GILLETTE — For the last five years, Bill Fortner and Frank Latta have tried to convince Wyoming that “hemp” isn’t a bad four-letter word.
Latta, the director of the Wyoming chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said hemp “is the best possibility for diversity” for the state.
“We were trying to get the powers that be interested, to have a little vision that there might be something different to look at other than energy,” he said. “That’s been a very hard sell.”
But recent legislation at the federal and state levels, House Bill 171 in particular, has the two men excited for the future of hemp as an agricultural crop and product, particularly because of the potential it has to stimulate a state economy in need of diversification.
Latta’s not saying hemp is going to solve all of Wyoming’s economic issues.
“I just think it has enough potential that we at least ought to be looking at it,” he said. “The future is certainly gray because we don’t know where Wyoming’s going, but on the other hand, the future is very bright.”
Hemp is a variety of the species cannabis sativa L. Both Fortner and Latta believe hemp’s potential is “unlimited.” It can be used to make anything from sugar and oil to plastics and building material.
“Essentially, we could have factories, we could have production here,” Fortner said. “It’s just wide open what could happen in Gillette.”
As a crop, hemp fits well with Campbell County’s climate, Latta said. It’s hardy and grows quickly, taking only four months to go from seed to harvest.
“Even if you harvest hemp and do nothing except chop it up and make animal feed out of it, it’s four times better for cattle than hay,” Latta said.
To Latta, the economic potential of hemp is as obvious as the sun coming up in the morning, but it took a while for him to convince others to hop on the bandwagon. Both he and Fortner have spent the last five or six years educating people on hemp, making slow and steady progress.
The 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized industrial hemp production across the country, removed hemp from the Controlled Substance Act, which was passed in 1970 and declared all varieties of cannabis, including hemp, as a Schedule I controlled substance — the same designation given to drugs such as heroin, LSD and ecstasy.
Latta said that just a few years ago, state lawmakers wanted nothing to do with hemp. This year, House Bill 171 passed the House on a unanimous vote, and the Senate passed it on a 26-3 vote.
Sponsored by Rep. Bunky Loucks, R-Casper, the bill allows for the growth of hemp, as well as the production and sale of hemp products.
For years, the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police had “been very much against it, simply because it looks like marijuana,” Latta said.
“They’ve come a long way,” he said of the organization’s stance. “They did not oppose (the bill this year). That’s a huge, huge step for Wyoming.”
Latta also said Gov. Mark Gordon has an open mind on the topic.
“He’s willing to talk about any kind of thing that may have an option to diversify the economy,” he said.
Latta said he’d hoped to get hemp seeds in the ground this spring, but he’s still waiting for the state to finalize its regulations, which “makes a lot of sense.”
Following the bill’s passage, the state Department of Agriculture had 30 days to develop and submit a plan to USDA to request delegated authority for hemp regulation in Wyoming.
According to the submitted regulations, for hemp to be considered legal, the plant must contain no more than 0.3% THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
Those growing hemp would need to notify the Department of Agriculture 30 days before they plan to harvest their crop, and at least 30 plants must be tested for every 100 acres of hemp grown. If the plants are above the 0.3 % level, the crop will be destroyed.
“This is the first step in the process toward the legal growing and processing of regulated hemp in the state of Wyoming under the WDA,” said Doug Miyamoto, director of the state Department of Agriculture, in a press release. “Even though USDA has stated they won’t review plans until the fall of this year, we hope they approve our plan quickly so we can move forward with a hemp program in Wyoming.
“While we don’t have the legal authority to implement a hemp program prior to receiving approval from the USDA, we will continue to develop the program so we are ready to start licensing and testing as soon as it’s legal to do so in Wyoming,” he added.
The department is moving forward with the rule-making process, buying and installing testing equipment at the WDA Analytical Services Lab and is training staff on the sampling and testing of hemp.
Fortner said he has mixed feelings about the issue. While he’s happy to see Wyoming move forward on hemp, he believes “we should’ve started a long time ago.”
“There’s no reason for Wyoming to drag their feet as long as they did,” he said.
As a result, Wyoming is having to play catch-up with other states, such as North Dakota and Kentucky.
Although Wyoming might be getting off to a late start, Fortner said not all hope is lost. The Cowboy State could be home to the processing and milling part of the hemp industry, because “nobody in the U.S. has taken that on yet.”
“They’re going to have to have old processing facilities retooled to handle the hemp,” Latta said.
But once that’s in place, people and businesses will follow, Fortner said.
And with the railroads, Wyoming already has the infrastructure in place to transport hemp in and out of the state.
Latta said he believes hemp will garner more support in the coming years, even from its strongest opponents.
“When it starts making money, they’ll come on board,” he said.
Even with the recent legislative success, Latta isn’t slowing down.
“Until the hemp is growing and in the ground, I’m not happy,” he said. “I won’t take my foot off the gas and say that we’re just going to let it go.”
Latta said he doesn’t expect it to happen overnight.
“It takes time,” he said. “It’s like turning a big ship. You turn it slow.”
It took five years for Wyoming to get to this point, and Latta is excited for the next five years.
“In five years, let’s sit down and have this same conversation,” he said. “Where are we at and where are we going? Things are going to be a lot clearer (then).”