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Hemp Is Harmless, a Potential Economic Miracle, and Still Illegal in America -- But the Tide Seems to Be Turning

Powerful politicians across the country are pushing to bring hemp back.

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Hemp farming revived briefly during World War II, after the Japanese occupation of the Philippines cut off the supply of sisal, but by the late 1950s, it was gone. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 defined growing any cannabis plant as cultivation of marijuana, a felony. 

As federal drug law bases penalties on quantity, on the number of plants grown, the densely packed cultivation of hemp plants would thus bring harsher punishment than a marijuana plot of the same size. Growing hemp on a plot 100 by 10 feet—less than 1/40 of an acre—“is enough to get 20 to life,” says Murphy. Even if the federal government did not want to prosecute hemp farmers, he adds, it could seize their property and equipment as tools of crime. Under forfeiture law, the farmer would have to prove his or her innocence in court to get anything back. 

From 2000 to 2002, an Oglala Sioux farm family tried to grow hemp on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, but Drug Enforcement Administration agents destroyed their crop each year. In 2006, the federal Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Controlled Substances Act prohibited growing any kind of cannabis, and that federal law superseded the permission they’d received from the Oglala tribal government.

As with medical marijuana, state governments have been friendlier to hemp. Eight states (Colorado, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia) have enacted laws legalizing farming, using the 0.3 percent THC standard to distinguish it from marijuana. Colorado’s Amendment 64, the marijuana-legalization initiative passed by voters there last November, directs the state legislature to enact regulations for hemp farming by July 2014. Eleven more states have approved other pro-hemp measures, such as authorizing studies or passing resolutions urging the federal government to legalize it. California’s legislature voted to create a pilot hemp-farming project in several counties in 2011, but Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill, citing the federal ban.

North Dakota granted a hemp-farming license to state Rep. David Monson in 2007, but he was never legally able to grow any. He filed two lawsuits against the DEA challenging the prohibition, but in 2010, the Eighth Circuit turned him down, upholding a lower-court ruling that as hemp was cannabis sativa, it was legally the same as marijuana.

Canada, however, distinguishes between the two varieties of the plant. It legalized hemp cultivation in 1998. Farmers must be licensed and obtain approved low-THC seeds. Plants can be tested to ensure they contain less than 0.3 percent THC. Hemp is also legal in about 30 other countries, with China and France (where it was never outlawed) the leading producers. Eastern European countries like Romania and Hungary are trying to revive and modernize their hemp industries.

“You could outlaw heroin, but you don’t have to outlaw poppy seeds on your bagel or muffin,” says Eric Steenstra, head of the VoteHemp lobbying group. “It’s not like anybody’s going out to the Canadian hemp fields and stealing it and smoking it.” 

The Kentucky bill would require hemp farms to have at least 10 acres.

Inside the Hemp Industry

Despite the federal ban on growing hemp, the industry has grown. In 2011, the Hemp Industries Association estimated U.S. hemp-product sales at $450 million, with about $130 million from food and body-care products such as Dr. Bronner’s hemp-oil soap and the Body Shop’s hemp hand lotion, and the rest from clothing, auto parts, building materials, and more. As no hemp is legally grown in the U.S., it has to be imported—and imports of hemp raw materials reached $11.5 million in 2011, more than quadruple what they were in 2000, according to federal trade statistics. 

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