Wisconsin is taking hemp to the next level

Evers signs the Growing Opportunities Act into law

Hemp field in Wisconsin Sept. 2018 (provided by DATCP)
Hemp field in Wisconsin Sept. 2018 (provided by DATCP)

Wisconsin’s hemp industry is entering a new stage of evolution from a pilot to a permanent program with the signing of Senate Bill 188 by Gov. Tony Evers. Now called Act 68, or the Growing Opportunities Act, the legislation does a number of additional things, from modifying the definition of “hemp,” to tightening regulations and labeling laws.

“In November 2017,” reads a statement from the Wisconsin Hemp Alliance, “Wisconsin became the first state in the country to unanimously pass a hemp pilot program into law. The response from the farming community was pleasantly shocking as we had approximately 245 grower applications and 100 processor applications submitted. With the 2018 Farm Bill removing hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, our farmers responded once again with tremendous interest as grower/processor applications increased six-fold over the previous year.”

Dubbed the “Growing Opportunities Act,” the hemp bill was authored by a bipartisan group of legislators led by Sens. Patrick Testin (R-Stevens Point) and Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), along with Reps. Tony Kurtz (R-Wonewoc) and Dave Considine (D-Baraboo), and introduced earlier this year. The bill draws on the accumulated experience Wisconsin has had since re-introducing a hemp market two years ago. (Decades ago, Wisconsin led the nation in hemp production for fiber.) Wisconsin’s Hemp Alliance thanked the legislators and law enforcement, “for their willingness to find common ground on the bill and help get it across the finish line.”

Testin professed his excitement. “It’s a big day for Wisconsin,” he said. “It was gratifying to see this bill signed into law while standing with growers, processors, retailers and consumers from across the state.”

Growth of Wisconsin hemp

Hemp production increased greatly in 2019, with even some state legislators getting in on the action. “This is still an emerging industry,” said Kurtz, who grows hemp for fiber among the organic crops on his 260 acre Juneau County farm. “Still, I believe that Wisconsin can be a leader in hemp production.”

Presession news conference with Vos and hemp bill author Rep. Tony Kurtz on 11/12/19
Pre-session news conference with Vos and hemp bill author Rep. Tony Kurtz on 11/12/19

“Our farmers have the talent and the desire,” Kurtz added. “We’re trying to give them the opportunity.”

The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP) maintains oversight and testing of the state’s hemp industry. DATCP will develop new rules to bring Wisconsin’s hemp programs into compliance with federal laws that recently changed.

“Although the hemp industry is in its infancy,” states the Wisconsin Hemp Alliance, “we are now poised to once again become a national leader because of the incredible support from lawmakers, law enforcement, the business community, and the general public. With Act 68, we now have a permanent hemp program. This opens up opportunities for research at our state’s universities, for product innovation, market development, and crop diversification of our farms.”

DATCP will also have permanent authority to issue licenses for every aspect of the industry including planting, growing, cultivating, harvesting, sampling, testing, transporting, etc. The agency will also designate the requirements necessary to obtain a hemp license, as well as developing a system for suspending or revoking licenses, establish fees, and other minutiae.

Wisconsin will also be tightening it’s laws regarding “truth-in-labeling” of hemp products. “No person may mislabel hemp or a hemp product, knowingly make an inaccurate claim about the content, THC concentration, quality, or origin of hemp, or knowingly sell mislabeled hemp or hemp products,” reads a press release from the governor’s office.

In states like Wisconsin with developing hemp and cannabis markets, labeling regulations are critical. Though products labeled as containing cannabinol (CBD) can be found from dedicated hemp dispensaries to gas stations, it can be difficult for customers to know exactly what they’re buying. These new layers of regulation aim to address these loopholes.

“Historically,” said Considine, “Wisconsin has been an excellent place to grow and process hemp. I’m excited to continue to work on this issue so that we can renew this option for our state’s farmers and processors.”

Taylor also pitched her hometown of Milwaukee as an up-and-coming leader for Badger State hemp. “Milwaukee should be a leader in hemp’s comeback,” declared Taylor. “For decades, the book was closed on hemp, but we’ve opened it up and now people across the state are writing the next chapter—and Milwaukee has a big role to play.”

Not every part of the Growing Opportunities Act is upbeat, however. The bill designates delta-9-THC as a controlled substance, restricted for people driving or operating vehicles if the compound is detected at levels of one or more nanograms per milliliter of blood. Law enforcement agencies nationwide have experimented with ways to test drivers to see if they are under the influence of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). A person with felony status is prohibited by the new law from producing hemp for 10 years after conviction.

Other Capitol cannabis moves

Reducing incarceration related to  cannabis-derived products has been a focus in the Capitol  this year. Testin also helped co-sponsor a medical cannabis bill along with Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison), with the support of other legislators, including Speaker Robin Vos. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, however, killed that bill by saying it would never get through the state Senate.

Although cannabis legalization was described as “an issue of compassion,” by Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point), and more than half the state supports it according to recent Marquette polling, the bill will be unlikely to make it to the governor’s desk as long as Fitzgerald leads the Senate. In the meantime, local municipalities have taken individual steps to reduce incarceration for possession of an ounce or less of THC-rich cannabis. Earlier this month, another bill to decriminalize 28 grams or less of cannabis was introduced by Rep. David Crowley (D-Milwaukee) and Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison). And Rep. Melissa Sargent (D-Madison) has a bill for full legalization that she continues to pursue.

Evers backs medicinal marijuana and decriminalization, and included both in his budget, but Republicans removed them from the budget they passed.

Though Wisconsin continues to battle cannabis prohibition, hemp is trailblazing a new niche industry. “From textiles, to recycling and bioplastics, to industrial materials, hemp provides endless opportunities to Wisconsin farmers who are looking for new markets to enter, which is why interest in growing and producing hemp in Wisconsin has skyrocketed in the last year,” Evers said. “I was proud to sign this collaborative, bipartisan bill into law today to ensure the continued success of our hemp program and the many new opportunities hemp provides to Wisconsin farmers.”