Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie supports industrial hemp, and he’s not just blowing smoke.
Gillespie, who along with Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ralph Northam participated in an agricultural forum at Virginia Western Community College in Roanoke on Friday, championed establishing standards for industrial hemp to turn the unmistakable green plant into big bucks.
“Given the science and the data that we have at this point, I would be one who would be able to work with the Trump administration to be able to make the case for Virginia being one of the areas where we should be able to establish some practices and procedures for us to be able to have commercial development for industrial hemp,” Gillespie said.
Throughout his 55 minutes on stage, fielding questions from members of the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation and its partner agencies, Gillespie oft pointed to the relationship he, as governor, could have with President Donald Trump because of their shared political party.
Northam has called Trump a “narcissistic maniac” and has criticized many of the president’s actions.
Northam, who had a “minor medical procedure” earlier in the day, teleconferenced into the first of a series of gubernatorial forums. The pediatric neurologist laughed off the procedure by saying, “even doctors have to go see a doctor now and then.” Northam’s campaign declined to elaborate on the medical procedure.
In what turned into a comedy of errors, the video feed projecting Northam onto a massive screen periodically lagged and froze, truncating the candidate’s speech or killing the live stream.
While Northam supports decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, he has not taken a position on industrial hemp.
Libertarian candidate Cliff Hyra wants to legalize marijuana, but has not discussed hemp. Hyra did not attend the forum.
Gillespie, who opposes marijuana decriminalization, said a farmer in Southside Virginia first encouraged him to study the benefits of industrial hemp about a year ago. Since then, Gillespie has heard other Virginia farmers argue they have fertile soil that could be used to grow hemp, the candidate said.
Hemp is used to make hundreds of items from clothes and rope to paper and beauty products. Last year, Americans spent more than $688 million importing hemp products.
Allowing hemp farming in Virginia could require some finagling at the state and federal level.
Del. Joseph Yost, R-Pearisburg, got the ball rolling in 2015 when the General Assembly passed a bill legalizing hemp research at some Virginia universities. But hemp, like its sister marijuana, is criminalized by the federal Controlled Substance Act. Hemp contains minuscule amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol — the ingredient in marijuana that gives users their high.
Currently, Virginia farmers aren’t allowed to grow hemp for commercial purposes, but that could change if federal lawmakers downgrade hemp from its vilified label as a controlled substance.
The two candidates spoke separately at the forum, but both covered a lot of ground as they discussed issues affecting the commonwealth’s agriculture and forestry sectors.
Both agreed to shore up a stronger migrant labor population so farmers could hire legal workers during peak times. The candidates also promised reforms to support small businesses and improve broadband coverage.
Gillespie and Northam also agreed to improve the Port of Virginia in order to increase the flow of Virginia’s agricultural and forestry exports, which amounted to a $2.77 billion industry last year.
Northam pointed to Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s trade missions overseas as drivers of increased international trade. Northam pledged to continue that precedent and make promoting exports a priority.
“We have been very aggressive with that and that’s why I think our economy is doing as well as it is in Virginia,” he said. “That’s why we’ve been able to bring so many new jobs to Virginia, so much new capital investment and that’s why our unemployment rate is now at the lowest point it’s been in the last nine years.”
McAuliffe announced this month that the agriculture and forestry industries contribute $91 billion annually to the commonwealth. The industries have grown by 30 percent since 2013, according to a local study.