Virginia’s agricultural scientists have the green light to study the industrial properties of hemp — but only from seeds that are kept under lock and key and closely monitored under Drug Enforcement Administration standards.
A federal law giving the go-ahead to study hemp for industrial purposes has been in place since 2014. But Virginia scientists were unable to do so until a state law was enacted last year that allowed the plant’s cultivation for research.
Three of Virginia’s public universities — Virginia State, Virginia Tech and James Madison — have submitted applications to the state to study the commercial benefits of hemp this year.
The universities must get the seeds from the Virginia Department of Agriculture, but first had to land a permit from the DEA.
An additional requirement is that hemp grown for research contain no more than 3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Private farmers may grow the crop only in conjunction with university studies and with state licenses.
But universities must do more than get all their paperwork approved. While the kind of hemp they’re studying won’t offer much of a buzz, universities must take security measures “because thieves may not know that,” says Elaine Lidholm, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Agriculture.
The main concern isn’t someone sneaking onto plots — it’s accounting for the pellet-sized hemp seeds. They are required to be kept in locked boxes accessible only to principal investigators. The number of plants in each row will be determined prior to planting, which will determine the number of seeds needed. Any remaining seeds will be locked away and accounted for until the next growing season.
Researchers must find which variety of hemp is most suited to Virginia’s environment before its economic benefits may be harnessed, says Wondi Mersie, a researcher at Virginia State University.
Mersie says that hemp had a long history of cultivation in Virginia, but the varieties that thrived have been lost over time. VSU expects to be notified in the coming weeks about how much money it will receive from the state for the trial.