High Hopes for Hemp
With an American flag made of hemp in the background, two conservative Republican lawmakers said on Halloween they would push to allow the state's universities to research industrial hemp as a cash crop in Arizona. Sen. Darden Hamilton and Rep. Dean Cooley said the non-potent version of marijuana could help keep agriculture alive in Arizona.
During these patriotic times, using an American flag could have been perceived as poor taste, but the very first U.S. flag was created by Betsy Ross using hemp cloth. And that was the point.
Still, hemp supporters have to get through to Gov. Jane Hull, who vetoed pro-hemp SB 1519 on April 26 despite enormous approval by both the House and the Senate, and ignoring that a similar bill passed in New Mexico in 1999.
According to Tim Castleman, president of the Arizona Industrial Hemp Council (AIHC), both Hamilton and Cooley are willing to re-introduce the bill.
"What's needed at this stage is a financial injection," says Castleman. "I had hoped to attract some commercial interest that would see the advantage of this. The bottom line is that the support wasn't forthcoming."
While the hemp plants used for a myriad of industrial uses contains almost none of the psychoactive chemical, THC, found in pot, U.S. drug laws do not differentiate between the two kinds of cannabis. Because of this the once thriving U.S. hemp industry has literally been plowed under since WWII.
AN ISSUE IN ARIZONA seems to be that Hull may not have even read the proposed hemp legislation, but was simply concerned about a new federal push to kill industrial hemp for good.
In vetoing the bill, Hull wrote in a letter to the Arizona Industrial Hemp Council, "In this time of scarce resources, I cannot support the allocation of those resources to a project that does not further, and may detract from, the goals I support." Hull noted that signing the law would mean "the universities would need to possess and grow varieties of cannabis plants, which may be in violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act and Arizona's Title 13 criminal statues."
Needless to say, AIHC was "extremely disappointed" to see Hull veto a bill that passed the Arizona Legislature with such strong support from both houses and was introduced by Republicans.
In a counter letter to Hull, AIHC's president Castleman pointed out that the governor's concern over using resources better allocated for other purposes was unfounded, writing that "the research permitted by the bill would, in fact, be privately funded."
"That was probably a tactical error on our part," says Castleman. "We did not communicate with the governor's office effectively when we were doing this thing."
When the legislation is reintroduced, it will specify that only unrestricted private funds would be used. AIHC, and its supporters, are now looking for that funding.
"That's really the next step before we go about introducing another bill, and I think if the bill lands back on the Governor's desk with some commercial interest saying it will put up for the study, she's going to have a hard time saying no," says Castleman.
MORE THAN 30 countries have legalized industrial hemp farming, and 27 U.S. states have either passed or introduced laws favoring hemp, according to the North America Industrial Hemp Council (NAIHC).
While hemp production is illegal by federal statute, states can ask Washington to permit research plots.
"It really should be a state-rights issue," says Castleman. "The Feds shouldn't have anything to say about what we grow, for God's sake."
Hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) has supplied the world with natural fiber for rope, fishnets, paper, cloth and oil since 8000 B.C. Renaissance artists painted on hemp canvas (a word derived from "cannabis"), and most of the early Bibles were printed on hemp paper. Interestingly, the first two drafts of the Declaration of Independence were penned on hemp paper.
In the 19th century, with less expensive Manila hemp being imported from the Pacific, domestic hemp production fell out of favor until the U.S. government promoted a new machine in 1916 that cut hemp-based paper costs.
So what finally killed the American hemp industry?
While the wording of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 did not prevent industrial hemp production, the heavy tax and harassment by narcotic agents virtually shut down existing companies: It was simply no longer worth the hassle.
With the loss of access to cheap fiber from the Pacific during World War II, the USDA imitated an emergency "Hemp for Victory" program and paid "patriotic farmers" to grow hemp for the war effort. But with the opening of the Pacific in 1944, the government canceled all hemp farming and regulation of cannabis was transferred to the DEA, which has kept it illegal in all forms.
THROUGHOUT DEPRESSED midwestern farm country like Illinois, the struggle to legitimize industrial hemp for fiber and food is serious business. It's the same reason Arizona wants industrial hemp: to revitalize the state's agricultural business with a more productive, drought-proof crop.
But an Agriculture Department report last year questioned hemp's value to farmers, concluding it's not a viable crop. Proponents call this discredited report a smoke screen, contending Washington created an atmosphere in which potential supporters are silenced for fear they'll be labeled "soft on drugs," a political kiss of death.
"You have to understand that law enforcement is a growth industry," notes Castleman. "[Industrial hemp] is one more thing for them to regulate and get some new toys and equipment to watch over us."
The day after Hull's veto, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms reversed an earlier label approval, and banned any reference to the word "hemp" in a brand name, including the use of "depictions, graphics, designs, devices, puffery, statements, slang, representations, etc., implying or referencing the presence of hemp, marijuana, any other controlled substance, or any psychoactive effects."
Then on October 9 this year, the DEA announced new rules that effectively ban the consumption of foods containing any THC -- no matter how miniscule an amount.
What's interesting is that in 1994, then-President Clinton issued an Executive Order for National Defense Industrial Resources Preparedness that specifically mentioned hemp as an important "food resource" in the context of national defense.
A lawsuit recently forced the DEA to offer a grace period for manufacturers to dispose of such products or remove them from the United States. They have until February 6 to dump their stashes.
Indian tribes aren't fairing much better, despite the issue of tribal sovereignty and treaties that allow self-rule.
In July -- for the second year in a row -- the War on Drugs hit the Sioux in South Dakota, when federal agents hauled away three acres of industrial hemp. Invoking tribal sovereignty, the Oglala Sioux maintain their right to cultivate whatever crops they choose, according to an 1868 treaty with the U.S. government and under a 1998 tribal ordinance. The Sioux are counting on income from industrial hemp to bolster an area that has an unemployment rate greater than 80 percent -- the economically poorest area in the United States.
In Arizona, the Navajo, Gila, Yaqui and Tohono O'odham tribes have all shown some interest in hemp as an economic boon that reduces dependence on casinos. This is particularly true for the Navajo Nation, where almost 80 percent of the population lacks electricity.
Anticipating the eventual legalization of industrial hemp, some 38 farmers in Illinois have pooled resources and invested in a hemp-processing plant in Canada, where it's been legal since 1999. For Arizona's farmers, such a game plan of farms and processing plants can't happen too soon.
Castleman agrees that is only a matter of time: "I don't think it's a question of whether or not we can get it legalized in Arizona; there's no question of it."