Hope for hemp?
A victim of the war on drugs may get a chance after all
Although smoking industrial hemp will get you about as buzzed as smoking wheat, “War on Drugs” hysteria in the United States has created a conundrum for those who’d like to grow it.
Hemp can be fashioned into eco-friendly clothing, paper, plastics, body-care products, building materials and energy alternatives. It’s also a profitable crop. But politics have complicated attempts to tap into this annually renewable natural resource. Ever since the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 placed strict controls on its farming, hemp remains illegal to grow in the United States without a hard-to-obtain permit.
“Every product derived from [hemp] is legal, but the plant itself is illegal. That’s crazy,” said Steve Levine, president of the Hemp Industries Association.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency classifies hemp as a Schedule I controlled substance. Failing to distinguish between varieties of Cannabis sativa, the DEA’s label groups hemp and marijuana together even though industrial hemp contains almost no THC—the chief intoxicant of pot.
Levine quipped that a poppy-seed bagel probably has more opium than a hemp cookie has THC. He also said that you could smoke several pounds of industrial hemp and still test negative on a drug test because hemp’s .03 percent THC content is nothing compared with 3 percent to 15 percent THC levels in marijuana flowers.
The U.S. federal government permits trade in nonviable hemp oil, seed and fiber, and Americans remain the largest consumers of hemp products. We import raw material from roughly 30 countries, including Canada, Mexico and parts of Eastern Europe. Yet the United States is the only major industrialized nation to ban the cultivation of non-psychoactive industrial hemp.
So we can import, transport and consume hemp—but we can’t grow it?
“It’s just outdated thinking,” said Scott Hodgkinson, owner of downtown Chico’s Ital Imports, which sells hemp-made products.
However, educational efforts by hemp re-legalization advocacy groups might just pay off. A recent survey by Vote Hemp showed that 71 percent of California voters support changing state law to allow hemp’s cultivation.
The Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2007, a piece of federal legislation, would allow states to regulate its cultivation. In June, two North Dakota farmers with state-issued hemp licenses filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court against the DEA for obstructing their attempts to farm the crop. Fifteen states have passed pro-hemp legislation, and several others have bills on the table, including California.
Authored by Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, R-Irvine, AB 684 is the second bipartisan attempt in two years to legalize hemp farming. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed last year’s bill, claiming that the federal government’s stand on the issue would put California farmers at risk of federal prosecution. Organizations in favor of the bill argue that the federal government has no jurisdiction if viable hemp plants do not cross state lines. The bill has passed the Assembly and is making its way through the Senate. If passed, the bill will authorize a four-county pilot program to grow hemp.
“I think [the legislation] is a good thing,” Hodgkinson said. “It’s ridiculous we have to import it from halfway around the world.”
Hemp is a near perfect crop. It grows year-round, enriching the soil as it develops, and the drought-resistant plant does not require herbicides, pesticides or fungicides.
Still, in Butte County’s prime ag lands, where yields in 2006 were estimated at more than $450 million, agriculturalists aren’t counting on switching from rice, almonds, walnuts or other crops to industrial hemp.
Colleen Aguiar, executive director of the Butte County Farm Bureau, said it’s unfair that Californians can do everything but grow industrial hemp when there is a clear distinction between the crop and marijuana. Yet, the organization hasn’t taken a position on AB 684. For one, local growers have too much to learn about the science of the crop. For another, questions remain about the crop’s market potential.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty with industrial hemp,” Aguiar said.
Those planted squarely in the anti-hemp camps argue that farmers might plant marijuana in their hemp fields if cultivation were truly legalized.
Quite the contrary, hemp advocates say—marijuana and hemp plants have different needs and harvest times.
Hemp plants are grown together to form a dense canopy that snuffs out other weeds, while allowing seeds to spread and pollinate. Marijuana plants need space to obtain nutrients to form their THC-infused flowers. Mixing the two genetically distinct varieties of cannabis would result in cross-pollination, reducing marijuana’s potency—not the smartest idea for someone hoping to get rich off the recreational or medicinal product.
Levine said it confuses him that politicians and law enforcement use this false fear as an excuse to continue banning hemp cultivation “when all these other countries can easily identify the difference.”
Hemp has been around for thousands of years. Today, it’s used to make necessities as well as modern luxuries.
The automobile industry is using hemp-derived cellulose to make biodegradable plastics for door panels and luggage racks, replacing harmful fiberglass composites. One-third of the cars in Germany feature these plastics, and automobile applications are expected to increase European cultivation of hemp to more than 100,000 acres by 2010.
Hemp is even an energy-efficient producer of ethanol for biofuel.
It’s also a friend to the forest. Hemp can be used to make paper, generating more pulp per acre than timber. Manufacturing hemp reduces wastewater contamination; its low lignin content decreases the need for pulping acids. Its creamy color reduces the need for the harsh chlorine compounds that timber-based paper production requires. The result? Fewer chemical byproducts.
Advocates have pushed for hemp to serve as an environmentally friendly replacement for cotton. More than 25 percent of all pesticides in the world are sprayed on cotton fields. Additionally, hemp yields three times more fiber per acre than cotton and results in a strong, durable and long-lasting fiber. Hemp textiles already have carved out a niche in eco-chic fashion.
Now the goal is to make it less expensive.
At Ital Imports, Hodgkinson carries a small selection of hemp wallets, coin bags and varieties of twine and thread used to make jewelry. He’d like to carry more, because the products are superior to those made of synthetic fibers—"as far as clothing,” he said, “it’s the most durable fabric we could be using.” But they’re just too expensive.
As the $300 million hemp product retail market in the United States continues to grow, American farmers want in on the action. The consumer would reap the benefits of low-cost, locally grown hemp merchandise. Growing it locally would help reduce the trade deficit while promoting sustainable agriculture and eco-friendly alternatives for common products.
But not until politicians pass legislation removing restrictions on hemp farming.
“I really don’t know why common sense doesn’t prevail,” Levine said. “It’s frustrating.”
CN&R Special Sections/Projects Editor Melissa Daugherty contributed to this story.