Hemp-growing program suffers setback

HILO — Plans for a statewide industrial hemp-growing program hit a snag after a shipment of cannabis seeds from Jamaica had to be destroyed in October.

The state Department of Agriculture estimated that its industrial hemp pilot program would accept license applications from Hawaii growers in January. However, after a shipment of Jamaican hemp seeds failed to meet inspection standards, applications might not open until after February.

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Shelley Choy, coordinator of the pilot program, said the Department of Agriculture purchased 50 pounds of seed from a Jamaican seller earlier this year and expected to receive the shipment in June.

Instead, Choy said, the shipment did not arrive until October, and when it did, it failed to pass a basic inspection.

In particular, Choy said, the shipment’s phytosanitary certificate stated that only 2 ounces — less than 1 percent — of the seeds conformed with inspection requirements. Because of this, the shipment was turned over to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and was destroyed.

“If they had actually been really good seeds, then it would have been a bummer,” Choy said. “But it definitely set us back a bit.”

After the loss of the first shipment, the project sought a new source of seed, eventually settling on a Chinese seller offering 100 pounds of seed for approximately $1,200. However, Choy said the Chinese seeds are still undergoing germination tests in locations in Australia and Malawi to determine whether the seeds are suitable for tropical environments.

Choy said that, assuming the seed passes inspection, applications “probably” will open in late February, but added even that estimate is “a big if.”

Once the project can begin, the Department of Agriculture will determine which applicants are most suitable for the project.

Criteria on the department’s website states that applicants must provide the number of acres available for growing and their location as GPS coordinates, as well as a litany of storage and accounting considerations.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of interest in the program from a range of different people,” Choy said, adding that an application fee will hopefully deter all but serious contenders. The fee is expected to be around $500, Choy said.

Once licenses are awarded — probably several months after applications open — licensees will be allotted a percentage of the Chinese seeds to raise on their properties and must provide reports to the Department of Agriculture.

The long-gestating project was first authorized in July 2016 with Hawaii Act 228 after a two-year pilot industrial hemp research program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Choy said the project will run until 2021, after which lawmakers will decide whether to abandon the program, extend it as a pilot program or expand statewide hemp production.

Such considerations are a long way off, however, particularly considering the project’s delays.

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“Everything’s in this limbo state right now,” Choy said.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.