More than half of the hemp crops cultivated in Hawaii over the past year as part of the state’s industrial hemp pilot program have tested hot, meaning their levels of THC, the chemical that makes people high, were above the federal limit for hemp.
The high rates of unusable plants pose a challenge to the nascent hemp industry in Hawaii where investors locally and from the mainland are hoping to capitalize on the state’s ideal growing conditions and the thriving market for hemp-derived cannabidiol products, known as CBDs.
Nearly all of the hot crops, 18, had to be destroyed, according to the state Department of Agriculture. State officials granted waivers to another four crops that tested just slightly above the limit, allowing the growers to use the hemp on their properties.
Legally, a cannabis plant is classified as hemp, rather than marijuana, if it contains 0.3% THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) or less. A plant has to have about 1% THC or more to produce mind-altering effects, though in reality the levels of THC in recreational marijuana are much higher than that. One study published earlier this year found the average THC concentration in marijuana was 17.1% in 2017, about double what it was a decade prior.
Shelley Choy, hemp program coordinator for the state Department of Agriculture, stressed that the high numbers of hemp plants testing above the limit is part of the research process.
“It’s honestly expected and fairly routine in the sense that it is really hard to grow a plant that is 0.3% or below, and it is also really difficult in Hawaii because we have a really unique climate and photoperiod as compared to other states,” said Choy. “So, genetics which work in other states don’t necessarily work the same here, and it is all experimental.
“That is why right now we are running a research pilot program. We are trying to figure all this out, and we haven’t figured it out yet.”
The department has approved a variety of hemp seeds that can be grown in Hawaii and began allowing licensed growers to request approval for other types of interstate seeds earlier this year.
Part of the challenge, said Choy, is that most of the interest in hemp is in producing CBD products, which have become popular in the wellness industry. Tests have shown that hemp strains ideal for their high CBD levels tend to also have higher THC levels, increasing the chances of them testing hot.
Hemp makes a comeback
Hemp production was banned throughout the country in 1937 as part of the criminalization of marijuana, but restrictions began to ease with the 2014 Farm Bill allowing states to begin growing hemp as part of research pilot programs. Most states, including Hawaii, have set up such programs. Congress in 2018 amended the Farm Bill to remove hemp as a controlled substance and legalized hemp under certain restrictions.
The changes at the federal level have galvanized interest in hemp cultivation nationally, with investors particularly interested in Hawaii where the climate provides for ideal growing conditions.
“There is a ton of local interest, but the outside pressure is overwhelming,” said Choy.
So far, the Department of Agriculture has granted 30 licenses to companies interested in growing hemp throughout the state.
Gail Baber and her husband are among the hemp growers who had a crop test too high for THC. Rather than destroy the 450 plants on their Hawaii island farm, they were allowed to use them for erosion control and compost, said Baber. She said the THC level was under 1%.
The THC concentrations can increase in cannabis plants the longer they are in the ground, and Baber said she had the crop tested three weeks too late. Otherwise, she thinks the plants would have passed.
“This does speak to a much larger issue about the definition of hemp at 0.3% THC, and where did that come from and does it make sense to be there. Should it be a little bit higher?” said Baber.
While there is debate within the industry about whether the threshold should be higher, Choy noted that the state is restricted by the federal law.
Hemp can be used for a wide range of products including building materials, paper, fiber and insulation. But it also produces CBD, which marketers claim can help with a variety of ailments such as anxiety, muscle pain, sleeping problems and even acne. The market for CBD products is expected to grow from $618 million in 2018 to $22 billion in 2022, according to Brightfield Group, a cannabis and CBD market research firm.
For now that market remains closed off to Hawaii hemp growers. A bill that would have created a permanent commercial hemp program in Hawaii was vetoed in July by Gov. David Ige. The measure would have also allowed growers to remove leaf and flower material, which contains the CBD, from the growth site, which is currently prohibited in Hawaii.
In vetoing the bill, Ige said he was concerned, in part, because the bill restricted the Department of Agriculture’s ability to test hemp plants to once a year. Unlike other states, hemp growers in Hawaii can produce three to four crops a year.
“Some components of the bill would severely limit the department’s ability to test crops,” said Choy. “So that was a concern that, look, in our very limited data-set run, we are seeing a lot of things go hot.
State Rep. Cynthia Thielen (R, Kailua-Kaneohe), who has advocated for hemp legalization for nearly three decades, countered that the bill was fine with just one inspection a year, which is all the federal Farm Bill requires.
>> Used to create fiber, oil, food and other products
>> Contains less than 0.3% THC
>> No psychoactive properties
>> Used for medical, recreational purposes
>> Higher amount of THC
>> Psychoactive side effects