Hawaii Hemp Conference abuzz with enthusiasm

Oahu state Sen. Mike Gabbard approached the podium during Saturday’s Hawaii Hemp Conference with a guitar case in hand and, after a few bars on a harmonica, began to sing and strum to an updated version of “The Times They Are a Changin’.”

“Come gather round hempsters, in Hawaii Nei,

It’s time to grow hemp in a very big way.”

The times are indeed changing for hemp, a crop that was once a staple of the American economy before being made a heavily regulated controlled substance because it comes from the same plant as marijuana.

Industrial hemp contains less than 0.3 percent of tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive component of marijuana.

“Even though you can’t get high on hemp, as we know, in 1937 the government passed the Marijuana Tax Act, which banned all cannabis products, including hemp,” Gabbard said as he discussed the “rocky, borderline insane history of this wonderful plant” during his keynote remarks at the conference, held at the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel and drawing attendees and vendors from Hawaii and the mainland.

Regulations have changed in the past 80 years. In Hawaii, the first hemp research program was approved by the state Legislature in 1999, but it wasn’t until 2016 that a formal pilot program for developing a new state crop was approved. That legislation came after the 2014 federal Farm Bill allowed for hemp to be grown under the supervision of a state department of agriculture. About 30 states have since moved forward with programs.

The American hemp market is valued at about $688 million annually, Gabbard said, but “most of that is going to China and Canada.”

“I want Hawaii to become the hemp seed capital of the world,” he said, closing his remarks by revealing the Hemp Is Hope T-shirt beneath his aloha shirt.

Panels took place during the conference throughout the day Saturday, covering topics such as branding hemp products and using hemp to replenish depleted soils. Gabbard joined Hawaii Island Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, Ka‘u, for a panel discussing future legislation. Oahu Rep. Cynthia Thielen, who led the 1999 legislative effort, and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard tuned in through video messages.

Hemp farmers from Colorado, South Carolina and Vermont also offered their own stories of getting started in the industry. The conference was produced by the Colorado Hemp Co.

In an expo area at the hotel, vendors offered introductions to CBD (cannabidiol, the non-psychoactive component of cannabis) products, which many people use for therapeutic benefits. Souvenir conference posters, along with the program itself, were printed on hemp paper.

“This is all about education right now,” said Greg Smith, a South Point organic vegetable farmer.

“I really believe in the medicine of it,” he said. “There’s just so many things the plant can bring to the table. Hawaii just needs to grab ahold and be part of it.”

“It’s probably going to take off and be bigger than medical marijuana,” said Kristine Kubat of Hilo, founder and editor of The New Leaf, a magazine devoted to stories from Hawaii’s developing cannabis plant industry.

Kubat founded the magazine last September after dipping her toe into researching the subject and deciding there were enough stories to fill a new publication.

“There was so much information, my head was spinning,” she said.

Panelist Steve Sakala of Honaunau began making CBD products eight years ago, sourcing everything from the CBD itself from Hawaii. Once the DOA pilot program gets underway, he said, his products will be entirely local.

“I came at it from an environmental perspective,” Sakala said. Hemp offers a chance to replenish soils depleted by years of sugarcane cultivation.

“We are not going to leave a nasty legacy,” he said. “It’s a chance to improve our agriculture and leave it better than it was.”

Victoria and Don Anderson drove up from Discovery Harbor to attend the conference, stopping to pick up samples of hemp milk and hemp-fabric bags at some of the vendor booths. They had hoped for more participants at the expo portion of the conference, but still said the amount of information presented was useful.

“It’s a great start,” Don Anderson said.

Email Ivy Ashe at iashe@hawaiitribune-herald.com.