A bill to amend the Virgin Islands Code to allow for the cultivation of industrial hemp cleared the Legislature’s Economic Development, Agriculture and Planning Committee on Thursday and will soon be forwarded to the Rules and Judiciary Committee for further consideration.
Hemp is a fiber made from the cannabis plant that has a number of non-drug-related industrial and commercial purposes. Industrial hemp can be used in clothing manufacturing, fuel production and as a food source.
Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson, cosponsor of Bill 31-0100, said that the legislation limits the amount of tetrahydrocannabino, the substance in cannabis which produces a high, to .3 percent in all industrial hemp grown in the territory, meaning that the crop would be unsuited to recreational drug use.
"We know that this plant, the cannabis plant, has raised some eyebrows in the territory and amongst the states," said Nelson. "But we are in line with some 22 states who have legislation to allow for the cultivation of hemp."
The benefits of hemp, according to Nelson, include its durability, the ease with which it can be cultivated and its variety of practical uses. Nelson said that he would like to see the V.I. pursue two industrial uses of hemp in particular: the production of building materials and paper.
Thursday was not the first time the V.I. Legislature has discussed the topic of hemp cultivation, but Sen. Janette Millin Young, committee chairwoman, who described herself has having "always been hesitant about the issue," said that the testimony offered this time around was more optimistic and convincing than in the past. She described Thursday’s testimony as "a great learning process."
Barbara LaRonde, president of advocacy group USVI NORML, who said she has testified in front of four separate V.I. Legislature bodies on the subject of hemp, showed the senators a few of the products that can be made from the fiber.
One of these products, "Hempcrete," is a solid building material made from hemp, limestone and water that is lighter and more flexible than regular concrete and also acts as a natural insect repellent.
LaRonde also shared a sample of plywood made from hemp as well as a hemp bag and hemp shoes made by St. Thomas shop Zora’s Sandals.
"Hemp is the strongest natural fiber known to man," said LaRonde.
Sen. Myron Jackson, the sponsor of a separate bill (Bill 31-0091) proposing a feasibility study on the commercial value of the moringa tree, bamboo, hemp and aloe in the territory, agreed to cosponsor Nelson’s bill when the sections of his bill pertaining to hemp were found by the committee to be redundant. Jackson’s bill passed committee after the removal of all language pertaining to hemp.
It was not initially clear whether a section of bill 31-0100 that allows individual licenses for the cultivation of hemp was legal under federal law, which currently allows only for educational institutions and local departments of agriculture to begin pilot programs in the industry.
Legal counsel suggested including a contingency clause into the bill that would halt its enactment until a national bill seeking to change the classification of hemp as marijuana becomes law. Nelson remained confident that everything in the legislation is permitted under the research allowance that currently exists.
He noted that commercial licensing has already been a part of hemp research and development programs in seven states. He said that before production can begin in the V.I., the bill instructs the University of the Virgin Islands and an appointed commission under the Department of Agriculture to establish local regulations for the industry.
Sen. Tregenza Roach, initially among those worried about a conflict with federal law, said that language in the U.S. Farm Bill convinced him that local governments have the right to begin making policy for hemp-related industry.
Department of Agriculture Commissioner designee Carlos Robles initially said his department was holding its support from the bill due to legal issues, but he left the committee meeting promising to reconsider and with a sense that the V.I. government has "more flexibility than originally thought."
Representatives from UVI, the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, and the V.I. Police Department all gave their support to the bill in testimony, raising only minor concerns about its contents.
Dawne Henry, commissioner designee of DPNR, said that her agency would support the bill if a plan was developed in preparation for the unintentional spread of cannabis plants as an invasive species. But environmental consultant Paul Chakroff said he has seen no evidence that the introduction of the plant to the Virgin Islands as a cultivated crop would be harmful to local ecology.
Chakroff praised the crop as a "green" one, explaining that it is a natural weed suppressant and requires no herbicides or pesticides in its cultivation.
Chakroff said he would like to see the Department of Agriculture given all the resources it requires to fulfill industrial hemp’s "potential to be a sustainable, environmentally friendly agribusiness in the Virgin Islands."
The bill was approved by the committee with Jackson, Roach, Millin Young, and Sens. Clifford Graham and Almando "Rocky" Liburd voting in favor. Sens. Novelle Francis Jr., Nereida “Nellie” Rivera-O’Reilly and Kurt Vialet were absent, having left to catch their plane to St. Croix. Senate President Neville James was absent from the meeting.