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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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This lack of infrastructure has been a major barrier to producing hemp clothing and paper. Building a new decorticator mill for hemp paper would cost more than $100 million, says Murphy.

Several small companies are using hemp for specialized products such as archival-quality, filter, or cigarette papers, but its most likely general use will be when mixed with recycled paper, says Steenstra. “Blend in 10 to 15 percent hemp, and it’s great for making better-quality recycled paper,” he says. When paper gets recycled, he explains, its fibers get shorter, and the long fibers of hemp strengthen it.

There are similar issues with clothing. Though Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, and several lesser-known manufacturers are using hemp in clothes, “the whole textile industry is built on short-fiber cotton and synthetics,” says Steenstra. “There’s no infrastructure for processing hemp fiber into textiles.”

Hemp oil for biofuel, another use dreamed of in the ‘90s, is unlikely to be practical. At 50 gallons per acre, even if every acre of U.S. cropland were used for hemp, it would supply current U.S. demand for oil for less than three weeks.

On the other hand, the hemp-food industry is “pretty well settled,” says Murphy. If hemp growing were legalized in the U.S., he adds, a lot of Canadian processors would probably open facilities here. Legalization would also help hemp food break out of its niche-market status. If it received “GRAS” (Generally Recognized As Safe) status from the Food and Drug Administration, major brands would be less reluctant to use it. Until then, he says, Coca-Cola won’t put hemp milk in Odwalla Future Shakes, and we’re not likely to see hempseed Clif Bars.

Canada’s experience illustrates the problems of developing a new industry, says Murphy. Hemp farming there has been through two boom-and-bust cycles since it was legalized in 1998. The nation’s production leaped to 35,000 acres in 1999 and plummeted to about 4,000 in 2001, according to a report by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development in Alberta, Canada’s main hemp-producing province. It soared to 48,000 acres in 2006 and fell to less than 10,000 two years later.

Business factors explain those fluctuations, says Murphy. When hemp was legalized, more than 200 Canadian farmers signed contracts to grow it for an American outfit called Consolidated Growers and Processors. It went bankrupt in 2000 and stiffed them for more than $1 million. 

Farmers got back into it after the hemp-food industry burgeoned, aided by the end of the U.S. ban and a German inventor modifying a buckwheat-shelling machine to process hempseed. But there were not enough buyers or processing facilities to handle the bumper crop of 2006. “They were growing on spec,” says Murphy. “You really have to have a good contract.” 

Since then, production has been rising again. It reached almost 39,000 acres in 2011, according to the Alberta report. The Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance projects that the area planted will reach 100,000 acres by 2014. 

In 2009, the most recent figures available from the European Industrial Hemp Association, about 45,000 acres (18,000 hectares) of hemp were planted in the European Union. More than half was in France, with the U.K. and Poland following.

In contrast, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 9,461,000 acres of cotton were harvested in the U.S. in 2011—a year in which more than one-third of the nation’s crop was wiped out by severe drought, with farmers in Texas and Oklahoma forced to abandon more than 5 million acres, more than half of what they planted. The amount of cotton harvested in the mostly desert state of New Mexico, 61,000 acres, was more than all the hemp planted in Canada. 

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