Montana's newly formed hemp advisory committee met in Helena for the first time Wednesday, in a room crowded with individuals interested in growing hemp across the state.
The meeting largely acted as an introduction for the committee's nine members. They made no decisions at the meeting, but Montana Department of Agriculture Director Ben Thomas outlined committee responsibilities.
Thomas told members they will help the department set the rules and fees around hemp production in the state. Additionally, they will be responsible for advising on policy, procedure and research grants.
The hemp committee is larger than most and members are starting with one-year appointments. Typically, agriculture committees have three year appointments.
"We want you to be ambassadors of laws across the state of Montana," Thomas said.
He hopes the committee will spread accurate information about the state's program and act as a voice for their communities.
Christy Clark, bureau chief for the department, said the committee has one year to send out a referendum for a checkoff list, and it is up to members to decide what is on the list. This assessment is optional for the state, but without it the committee would cease to exist.
From the preliminary talks, it is clear the committee will spend a lot of time focusing on fees and bonding. A sentiment echoed by many members was that the farmer's monetary burden should be light to encourage more growth in the industry. The Department of Agriculture will ultimately handle budgeting and fee collecting.
The committee will make suggestions on the topic of "hot" crops, hemp that tests positive for more than 0.3 percent THC, and location fees to test THC levels in crops. The Montana's agriculture department has suggested a "whole plant crush" for this test. Although the rules around testing are highly contingent on USDA regulations.
The major issue facing hemp in Montana now is that there are no rules currently in place. When hemp was legalized, regulatory authority went from the Drug Enforcement Agency to the U.S Department of Agriculture.
According to Cort Jensen, attorney for the Montana Department of Agriculture, USDA has informed the department that it doesn't intend to review state plans until the fall of 2019. This leaves states operating without federal oversight or rules for the 2019 growing season. When asked, the USDA suggested that states follow their 2014 Farm Bill pilot programs.
Jensen said the major issue with this is that the DEA no longer has the funding nor the authority to regulate these programs. This leaves the 2019 growing season for hemp in a relatively confusing situation, and the 2018 Farm Bill's hemp rules will not kick in until the 2020 growing season.
Once federal rules are laid out and state programs are approved, farmers will have access to banks and insurance as those services become available.
Moving through this legislative session, Montana's law on hemp could also change. Three bills introduced by Sen. Tom Jacobson, D-Great Falls, are currently making their way through the legislative process.
Senate Bill 178, which would exempt hemp processing equipment from taxation, was approved by the Senate and transferred to the House. Senate Bill 176, which would form a hemp certification program for "Montana grown hemp," was also approved by the Senate and transferred to the House. 8. Senate Bill 177, which would revise the laws around hemp, is currently headed to Gov. Steve Bullock's desk after passing both the House and Senate.
For those interested in hemp farming, the Montana Department of Agriculture recommends contacting them for help when first starting. It was also highly recommended that people contact local tribal officials if they want to grow within reservation boundaries.
The Montana hemp advisory committee members are:
- Jeremy Anderson - Fort Benton
- Jackee Beck - Deer Lodge
- Ken Elliott - Wolf Point
- Jamie Fitterer - Bozeman
- Arlin Fratzke - Stevensville
- Bart Icopini - Hysham
- Ross Johnson - Conrad
- Dean Nelson - Homestead
- Kim Phillips - Helena