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The waving fields of hemp

Posted on February 17, 1996

While Republican presidential contenders have been wooing New Hampshire voters with proofs of their true-blue conservatism, some Republicans in next-door Vermont have been pushing an idea too radical even for liberal Democrats: legalising marijuana. But, like President Clinton in his youth, these particular hemp enthusiasts do not intend to inhale.

The smokeable variety of marijuana would remain illegal in Vermont: sad news for many an ageing hippie, as well as for a younger generation of tie-dyed Grateful Dead fans. The bold Republicans merely propose to study the plant’s industrial use as a cash crop. Vermont’s farmers have been struggling to make ends meet by producing that most wholesome substance, milk. It brings in more than $300m a year. Hemp’s sponsors, stars in their eyes, reckon that a farmer who plants hemp could reap returns as high as $900 an acre, more than four times what he would get for planting the hay which is fed to the cows.

Industrial hemp is basically the same plant as marijuana, but looks quite different-tall stalk, few leaves-and contains so little of marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient, THC, that even the most determined pothead could smoke it all day to little effect. The plant’s many uses, as displayed in an exhibition in the Vermont Capitol earlier this year, include hemp flour, hemp soaps, hemp textiles (including a sneaker from Adidas), hemp machine lubricants, even hemp mortar and fibreboard for building. Hemp brownies (as invented by Alice B. Toklas) were passed round to the eager crowd.

(Photograph Omitted)

But, when the plan eventually reached the agricultural committee of the Vermont House of Representatives, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration opposed it and the state governor hastily denounced it. Vermont’s police have also helped to nip the idea in the bud. They profess to detect in this bill a plot to legalise all forms of hemp, including the mind-blurring kind. Similar objections have cut down pro-hemp efforts in other states.

Hemp enthusiasts insist that law-enforcement agencies would have no trouble telling stalky industrial hemp from its bushier, naughtier cousin. But their hopes for a new industry in Vermont could turn out to be a pipedream. The liberal Democrats who control the Vermont House may reject the agriculture committee’s bill. The governor, a Democrat, is likely to veto it anyway. Even if it passed, it might well be rendered void by federal anti-marijuana laws enforced by a Democratic president. A Republican push to legalise a form of marijuana, blocked by Democrats? Such is the politics of hemp, at least in Vermont.

Copyright © 1996, Economist. All rights reserved.

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