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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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Photo Credit: SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

 
 
 
 

The American hemp industry, revived in the 1990s in a wave of cannabis-fueled environmentalism, now sells $450 million a year of products from hemp-oil soap to hemp-coned speakers for guitar amplifiers, according to an industry trade group. Yet all the raw material used for these products, from fiber to hempseed oil, has to be imported, as it’s still illegal to grow hemp in the United States.

The Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2013, introduced in the House on February 6 by Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), would end that. It would amend federal drug law to legalize growing cannabis that contains less than 0.3% THC. Its 28 cosponsors include Kentucky Republican John Yarmuth and Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee. Mostly Democrats, they span a geographic and ideological spectrum from Dan Benishek, a conservative Republican from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, to Barbara Lee of Oakland, California, former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. 

“Industrial hemp is a sustainable crop and could be a great economic opportunity for Kentucky farmers,” Massie said in a statement announcing the bill. “Tobacco is no longer a viable crop for many of us in Kentucky and we understand how hard it is for a family farm to turn a profit. Industrial hemp will give small farmers another opportunity to succeed.”

Similar legislation failed to get even a committee hearing in the 2011-12 session of Congress, but supporters are optimistic. On Feb. 14, four senators—Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul of Kentucky, along with Oregon Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley—introduced a companion bill.

McConnell also recently endorsed a Kentucky state bill to allow hemp farming if the federal law was changed to permit it. State Agriculture Commissioner James Comer is pushing that measure, against opposition from police groups who claim it would make it difficult to enforce the laws against growing marijuana. The Kentucky Senate’s agriculture committee approved it unanimously on Feb. 11.

“The utilization of hemp to produce everything from clothing to paper is real, and if there is a capacity to center a new domestic industry in Kentucky that will create jobs in these difficult economic times, that sounds like a good thing to me,” McConnell said in a statement issued January 31. Hemp Industries Association spokesperson Tom Murphy says the e-mail he got with that news had the subject line “Are you sitting down?”

Hemp plants grown to produce oil or fiber are of the same species as cannabis grown for marijuana, but their genetics and the way they are cultivated are as different as a Chihuahua and a Great Dane. Cannabis plants grown for marijuana are bred for high THC and given enough space to branch out so they can produce buds. Cannabis plants grown for hemp have much lower THC and are packed densely—typically 35 to 50 per square foot—because the stalks are the most valuable part. 

Cannabis’ first known use for fiber, in Taiwan about 8000 BCE, predates its first known use as an intoxicant by thousands of years. In the 18th and 19th centuries, hemp was a significant crop in the U.S., with Kentucky the main producer and the fibers used to make rope, cloth and paper. The industry declined in the late 19th century, as technological advances made cotton easier to harvest and process, and sisal and jute imports from Asia provided cheaper materials for rope. 

By 1937, when the federal Marihuana Tax Act levied a punitive $100-an-ounce tax on marijuana, hemp was not an important enough crop to be included in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual “Farm Outlook” forecast. The 1937 law did not actually outlaw the cannabis plant, and it exempted hemp stalks and products such as fiber or oil, but it required growers to pay $1 to get a permit from the federal government—not an insignificant sum in the Depression, when millions of farmers made less than $12 a week. (No sustainable evidence supports the widespread belief that marijuana prohibition was pushed through by a Hearst-DuPont-governmental conspiracy to eliminate hemp as competition for wood-pulp paper, nylon, and polyester.)

 
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