The Movement to Legalize Industrial Hemp is Advancing, but the Pot Connection Still Lingers
After 60 years as a pariah plant, sprayed into oblivion by federal agents wherever it appeared, the versatile fiber known as industrial hemp appears to be making a dramatic comeback, with legalization movements in 14 states, and, in North Dakota, an outright victory. Will hemp, the fiber that helped win World War II, finally emerge from the dark shadow of its close relative, marijuana?
Growing hemp was by no means always illegal in the United States. In the 18th century, hemp was such a valued commodity, in shipping and other industries, that Thomas Jefferson, then ambassador to France, smuggled illegally obtained Chinese hemp seeds to the colonies. Those same seeds were eventually hybridized to create the famous Kentucky Hemp strain. George Washington even said, in a letter to his farm manager, “make the most you can of the Indian hemp seed. Sow it everywhere.”
Hemp’s Fall From Grace
It’s true that hemp and marijuana come from the same plant—cannabis sativa L. It’s not true that the plants are the same. The biological difference between them is demonstrated by their respective levels of THC, the plant’s psychoactive ingredient. For industrial hemp, the generally accepted THC level is one percent or less; for recreational marijuana, the THC level is at least three percent. The physical differences between the two plants are readily apparent. Hemp grows lean and tall with flowers on the canopy; marijuana branches widely with resinous buds on all sides.
Until the early 1900s, cannabis hemp was treated like any other farm crop and its cultivation required no special regulations or licenses. Hundreds of thousands of acres of hemp grew in Kentucky, Tennessee, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan.
Then, in 1931, the nation’s first drug czar, Harry Anslinger, was appointed to head the newly reorganized Federal Bureau of Narcotic and Dangerous Drugs by his future uncle-in-law and the Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon. At the time, the Mellon Bank of Pittsburgh was the chief financial backer for DuPont, the munitions and plastics maker, a company which viewed recent technological advances in hemp processing as a threat.
Anslinger took his job very seriously and molded himself after J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI. He hired ex-G-men, newly unemployed after Prohibition ended in 1929, and created an army of officers to fight the nation’s first Drug War. In only a few years, public vice number one went from being alcohol to cannabis. The drug’s role as “Assassin of Youth” was reflected in period films like the camp classic Reefer Madness.
In 1937, Popular Mechanics declared hemp to be the “New Billion Dollar Crop” because of new developments in fiber technology. Also in 1937, the ever-fervent Harry Anslinger introduced the Marijuana Prohibitive Tax Act, proposing an excise tax on dealers and a transfer tax on sales. After hearing Anslinger testify under oath that “marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind,” and against the protests of the American Medical Association, the National Oilseed Institute and the birdseed industry, the Marijuana Tax Act was passed by congress. Anslinger assured the legislators that farmers “could go on growing hemp much as they always have.”
Hemp farmers lined up for licenses and received $1 Special Tax Stamps. Now hemp was regulated by the Treasury Department and, in some states, the farmers were harassed by federal agents. Eventually, and in spite of the brief World War II “Hemp for Victory” campaign, hemp fell out of vogue in the domestic market, and 1957 saw the last American hemp harvest. Stands of wild hemp that still grow across the plains states serve as gentle reminders of America’s once-vital hemp culture.
Although hemp cultivation is not technically illegal, farmers need a license to grow it. But if the agency in charge of licensing refuses to issue a permit, you could be prosecuted for growing hemp. When the federal government began issuing Marijuana Tax Stamps in 1938, jurisdiction over both hemp and marijuana fell into the hands of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, now the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), which lumped both into Schedule One of the federal list of controlled substances. By the agency’s rules, hemp has “a high potential for abuse.”
The Climb Back
Despite its outlaw status, hemp is slowly climbing back into favor as a base for a huge variety of consumer products, from clothing to ice cream. Thousands of hemp businesses have risen (and sometimes fallen) since 1993. Estimates of national and international sales of hemp goods in 1997 range from $50 million to $100 million. After a decade of public re-education, most people know the difference between industrial hemp and marijuana.
Currently, 99.9 percent of industrial hemp used in the United States is imported from Eastern Europe, China and Canada. Goods made from imported raw materials are expensive, and most experts acknowledge that for the American hemp industry to succeed financially, there must be a domestic, bioregional source of hemp seed and fiber. Sixty years after the Marijuana Tax Act, though, the domestic hemp industry’s growth is still stymied by drug war politics. Bill Clinton, the self-acknowledged pot-smoking president, has actually increased the federal drug budget to an unprecedented $18 billion per year, primarily to fight marijuana production.
In 1996, the anti-drug community woke up to the growing interest in industrial hemp. That year, then-drug czar Lee Brown attempted to publicly shame shoemaking giant Adidas out of naming its tennis shoe “The Hemp.” But 1996 was also the year Californians voted in favor of Prop 215, virtually decriminalizing use of marijuana for medical purposes. The feds, worried about the growing legitimization of all forms of the hemp plant, threatened to pull the DEA licenses of doctors who recommended cannabis to patients, thus disabling them from prescribing medications. The White House Office of National Drug Policy announced that “hemp sends the wrong messages to children.” Other standard lines: “law enforcement officers can’t tell the difference between hemp and marijuana” or, despite obvious physical differences between the two plants, “marijuana could be hidden in a hemp field.”
Hemp crops covered hundreds of thousands of acres in the US,
but after 1938 farmers needed special $1 marijuana tax stamps (inset).
Commercial harvesting ended in 1957.
The hemp industry’s response to hemp field marijuana is that it’s not practical, because the process by which industrial hemp plants shed pollen means that any nearby marijuana plant would lose quality. Theoretically, fields of industrial hemp could be the best marijuana eradication device ever conceived. Still, money earmarked for cannabis suppression is being used to destroy wild hemp. The Vermont legislature’s 1998 study of the $500 million DEA Cannabis Eradication and Suppression Program showed that 99.28 percent of the 422,716,526 hemp plants confiscated were actually wild hemp, descendants of a bygone industrial era.
uistic, right-livelihood “Hemp Movement” is ailing. Replacing the hippie hempsters is a corporate culture that includes venture capital and public trading. Nobody works for “the cause” anymore. One might suppose that with an adversary as large and parochial as Uncle Sam, the hemp industry would work to be as united as possible, but that’s not the case. Industrial hemp offers the lure of financial gain, and this has turned some would-be entrepreneurs against each other.
North America’s hemp industry today is composed of basically two sets of interests: the hempsters, the visionaries who turned a cottage industry into a major business, and who have maintained a 300-member trade organization called the Hemp Industries Association (HIA); and the “hemp suits,” a loose affiliation of bureaucrats, entrepreneurs, academics and farmers who plan to take the industry into the future. They have formed a 60-member association called the North American Industrial Hemp Alliance (NAIHC).
Conflicts between the hemp groups have sometimes led to political stalemates. One glaring example is the situation in California, the first state to decriminalize medical use of marijuana, and the place where the hemp industry was born. A fledgling organization, Californians for Industrial Renewal (CAIR) is the only group working to legalize hemp on the state level. CAIR got its start with an unsuccessful referendum to decriminalize hemp in 1998. NAIHC stayed away. NAIHC Secretary John Roulac says CAIR miscalculated by allowing only a few months to gather the required voter signatures. “It was too little, too late,” he says.
One year later, the big money is still not betting on legalization, despite the fact that, last March, the state assembly adopted a pro-hemp resolution. CAIR founder Sam Clauter of Orange County has been able to raise only a few thousand dollars toward a legislative campaign, and has had a variety of doors slammed in his face. “The hemp people can only donate some of their products, the farmers think I’m into drug policy reform and the foundation people think I don’t push drug policy reform enough!” Clauter says with some exasperation. He is spending his own money on the campaign, which averages $1,000 a month in expenses.
One would think that Hollywood money would flow for this cause. But hemp’s favorite son, California resident Woody Harrelson, has for the past four years invested his money not in California, but in Kentucky, the home state of his friend, Joe Hickey.
Hickey is the executive director of the Kentucky Hemp Growers Collective, a co-op consisting of tobacco farmers whose fathers and grandfathers once grew hemp. Harrelson very publicly planted four hemp seeds in a Kentucky field to challenge what he called an overly broad state ban covering all parts of the hemp plant. Harrelson’s case has been won, appealed, and now is being considered by Kentucky’s Supreme Court. The legal costs have run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. “It’s too bad I can’t get funding, because the most potential for progress is here in California,” laments Clauter. “It has the biggest agricultural base, the most political clout and economic influence.”
The hemp camps coexist in a fragile and uneasy alliance. Six years into the movement, “Rope vs. Dope” remains the dominant debate. While most in the hemp industry agree that the issues of industrial hemp and the controversial medical use of marijuana should be kept strictly separate, there is much dissent over how far this separation should go, considering the politics involved. “I think the two issues should be separate, but let’s not be hypocritical,” says Carolyn Moran, founder of Living Tree Paper Company and HIA board member. “This kind of division is unfair to sick people. We need to support medical use, whether we are on the right, left, or in between.”
Hempsters have always been pegged by policy makers as legalizers in hemp clothing. Some hempsters did come from backgrounds in marijuana activism, others from self-employment. Hemp suits must constantly be on their guard about fraternizing with hempsters. Any relationship can come back to haunt them, as it did in 1997 when a suit-wearing hemp lobbyist in Missouri was exposed as on the payroll of the magazine High Times, which advocates legalizing marijuana. As a result, former general Barry McCaffrey, head of the Clinton administration’s Office of National Drug Policy, wrote to all local farm bureau presidents, encouraging them to oppose hemp. That prompted the Missouri Farm Bureau to drop its hemp endorsement and, one month later, the American Farm Bureau followed suit. It was an embarrassing setback.
The NAIHC was created as a counterculture-free zone for tobacco farmers and other mainstream hemp advocates. The chairman of the NAIHC board, “Bud” Sholts, is a former official at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, and he recently brought ex-CIA Director James Woolsey on board as a consultant. Sholts says that Woolsey “supports the NAIHC for educational and information purposes and went with us in April to meet with McCaffrey.” At that meeting, Sholts says that McCaffrey finally “got it” about the differences between hemp and marijuana. But, as a 501(c)(3) organization, Sholts insists, “the NAIHC doesn’t do lobbying.”
What’s at Stake
After three years of research cultivation, Canada is now in its second year of commercial growing. Its main market is the United States, where a plethora of manufacturers eagerly await arrivals of fresh seed and fiber from contractors north of the border. Unlike the European Union, Canada offers no subsidies to hemp farmers, but does require a labyrinthian application process described by last year’s farmers as “a nightmare.” American hemp farmers are similarly not expecting to receive subsidies for a crop they’ve had to fight so hard to grow.
Reaching a consensus on industrial hemp’s profitability is difficult, but some figures do exist. In 1997, Kentucky hemp farmers commissioned a study of the hemp market by the Department of Business and Economics at the University of Kentucky. It concluded that a crop of hemp seed, or grain, and straw could bring a return of as much as $319.51 per acre, compared with $135.84 per acre for white corn.
Inevitably though, the price of raw hemp will plummet once processing technology gets up to speed and when the supply meets demand. The question of the day is: how far can farm prices drop while still being profitable and attractive to farmers? Already, the cost of imported hemp is two to three times more than the substances it replaces. Although, as a premium fiber, hemp should not be compared with cotton and wood pulp, manufacturers will still need a 20 to 40 percent reduction to be able to sell mass quantities of food, body care products, paper and clothes at affordable price points.
Despite these variables, many tobacco farmers are clamoring to grow hemp. The reason, says Kentucky farmer Andy Graves, is that “tobacco is a shrinking market, and it’s a dying industry. Every time the price of a pack of cigarettes goes up, more people quit.”
Along with the Community Farm Alliance in Kentucky, Dorothy Robertson is investigating hemp as a supplement or alternative to tobacco crops across the South. “One of the beautiful things about hemp is that you
don’t need pesticides or herbicides,” Robertson says. “The plant grows so close together that it shades out all of the weeds. It’s a great rotation crop because after one year you could come back with another crop and you wouldn’t have the weed problem.”
Hemp may actually raise the yields of succeeding crops, such as corn or soybeans, thanks to its rich leaf mold, which is 50 percent nitrogen, and its long fibrous tap roots, which aerate the soil, improve water balance and add nutrients. In the Netherlands, winter wheat yields went up 10 percent after a hemp rotation. And hemp can be grown naturally almost anywhere—including all 50 states. Less fertilizer, less agricultural chemicals, higher yields and a burgeoning market, all add up to potentially higher net incomes for farmers.
Unfortunately, hemp production would be a boon to corporate seed producers as well, such as Monsanto and Cargill, since hemp regulation will require the use of certified low-THC hemp seeds. These soon-to-be patented seeds are expected to be bio-engineered with THC chemicals removed, and “terminator” components added so that farmers cannot reproduce it year after year.
Requirements for extremely low THC levels in hemp may also lead to the monopolization of the seed market by federally-sanctioned producers, as is the case in France. Another uncertainty is whether farmers will suffer confiscation of the resulting crop or prosecution if the plant shows THC levels higher than the 0.3 percent that is likely to be adopted. Welcome to the brave new world of hemp growing.
Getting hemp laws changed has been long and slow coming. First, there was the Colorado Hemp Initiative of 1995, sponsored by Colorado Senator Lloyd Casey. That bill, as well as the 1996 and 1997 bills, failed due to law enforcement opposition. The Colorado efforts called for commercial production of hemp and defined low-THC cannabis as it was originally intended in the 1937 Tax Act. This laid the foundation for all the other hemp legislation.
Senator Casey retired from office in 1998 and was disappointed when fellow Senator Kay Alexander refused to sponsor the bill in his absence. “Kay told me the reason she backed off was that several sheriffs in her district threatened to pull support of her,” says Casey. Although Colorado did not push hemp legislation in 1998, a handful of other states did, and some laws were passed. However, those bills called for feasibility studies rather than field tests or commercial production.
In 1999, hemp legislation was introduced in 14 states: Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin. So far, seven states have successfully passed some kind of hemp legislation: North Dakota, Hawaii, Illinois, Virginia, New Mexico, and Minnesota. However, only the laws in North Dakota, Minnesota and Hawaii call for hemp to actually be put in the ground.
In a stunning landslide, North Dakota passed its bill, which was motivated primarily by farmers, not activists. The wording of House Bill 1428, sponsored by Rep. Monson, simply states: “Any person in this state may plant, grow, harvest, possess, process, sell, and buy industrial hemp.” How did North Dakota pull it off? “Maybe it’s just some karma coming together,” jokes Clare Carlson, the Agricultural Policies Director and Legislative Liaison at the governor’s office. “Manitoba, to the North, is ahead of us with hemp and there might be some cross-pollination going on.” Carlson says that no hemp will be planted this year, because federal law still supersedes state law. “It’s up to others to change federal policy, and we advocate using state law to leverage the feds,” he says.
Hawaii’s House Bill 32 authorizes privately funded industrial hemp seed variety trials in Hawaii once the state and DEA permits are issued. This program will include any entity with the cash to spend. In a letter to Hawaii Representative Cynthia Thielen, DEA Chief of Operations Gregory Williams said that “…DEA will consider setting the level of THC content for Cannabis sativa L., hemp that may be grown for industrial purposes.” Thielen enthuses, “This is bureaucratese for saying they are working on changing their regulations so industrial hemp can be grown again in the U.S.A.”
One would expect that anything to do with hemp in Minnesota would be quickly signed into law by Jesse “the pro-hemp governor” Ventura. Minnesota House File 1238, which authorized the commissioner of agriculture to permit experimental plots of industrial hemp, was, however, killed in committee. But as part of an appropriations bill signed by Ventura on May 25, the state will submit an application for federal permits needed to authorize the growing of experimental hemp plots. “It was an uphill battle, but in the end I was able to persuade my colleagues to include this provision in the bill,” says Representative Phyllis Kahn. “The bill that Governor Ventura signed into law is the first step toward the legalization of hemp.”
Other bills either demand a federal change or call for paper studies: Illinois Senate Resolution 49 and House Resolution 168 create the Industrial Hemp Investigative and Advisory Task Force, consisting of the Director of Agriculture or a designee and 12 committee members.
New Mexico’s House Bill 104, sponsored by Representative Pauline K. Gubbel, calls for an appropriation of $50,000 for New Mexico State University to study industrial hemp as a commercial crop.
Montana’s House Resolution 2 is somewhat more assertive by requesting that the federal government officially define “hemp” as having less than one percent THC. The bill also calls for hemp to be regulated by the Department of Agriculture.
Similarly, Virginia’s House Joint Resolution 94 “memorializes” the Secretary of Agriculture, the Director of the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy to permit the controlled, experimental cultivation of industrial hemp in Virginia.
High Times for Hemp
On the federal side, a petition filed by Ralph Nader’s Resource Conservation Alliance (RCA) and the NAIHC attempts to force the DEA to remove hemp from its list of federally controlled substances. The agency is required to respond within a reasonable amount of time, but had not done so after 18 months. If DEA does not comply, the matter is bound for the courts. RCA’s Ned Day believes that the DEA is dragging its feet out of fear. “I think they are very worried about what the states are doing,” he says. “They don’t want middle America coming after them, especially soccer moms. It might be that they’ll wait until the pressure dies down and if they feel they have cover, they might act.”
Native Americans should technically be able to grow hemp since their reservations are sovereign nations—a theory which is now being tested. Since 1997, the Lakota Sioux at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota have been passing ordinances and resolutions to grow hemp. This year, the tribe planted approximately two acres next to a field of wild hemp growing along a creek. So far, there’s been no reaction from the DEA.
The Lakota are also planning construction of homes m
ade from hemp bricks. The tribe is hoping to use part of the $5 million in federal funds it’s receiving to replace 25 homes recently destroyed by tornadoes for hemp buildings. “The whole housing scene is in flux here,” says tribal spokesman Tom Cook. “With all these houses going down, hemp is the only thing going up.”
Meanwhile, the American Farm Bureau now has no official policy on hemp. Dave Kelly, the bureau’s assistant director of news services, says, “Hemp is an issue our delegates have determined they want to be neutral on; not for it, not against it.”
Signs of Light
Will the legalizing states get away with growing a crop that the federal government still considers a Schedule One restricted substance? In the DEA’s letter to Hawaii’s Thielen, Williams noted “that public and commercial interest may be better served if the cultivation of Cannabis sativa L. hemp is authorized by the appropriate Federal and State entities.”
In line with the DEA, the White House drug czar, General McCaffrey, appears to be softening his stance. “If people believe that hemp fiber can be sold in the marketplace for a profit, and aren’t actually trying to normalize the growing of marijuana around America, to the extent you want to grow hemp fiber we’d be glad to work with you,” he said in April. “[But as a profitable crop] I think it’s going nowhere.” A growing hemp industry, poised for legalization, might disagree.
MARI KANE was the publisher of the now-defunct HempWorld. She continues to produce Hemp Pages, the first international hemp directory.