said.
"If a farmer's able to grow his own fuel, that's a huge cost" eliminated, Baber said.
In 1999 a private hair-care firm was allowed to grow hemp in Wahiawa for research into hemp oil, Thielen said. However, despite tight security around the plants, "the DEA virtually shut it down," and the project was canceled by the early 2000s, she added.