The Green Waves Being Cultivated in Pennsylvania

There’s still a lot of green in Pennsylvania, a name that means to “Penn’s Woods”, and confers images of acres upon acres of vegetation. Across recent decades, however, Pennsylvania has been synonymous with the steel, coal, nuclear power (e.g. Three Mile Island), and oil shale industries, which have, in turn, branded the communities in which they’ve operated, and taken collective tolls on the surrounding landscape.

These days, however, Pennsylvania is becoming increasingly identified with cannabis and hemp. The state impressively pioneered allowing people dependent on opioids to seek relief from their addiction by using medical cannabis. Pennsylvania, as a whole, has been ravished by the “opioid epidemic”, like many other tragic places in the United States. In 2016 alone, there were 2,235 opioid-related deaths in Pennsylvania.

The state also is home to the 4th highest amount of veterans, who can utilize nascent access to cannabis and hemp products in battling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), insomnia, and anxiety. So, the hope that cannabis, hemp, and the phytomolecules contained therein, provides presents a welcomed prospect for restoring health and wellness into a discordant population.

Pennsylvania also ranks high regarding the number of jobs created from the revived interest in cannabis and hemp farming, product manufacture, and analytical testing. State lawmakers have sought to make Pennsylvania symbolic of medical Cannabis sativa (hemp/cannabis) research. With the passing of the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill, the influx of hemp cultivation applications in Pennsylvania has resulted in over 100 new permits, many of which are in Western Pennsylvania. These farms, and the harmonizing businesses facilitating cultivation, utilizing the harvests, or analyzing end products, augment the already sizeable glut of cannabis industry job opportunities. Suddenly Pennsylvania is returning to greener pastures, optimistically offsetting past associations with less than sustainable practices.

We spoke with Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council (PAHIC) Executive Director Erica McBride Stark about Pennsylvania’s mushrooming hemp industry, and how the Council began. “I met my husband Les a few years ago at a cannabis rally,” Erica began. “He had written a book called Hempstone Heritage, which illustrated our state’s historic use of hemp. Together, we set out to help get hemp legislation introduced, such that hemp could be a part of our state’s future.”

It’s exhausting and disappointing that so much energy must be put back into re-educating humanity that Cannabis sativa has benefited us for a very long time. Except for a teeny sliver of time where distorted, yet effective propaganda reigned supreme, humans seemed to once know this. The Starks, however, were willing to continue the fight. “We met with Senator Mike Folmer to try to get hemp legislation introduced, and eventually, were fortunate enough to have Senator Judy Schwank as the bill’s prime sponsor,” Erica explained.

And thus, the first hemp bill introduced into Pennsylvania law, SB50, was born. The Pennsylvania House of Representatives wanted to introduce a companion bill of their own, which led to HB967. Concurrent to these events there was the big push for medical cannabis in PA.  “Along with Geoff Whaling, present-day PAHIC President, we formed the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council to keep the issues separate, Erica explained. “Hemp legislation passed unanimously, whereas medical cannabis did not.”

CBD products are flooding Amazon, CVS, and Walgreens, making it easily recognizable that there’s money to be made in cultivating hemp. “Farmers are seeing dollar signs,” Erica added, “but many don’t know anything about growing hemp or what the law says. They may not know that CBD has never been legal in all 50 states, and it isn’t now.”

Given the panacea-like feel of CBD marketing efforts, one critical thing to evaluate prior to branding a product as medicinal, is whether it’s safe for consumption. There’s lots of doom and gloom scenarios being reported on the possibility of contaminated products made from hemp that was used to clean-up contaminated soil, a process called remediation or bio-accumulation. Hemp has often been grown on contaminated lands, such as in the Ukraine after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Is this really something that the average hemp product consumer should be worried about?

“Knowing the source of the hemp is extremely important,” Erica replied, “but I’m not really concerned about people growing hemp on contaminated land and then selling it on the market. Plus, marginal soil won’t produce much. The vast majority of CBD producers are mindful of testing. Imported products and sketchy producers out to make a quick buck make things bad for everyone. We need to ensure that good companies aren’t falsely demonized by the decisions of bad actors.”

Currently, hemp testing is randomly performed on hemp biomass by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. As per the Farm Bill, the amount of total THC, post-decarboxylation, must be quantified. Once the hemp is harvested, however, the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture ends.

Despite the random testing, to date, the Department of Agriculture has not provided insight into acceptable practices, such as pesticide use. “The vast majority of the cultivation is conducted outdoors, but there aren’t pesticide lists, as with cannabis testing, “Erica explained. “We’re hoping to see the Department of Ag offer a guidance letter to the farmers.”

Already having helped to quell embellished, historical hysteria by reintroducing hemp into state law, the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council continues scything the path for the state’s hemp economy. “Hemp being federally-legal is a game-changer, but we need to have 2019 to get the kinks worked out,” Erica added. “At the state level, we have legislation pending that ensures testing after extraction, as well as adding CBD as a marketable food ingredient and supplement. We still have a lot of work to do for CBD legislation. We work closely with the Department of Agriculture, and spend our time talking to individual farmers to help them and us better understand the possible rewards and pitfalls. We also help with topics like plant genetics and importation, as we continue to be primarily focused on education.”

And education or knowledge, after all, remains the arch-nemesis of Reefer Madness. So, maybe the landscape in Pennsylvania really is getting greener, as hemp has once again found available land from which to proliferate.

About the author

Jason S. Lupoi, Ph.D.

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