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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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“Even after the Great Recession, the hemp industry continues to grow,” says the HIA’s Tom Murphy. Canada provides most of the seeds and oil used in food and body-care products, China most of the fiber used in textiles, and Europe a mixture of seeds, hurds, and fiber, he adds.

The industry hasn’t grown in the direction expected when it began. The original ’90s “hempsters” were mostly pot-legalization activists inspired by the hemp-can-save-the-world vision of the late Jack Herer’s The Emperor Wears No Clothes. If we used hemp for paper and clothing, they believed, we wouldn’t have to clearcut forests for pulp or spray cotton fields with weed-killers and insecticide. 

The problem, says Steenstra, was that many hempsters were motivated by “great love for the plant,” but “didn’t have any background in retail.” Imported hemp was expensive. There were practical obstacles to manufacturing and marketing hemp paper and fabrics. The result was a major shakeout of businesses in the late ’90s. Hemp Times magazine, a High Times spinoff covering the hemp trade, folded in 1999. Steenstra and his business partner, Steve DeAngelo, sold their hemp-clothing company, Ecolution. (DeAngelo now runs the massive Harborside medical-marijuana dispensary in Oakland, Calif.)

Instead, the main growth has been in food and body-care products, auto and airplane parts, and construction materials. The DEA attempted to ban food products made from hempseed meal or oil, but in 2004, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overruled it, saying hemp food contained a negligible amount of intoxicant. Since then, hemp food and body-care product sales have grown steadily, says Steenstra, rising by more than 16 percent from 2011 to 2012.

One new product is car-door liners. Manufacturers such as Flexform Technologies in Elkhart, Indiana, and Johnson Controls’ German plant take felt-like mats of non-woven hemp fibers, spray them with resin, and then press them into the appropriate shape. BMW and Ford use the light, strong material in their cars’ doors, and similar products are used in airplanes, says Steenstra.

“Hempcrete,” a lightweight concrete-like insulating material that can be poured into molds or used in blocks, is made by mixing the hurds, the woody core left after the fiber is stripped off the stalk, with lime and water. An English brewer and wine society have built warehouses with it. At Clay Fields, a green affordable-housing project in the English town of Elmswell that opened in 2008, the 26 houses are built from hempcrete surrounding a weight-bearing wood frame, protected on the outside by about an inch of lime-render cement.

Lime Technology, a British green-construction-products firm that supplied the hempcrete for Clay Fields, touts it as a much better insulator than conventional building materials, reducing the need for heating in winter and air-conditioning in the summer. It requires much less energy to produce than regular cement, it absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as it dries, and “site cleanup is easy. Simply till it into the soil.”

Going Legal

One problem for the industry is that hemp’s decades of illegality have left almost no infrastructure for growing, processing and selling it. As no hemp has been grown legally in the U.S. since 1957, says Murphy, many parts of the industry would have to be re-established virtually from scratch. To begin with, all the seed stock is gone, except for feral ditchweed. 

“You’d have to breed again for varieties that work well here,” he says. Kentucky was once a major hemp producer, and it also provided seeds for strains better suited to different latitudes, such as Wisconsin. There were also strains bred for fiber or for larger seeds that yielded more oil. Currently, Murphy says, Canada uses mostly Russian and European stock. Those seeds could also be cross-bred with local feral strains.

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