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Senator raises issue of legalizing growing marijuana for export

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginians spend about $7 billion a year on food products, but the state's agriculture industry only produces about $653 million of goods a year, a percentage that Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick wants to see increase.

But Helmick stopped short Tuesday of supporting marijuana as a new cash crop for the state.

Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph, raised the issue of legalizing growing marijuana for export only to states where the product is legal.

"We may never legalize marijuana in West Virginia, but maybe the potential exists for us to export the crop," Barnes said.

He cited a investment report indicating that legal marijuana sales in states including Colorado and Washington is projected to grow from $2.43 billion this year to $10.2 billion by 2019, and that demand for legal pot in those states may outpace production.

"This may be your $6 billion right there," Barnes told Helmick, citing the commissioner's statement that there is an untapped opportunity to grow the state agriculture industry by that amount annually.

Helmick deferred, saying the issue of legalizing growing marijuana for export only is a policy question for the Legislature to debate and decide.

"If you guys say this is right for West Virginia, we'll have our eyes on it," he told the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday.

Helmick said his immediate focus on expanding the agriculture industry is looking at using reclaimed mountaintop removal sites in southern West Virginia for non-traditional agriculture opportunities, including hog farms.

He said the pork industry in North Carolina produces $2.5 billion in sales, but hog farming in that state has grown to the point where it is impossible to get permits for new or expanded farms.

"What we're saying is, look at Southern West Virginia," Helmick said.

Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, fully supported the concept.

"You understand coal production is way down ... and no projections say that it's coming back," Stollings told Helmick. "I urge you to get cracking on that -- hog farms or any other post-mining land use."

Also Tuesday, Helmick said:

| The department is continuing to look for new sites to replace antiquated testing laboratories at the Agriculture Center at Guthrie, and said that may or may not mean relocating to the Regional Technology Park in South Charleston.

Helmick said he would like to have a location where several state laboratories, including Agriculture, Bureau of Public Health, and others can be consolidated to reduce costs.

"We'd like to see it consolidated," he said.

| He has reduced the department from 269 to 255 employees, at a cost savings of about $250,000.

There were no questions from the committee about the ongoing legislative audit of alleged mismanagement of a $5 million revolving loan program operated by the department.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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