Hope for hemp

Did you know that the word “canvas” comes from cannabis, the Latin name for the class of plants that includes marijuana? There’s a reason for that. The plants, known collectively as hemp, are an excellent source of decay-resistant fiber. In fact, they have been used to make canvas for as long as people have been sailing the seas.

Today, of course, cannabis is associated mostly with the illicit drug marijuana, but to a growing number of California business people it’s also associated with the raw material of an entirely legal $270 million industry. Industrial hemp, which has no psychoactive properties, is an extremely versatile plant that’s used in a wide variety of products, from energy bars and rope to cold-pressed oil and backpacks.

Under current law, however, hemp cannot be grown in the state and must be imported from foreign countries such as Canada and China. As a result, California farmers are prohibited from growing a crop that has innumerable uses, requires relatively little water, grows extremely fast and needs no herbicides.

That will change if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signs a bill, AB 1147, that has passed the state Legislature and is now on his desk. The bill would allow the cultivation of industrial hemp along strict guidelines designed to prevent the production of marijuana.

Law enforcement officials worry that the bill would make it easy for marijuana farmers to hide their crops in hemp fields. That ignores a fundamental fact, however: Pot growers are interested only in the potent, unfertilized flowers of the female marijuana plant and do all they can to keep males and females separate. Planting a marijuana crop in the middle of a hemp field would destroy its value.

Legalizing industrial hemp would be a boon to California agriculture and the hemp products industry. The governor should sign AB 1147.