Hope for hemp?

A look at one victim of the war on drugs

The hemp farm is not part of the American landscape— but we can import, transport and sell hemp products.

The hemp farm is not part of the American landscape— but we can import, transport and sell hemp products.

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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 for American farmers. 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 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.

“It’s what politicians try to hide behind,” said Kyle Pulliam, owner of Hemp in the Heartland in Old Sacramento.

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?

Pulliam stocks his shelves with flip-flops, massage oils, clothing, bath salts and bags—all made out of hemp. The store also carries The Emperor Wears No Clothes, the seminal piece of literature that awakened the modern hemp movement when it was first published in 1985.

“People come in and say, ‘So can we smoke your clothing?’ It’s the misperception from the media,” Pulliam said.

But 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 federal Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2007 would allow states to regulate its farming. 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. Governor 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.

“It would be great for California to legalize industrial hemp,” Pulliam said. “It would save companies money for importing and transportation costs.”

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.

Anti-hemp camps argue that farmers might plant marijuana in their hemp fields if cultivation were truly legalized. But 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, like textiles, paper and food, as well as a few 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.

Hemp is also a friend to the forest. It 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.

Wildflower Boutique in Midtown sells organic and fair-trade clothing for women and babies. About 50 percent of the store’s merchandise is made from hemp, said owner Emily Hays.

“It lasts forever and it’s the greatest fabric,” Hays said. “At first, I could hardly find any designers using hemp. Now, they’re coming out of the woodwork.”

As the $300 million hemp product retail market in the United States continues to grow, American farmers want in on the action. And 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. Until politicians pass legislation removing restrictions on hemp farming, the rest of us are left scratching our heads.

“I really don’t know why common sense doesn’t prevail,” Levine said. “It’s frustrating.”