Hemp, like marijuana, comes from the cannabis plant but has much less THC, the active ingredient in marijuana that makes people high. The hemp plant has thousands of industrial uses and could provide a new cash crop for farmers.
The state Senate is considering a bill that would authorize Washington State University to study the feasibility and possible value of an industrial hemp industry in Washington.
"We have a long tradition of hemp usage on our country," said State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, a sponsor of the bill. "The Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper."
The federal government outlawed hemp decades ago as part of its efforts to stop marijuana production and use, Kohl-Welles said.
Several people spoke in support of the bill at a recent hearing by the Senate Agriculture, Water and Rural Economic Development committee.
Aimee Warner, a member of the Washington Hemp Industry Association, said the crop would grow well in the state's climate.
"Our farmers are ready to, and need to, start putting industrial hemp seeds into the ground immediately," Warner said. "There is an irrational fear of this historically persecuted crop."
Chris Mulick, a lobbyist for Washington State University, said the college is "eager to help the state understand the viability and profitability of growing industrial hemp."
But he warned the university must comply with U.S. laws in order to keep receiving federal research funds and student aid dollars.
Mark Streuli of the state Department of Agriculture said that agency also supports hemp cultivation.
"We think if there's a prospect of a crop out there that enhances the viability of agriculture in Washington state, we support that," Streuli said.
There is no organized opposition to the hemp study bill, which passed the committee and was sent to the Ways and Means Committee.
In 2012, Washington residents passed Initiative 502, which legalized recreational marijuana and, coincidentally, gave new life to the hemp movement.
In other countries, hemp is used to make thousands of different products, including clothing, food, beauty products and biofuels. The plants provide high yields with relatively few growing costs, Kohl-Welles said.
Canada legalized hemp cultivation in the 1990s, and Kohl-Welles believes the crop would provide a big boost to farmers in the U.S.
One of the most beneficial products could be biofuels, as hemp is more efficient than corn for making such fuels, she said.
Some committee members wondered if unlicensed marijuana grows could be illegally concealed in hemp fields. But people who testified at a hearing said marijuana plants are thick and bushy while hemp plants are tall and thin.
Joy Beckerman Maher, who has been pushing for hemp legalization for decades as a member of the Hemp Industries Association, stressed that industrial hemp does not get people high.
"The only feeling you would get is an awful headache," Maher said.
The new national Farm Bill allows hemp cultivation to begin for research purposes. Such studies must be concluded by next January. Ten states have approved hemp production, including California and Oregon.
John Novak of Lake Forest Park, a member of the Cannabis Action Coalition, said legalization of hemp "will do more to end the federal war on cannabis."
"In the end you are going to find more tax dollars from it," he told the committee.