Hemp vs. pot
A new law would allow once-banned hemp grows just miles outside downtown Sacramento. So why are cannabis cultivators opposed to hemp’s big breakthrough?
California’s cannabis growers are on a collision course with legalized hemp.
A new bill from San Francisco state Sen. Mark Leno seeks to authorize an eight-year, five-county pilot project to grow fields of hemp, marijuana’s sober cousin. But fields of industrial hemp can actually ruin marijuana crops, stuff like Blue Dream, Grand Daddy Purple and Sour Tsunami.
“The [possible] passage of Sen. Leno’s hemp bill is not good news for California’s medical marijuana industry,” explained Dale Gieringer, California coordinator for National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, in an email. He explained that hemp pollen can contaminate other cannabis plants, in some cases 100 miles away.
Senate Bill 676, which recently made it out of committee with a unanimous vote, would authorize hemp grows in nearby Yolo County, in addition to San Joaquin, Kern, Kings and Imperial counties. “While these are mainly downwind from California’s prime marijuana growing regions,” Gieringer noted, “a stray east wind could pollute the crop.”
Pot cultivators say they must maintain constant vigilance against all pollen. Even in an all-indoor grow, female plants can suddenly go hermaphroditic, pollinate and ruin an entire $100,000 crop.
According to celebrity grower Ed Rosenthal—who’s said to have sold about a million copies of books on marijuana cultivation—hemp pollen can indeed travel far and wide, and ruin medical marijuana. But it usually travels around 2 miles, he said in an interview.
Meanwhile, the long-maligned hemp plant could use a legislative breakthrough, activists say.
The tall canes—which can’t get you high—have been used since the dawn of time as food, fiber and fuel. The United States banned hemp in the mid-20th century during a crusade against the psychoactive version of cannabis sativa.
Today, Americans buy hemp products at U.S. stores, but the raw stuff must be imported from Canada and beyond. Demand for hemp products is up, however, and California farmers could get paid to fix their soil, states the Drug Policy Alliance, who supports Leno’s bill.
Hemp also boasts strong fibers and a wealth of amino acids in the seed oil, according to the DPA. It could be used to replace pulp wood as well as many synthetic fibers. And the oil could be used instead of trans fats, which can improve nutrition.
Leno’s bill is also supported by the likes of American Hemp Inc., California Certified Organic Farmers, California Teamsters Public Affairs Council, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, Imperial County Farm Bureau, and the United Food and Commercial Workers Western States Council.
But in addition to the reservations expressed by the medical-pot industry, the California Narcotic Officers’ Association, the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs and the California Police Chiefs Association oppose the pilot project. They argue that hemp is indistinguishable from medical cannabis and will impact enforcement.
This, of course, is not altogether true. Hemp boasts less than 1 percent THC, while a big, budded marijuana plant boasts THC levels of up to 24 percent, copious resin and an unmistakable aroma.
One activist put it this way: “How do you tell if the field on the side of road in the Central Valley is hemp or marijuana? That’s easy. If it’s ungated and anyone can come in and take it, then it’s hemp.”
The Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs contends that S.B. 676 contravenes federal law and that its “passage will create confusion to growers, who may not understand they would be subject to federal prosecution even if growing hemp were permitted by state law.”
“Creating physical or legal ambiguity is not good criminal justice policy,” the ALADS statement said.
Down the road, California might eventually have to clarify that entire regions are designated for either hemp growing or medical cannabis. Presumably, hemp would be grown in the Central Valley, and marijuana up north.
Farmers can’t profit off hemp in California’s arid Central Valley, due to its irrigation costs compared to its market value, he said. But Rosenthal said that, on an even longer timeline, hemp could even be grown in places like Ohio—as it once surely did long ago.