Cannabis seeds will be sown as early as this week in preparation for West Virginia's first legal cannabis crop—part of an industrial hemp research project at West Virginia University.
In 2014—the same year that the federal government passed legislation allowing limited hemp cultivation for research purposes—state lawmakers passed a bill that effectively legalized industrial hemp; before that, those who wished to grow hemp had to get approval from the Department of Justice and the DEA.
Now, prospective hemp farmers in West Virginia just need to seek a license from the state's Department of Agriculture.
"There are certain hurdles [to research]," said Susanna Wheeler, a graduate student in agronomy at West Virginia University. "The way it is regulated is still very different from any sort of agronomic crop that we would try to do research on."
Nevertheless, the recent legislation has made it possible for the school to start researching the plant. Under West Virginia state law, hemp is defined as a cannabis plant with less than one percent THC content.
"We will be planting here [this week], weather permitting," Wheeler said.
Wheeler explained that their research would consist of two parts. First, the team will assess five different industrial hemp varieties to see which ones are best suited for West Virginia's climate and soil. The second part is a greenhouse trial in which researchers will assess the same varieties and their ability to accumulate metals that have contaminated the soil.
Soil purification is just one of the many industrial uses of hemp. Its fibers have been used to make building materials for houses, composite materials for cars and biofuels.
But due to the federal government's classification of the plant, any commercial use of hemp must rely on importing the material from other countries. At least 28 states have some sort of industrial hemp laws on the books, whether they are to establish research programs or commercial cultivation.
West Virginia University's crop will be the first in the state since World War II, when the federal government temporarily lifted the ban on hemp cultivation. The government even made a film to encourage farmers to grow the crop.
The university certainly won't be the only ones cultivating cannabis under the new law.
"[Hemp] is not typical of a lot of agricultural crops," Wheeler said. "There are a lot of beliefs about its potential to revitalize agricultural communities. There is definitely a lot of excitement around it."