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INTERACTIVE: Could hemp join tobacco as big cash crop in Virginia?

At first glance, it looks like a stoner’s paradise: acres of plants that resemble marijuana. But this crop is hemp, a relative of cannabis that has commercial uses ranging from textiles and animal feed to health products.

Capital News Service

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By Daniel Berti and Andrew Gionfriddo

At first glance, it looks like a stoner’s paradise: acres of plants that resemble marijuana. But this crop is hemp, a relative of cannabis that has commercial uses ranging from textiles and animal feed to health products.

Officials at the Southern Virginia Hemp Co., as well as other farmers and processors of the plant, say hemp could be a big boost to the state’s agricultural sector as demand for tobacco wanes. And it just got much easier to grow hemp in the commonwealth.

Lawmakers have amended the state’s hemp laws to match the rules in the 2018 federal farm bill passed by Congress. Virginia farmers can now grow hemp for producing cannabidiol, or CBD, a naturally occurring chemical that some say has mental and physical health benefits.

CBD products have become popular over the past few years, with some industry analysts predicting the CBD industry will be worth $22 billion by 2022. Until now, only researchers at Virginia universities could grow hemp for making CBD.

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has seen a surge in grower and processor applications since Congress passed the farm bill in December. The agency expects the number of applicants to increase even more now that Virginia has amended its hemp laws to match the federal laws.

“VDACS was not issuing registrations to processor applicants who indicated that their sole goal was to sell a hemp-derived CBD to the public,” said Erin Williams, a spokesperson for the agency. “With the 2019 amendment, I think it will clear up the gray area.”

As of Tuesday, the department had issued 629 grower registrations and 92 processor registrations. So far, Virginia hemp growers are planning to cultivate over 2,000 acres of hemp this year.

In Southside Virginia, where tobacco growers have been hit hard by declining sales and tariffs on their products, farmers are increasingly turning to hemp as a potential cash crop that can be grown in addition to tobacco. Southside Virginia has more registered hemp growers than any other region in the state.

“There’s significant interest in Southside Virginia, particularly among tobacco growers who are looking to add a crop to what they’re doing,” Williams said.

For years, several other states have allowed farmers to grow hemp for the manufacture of CBD products. But Virginia farmers were barred from doing so until lawmakers approved House Bill 1839 in February.

Gov. Ralph Northam signed the bill into law on March 21. Thanks to an emergency clause, it took effect immediately.

The legislation comes on the heels of the 2018 federal farm bill, which established a regulatory framework for the commercial production of hemp. HB 1839 conforms Virginia’s hemp laws to match the provisions of the federal bill.

The Southern Virginia Hemp Co., a farm in the town of Jarratt straddling Greenville and Sussex counties, is expanding its operations to meet the demand for CBD products. The company plans to grow between 75 and 150 acres of hemp this year and aims to hire 40 additional employees to work on the farm this summer.

Wayne Grizzard, owner of the Southern Virginia Hemp Co. and Virginia Homegrown Botanicals, said the new laws could have a positive impact for farmers across the commonwealth, especially for tobacco farmers who have been hit hard by tobacco tariffs levied against the United States by China.

“One of my partner’s farms was for tobacco. He lost all three contracts this year because of the tariffs,” Grizzard said. “Some of the farmers have been forced to grow hemp because they don’t have anything to replace it.”

Since colonial times, Virginia farmers — even George Washington — have planted hemp, using the fiber to make rope and other goods. Historian estimate that by the mid-18th century, Virginia had 12,000 acres cultivated for hemp. Marijuana and hemp were both banned in the 1930s under the Marihuana Tax Act, however. (And yes, that is how the law spelled marijuana.)

Now, Grizzard, once a vegetable farmer, has converted his entire farm to hemp.

“When we first started growing, everybody kind of turned their nose up because it’s cannabis,” Grizzard said. “Once they started realizing that everybody’s getting into it and there’s money involved, they started singing a different tune.”

Until now, Virginia’s hemp industry has failed to keep pace with neighboring Kentucky and North Carolina. Both states have been eyeing hemp as an economic driver for several years.

In 2019, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture approved 1,035 applications to cultivate up to 42,086 acres of industrial hemp, as well as 2.9 million square feet of greenhouse space for hemp cultivation.

North Carolina has 634 licensed farmers growing hemp on about 8,000 acres and 3.4 million square feet of greenhouse space.

Grizzard said the next step for hemp in Virginia is still up in the air. He said the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services must submit a plan to the U.S. Department of Agriculture “because the USDA has taken over all states’ hemp programs.”

“As long we’re there to fight, battle and voice our opinions as farmers and business owners, we need to stick together and figure out what we need,” he said.

Grizzard and other farmers are concerned about regulations that could stifle their production and overall business model.

“They could come up with some crazy laws that go against everything we’re doing,” he said. “You never know — there’s always that chance.”

One of the Southern Virginia Hemp Co.’s most popular products is hemp extract oil — cannabidiol. CBD by itself does not cause a “high,” but it has gained popularity as a treatment for a wide range of ailments.

According to Peter Grinspoon, contributing editor of Harvard Health Publishing, CBD has been used to treat chronic pain as well as some diseases that more familiar medicines have failed to help or significantly alleviate.

“CBD has been touted for a wide variety of health issues, but the strongest scientific evidence is for its effectiveness in treating some of the cruelest childhood epilepsy syndromes, such as Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome,” Grinspoonwrote in a blog post last year.

“CBD is commonly used to address anxiety, and for patients who suffer through the misery of insomnia, studies suggest that CBD may help with both falling asleep and staying asleep.”

As Grinspoon notes, a lot of the support for CBD comes from testimonials and anecdotal evidence. There has been a lack of formal medical research because CBD supplements are not approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration.

CDB is the second most active ingredient in cannabis after tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the principal psychoactive constituent. Hemp also contains a small amount of THC — but not enough to produce a “high.”

Marketing CBD could just be scratching the surface in regard to medicinal components of the hemp plant.

Now that derivatives of hemp are legal, other cannabinoids besides CBD can be extracted from the plant as long they remain below the 0.3% THC threshold, Grizzard said. These other chemical extracts include cannabigerol, cannabinol and cannabichromene.

“Every single plant we grow has a different profile. They all have different cannabinoids in them,” Grizzard said.

“Some of them are higher in CBD; some have high CBG, CBN, CBC. There are a lot of different chemicals in that plant. There’s a lot of unknown of what these chemicals do for people.”

The Southern Virginia Hemp Co. hopes to find whether different cannabinoids help with specific ailments. Whether a flash in the pan or the sign of a new wave of medicine, CBD and hemp products have gained popularity over the past couple of years.

“It’s the doctors, the pharmacists, the physical therapists — they’re giving recommendations to people to take this stuff,” Grizzard said. “It’s not me.”

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

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More than 200,000 Virginia voters cast ballots in first week of early voting, Virginia Department of Elections says

Virginia voting is off to an active start, with tens of thousands of people hitting the polls during the 45-day early voting period. 

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By Joseph Whitney Smith

Virginia voting is off to an active start, with tens of thousands of people hitting the polls during the 45-day early voting period.

Over 164,000 citizens have voted in person, while more than 926,000 absentee ballots have been issued as of Sept. 25, said Andrea Gaines, director of community relations and compliance support at the Virginia Department of Elections. Over half a million people returned absentee ballots in the 2016 presidential election, according to the department.

Breaking the traditional custom of voting on Election Day, the governor and other top officials hit the polls when they opened Sept. 18. The General Assembly earlier this year removed restrictions to vote absentee and allowed early, in-person voting until Oct. 31. The move allowed individuals to cast their ballots 45 days early.

“While the pandemic has made this an unprecedented election year, Virginia voters have several safe and easy ways to exercise their constitutional right to vote,” Gov. Ralph Northam said in a press release. “Voting is an essential part of our democracy, and I encourage every Virginia voter to know their options and make a plan for safely casting their ballot.”

About 20 people were lined up, six-feet apart, to vote Friday morning at the Henrico County registrar’s office. Carrington Blencowe was one of the voters. She said that voting early is more convenient for her family.

“This makes it a lot easier than trying to vote the day of because it gives people more time and we’re a working country,” Blencowe said.

Voters do not have to fill out an application to vote in person early. They just head to their general registrar’s office or satellite voting location, show ID and cast a ballot.

Stephen Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, said previous early voting and absentee ballots were much more inconvenient.

“It involved signing a statement saying you had one of a range of acceptable excuses, they included military service, being away at college, travel plans, working from out of county, or disabilities,” Farnsworth said. “When you think about how much easier it is to vote via mail-in, my guess is that it will remain popular after the COVID-19 crisis has passed.”

The last day to request an absentee ballot is Oct. 23. The Virginia Department of Elections recommends that applicants return their ballot as soon as possible due to the high number of ballots issued. In 2018 and 2019, 90% and 85% of requested absentee ballots were returned, respectively.

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Governor Ralph Northam, First Lady Pam Northam both test positive for COVID-19

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and First Lady Pam Northam have both tested positive for coronavirus after coming in close contact with a staffer who was showing symptoms. The First Lady is experiencing mild symptoms, according to a release, while the Governor remains asymptomatic.

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Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and First Lady Pam Northam have both tested positive for coronavirus after coming in close contact with a staffer who was showing symptoms. The First Lady is experiencing mild symptoms, according to a release, while the Governor remains asymptomatic.

From the Governor’s Office:

On Wednesday evening, Governor Ralph Northam and First Lady Pamela Northam were notified that a member of the Governor’s official residence staff, who works closely within the couple’s living quarters, had developed symptoms and subsequently tested positive for COVID-19. Both the Governor and First Lady received PCR nasal swab tests yesterday afternoon, and both tested positive. Governor Northam is experiencing no symptoms. First Lady Pamela Northam is currently experiencing mild symptoms. Both remain in good spirits.

Consistent with guidelines from the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), the Governor and First Lady will isolate for the next 10 days and evaluate their symptoms. The Governor is in constant contact with his cabinet and staff and will fulfill his duties from the Executive Mansion.

“As I’ve been reminding Virginians throughout this crisis, COVID-19 is very real and very contagious,” said Governor Northam. “The safety and health of our staff and close contacts is of utmost importance to Pam and me, and we are working closely with the Department of Health to ensure that everyone is well taken care of. We are grateful for your thoughts and support, but the best thing you can do for us—and most importantly, for your fellow Virginians—is to take this seriously.”

The Governor and First Lady are working closely with VDH and the Richmond Heath Department to trace their close contacts. The Executive Mansion and Patrick Henry office building will be closed for deep cleaning this morning. The work of the Governor’s office continues remotely and uninterrupted.

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GRTC offering new shuttle to City Office of the General Registrar leading up to election

Beginning Wednesday, September 23, GRTC is offering riders a safe and accessible shuttle service to reach the new City of Richmond’s Office of the General Registrar, which was recently relocated to a larger facility with more room to observe social distancing for in-person absentee voting.

RVAHub Staff

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Beginning Wednesday, September 23, GRTC is offering riders a safe and accessible shuttle service to reach the new City of Richmond’s Office of the General Registrar, which was recently relocated to a larger facility with more room to observe social distancing for in-person absentee voting. Pre-election day services are available through October 31 at the new building at 2134 West Laburnum Avenue, Richmond, Virginia 23227.

Smaller, nimbler shuttle vans pick up passengers Monday – Saturday from two popular connection points in the GRTC bus network: 9th and Marshall on the North side of City Hall, and Broad and Robinson on the North side of the street by the Science Museum of Virginia. GRTC remains zero-fare, and shuttles are free to ride, as well, with funding support provided by the City of Richmond.

The service operates hourly. Weekday trips start at City Hall at 7:45 AM and run once an hour, with the last trip leaving the registrar’s location at 5:15 PM. Additional early voting service operates once an hour on both Saturday October 24 and 31 from 8:45 AM until the last trip at 5:15 PM.

CARE customers can continue to use CARE van service for free and may schedule trips to the new registrar’s office.

The Office of the General Registrar is open as a pre-election day voting location starting September 18 through October 31 from 8 AM to 5 PM, Monday to Friday, except holidays, and 9 AM to 5 PM the two Saturdays before every election. Additional pre-election day voting locations open October 24 through October 31 at City Hall (900 East Broad Street) and Hickory Hill Community Center (3000 East Belt Boulevard) on weekdays 8 AM to 5 PM and on Saturdays from 9 AM to 5 PM.

The last date to vote early in-person is October 31. For a complete list of Election Day (November 3) polling locations, most of which have a bus stop nearby, click here.

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