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Why Candy Crowley Should Have Asked Obama and Romney About Hemp

The debate was held in Hempstead, a town where farmers once cultivated the durable, lucrative crop that is illegal to grow today.
 
 
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Photo Credit: http://pantanova.nl

 
 
 
 

On Tuesday, October 16, the second Obama-Romney debate was held at Hofstra University in Hempstead, Long Island, near where I grew up as a kid.

If I were moderator, I would have started by asking the candidates to explain the etymology of that quaint village name. Why is the town called Hempstead? Because once upon a time, farmers on Long Island grew hemp, marijuana’s durable, non-psychoactive twin. They grew hemp for fiber, cordage, paper, oil, and many other necessities. Many American farmers used to grow hemp – not just on Long Island.

Hemp was one of the first crops cultivated by Puritan settlers in New England. Early American households in some colonies were required by law to produce hemp because the plant had so many beneficial uses. Thomas Jefferson penned the original draft of the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper. Patriotic wives and mothers organized spinning bees with hempen thread to clothe the Yankee army. The first American flags were made of hemp cloth. Without enough hemp, American revolutionaries would not have prevailed in their struggle against the British.

But today it’s illegal to grow hemp in the United States. A plant once prized by our Founding Fathers, a plant with an impeccable patriotic pedigree, has been banished from the American agricultural landscape because of the war on drugs.

Concerned about the availability of marijuana, the federal government imposed tight restrictions on hemp, even though hemp contains minuscule amounts of THC, pot’s psychoactive ingredient, not nearly enough to make someone feel high. If marijuana is the funny stuff, then fiber hemp is its serious sibling, a sober, can-do ecologically sustainable plant with more than 25,000 known industrial applications – everything from hemp sneakers, lip balm, body lotion and granola to hemp surfboards, backpacks, building material and car panels.

Drug Enforcement Administration officials contend that if hemp were legal to grow, it would make marijuana law enforcement much more difficult because hemp and pot bear a resemblance. (They are actually the same species -- cannabis sativa – but are genetically distinct.) By misclassifying hemp as a drug, Uncle Sam essentially ceded a lucrative and expanding agricultural market to Canada, China, Russia, and the European Union, which subsidizes hemp farmers.

The United States is the only industrialized nation in the world that prohibits commercial hemp cultivation. Yet it’s okay for American businesses to import hemp fiber and hempseed oil, as long as the plant itself is grown abroad.

That’s very frustrating to David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, which use 20 tons of hempseed oil in soaps and other products every year. It would be more cost-effective for Bronner’s company and better for American farmers and the U.S. economy as a whole if American businesses could purchase hemp oil and hemp fiber from American rather than Canadian farmers. “The Canadian farmers are laughing at us all the way to the bank,” said Bronner.

Rough industry estimates indicate that several hundred million dollars worth of hemp products are sold annually in the United States.

Nine states – Maine, Vermont, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, North Dakota, Montana, Oregon and Hawaii – have passed laws permitting hemp cultivation and research. But unlike in states such as California where medical marijuana is legal and people can grow limited quantities of cannabis for therapeutic use, industrial hemp farming hasn’t taken hold anywhere in the United States.

There is no industrial hemp resistance like there is a medical marijuana resistance. That’s because the feds generally follow a policy of only busting cannabis grow-ops larger than 100 plants. Whereas a family or a collective can earn decent money from growing 99 pot plants (which command a high price relative to other crops), for an industrial hemp grow to be economically viable, it would have to exceed many times over the 100-plant limit, which would make it an automatic target of federal law enforcement.

In effect, pot prohibition makes it more difficult for a farmer to grow industrial hemp than granddaddy purple -- underscoring once again the sheer idiocy of the war on drugs, a venal and destructive policy that has fostered crime, police corruption, social discord, racial injustice and, ironically, drug abuse itself, while impeding medical advances and economic opportunity.

The politics of hemp and the politics of marijuana are inseparable – if only because the feds have made it so.

To unshackle hemp from the tyranny of pot prohibition, Bronner and other activists are supporting three state ballot measures this fall that would legalize cannabis for adult use in Colorado, Washington and Oregon.

Hemp is the botanical elephant in the living room of American politics. It’s off limits to grow and presidential candidates keep dodging the issue – even when they’re debating in a town called Hempstead.