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The trouble with hemp

Posted on October 1, 1996

Farmers want to grow it, and manufacturers want to use it. But it’s got an obnoxious relative that states are afraid of.

Agriculture has never been easy in the rocky soil of Vermont, and these days, it is harder and less profitable than ever. With the dairy industry mired in a 20-year decline, the state’s farmers can scarcely be blamed if they cast about for any creative means of staying in business. That’s all Fred Maslack is doing. “What I’m looking for,” says Maslack, who represents rural Rutland County in the Vermont House of Representatives, “is something that will keep the land open and make a dollar.”

The remarkable thing is that Maslack believes he has one. He is promoting a new Vermont crop that seems almost too good to be true. It’s a plant that grows as well in the Green Mountains as in the fields of Kentucky. It requires few pesticides and has a deep root system that prevents erosion. It can be grown on the same land year after year. And most important, there is a demonstrated international market for it.

Maslack and his allies took their idea to the legislature this year, and touted it both as a boon to farmers and a source of jobs. “We’re interested in the crop to use not only on barren land but also to create an industry that would employ people,” said state Representative Ruth Towne. But their modest bill calling for a limited number of test plots was denounced as dangerous and opposed by the governor, who described it as a “silly waste of time.” In the end, all Maslack could obtain was a watered-down measure allowing the University of Vermont to conduct a study. And even the study wasn’t funded.

It was a rude reception for a potential miracle crop in troubled agricultural times. But there was a simple reason for that. The crop is hemp, and while it has a myriad of perfectly innocent uses, as a source of everyday items ranging from paper to clothing and shoes, it has one definite liability. It is a cousin of marijuana.

No one is accusing Fred Maslack of wanting to grow pot. Indeed, hemp and marijuana, while they have similar characteristics, are entirely different plants. Marijuana is a short bushy plant with many leaves, and it is the leaves that contain the psychoactive ingredients. Hemp plants are tall and straight, with leaves located at the top of the stalk. The leaves are of little value for hemp farmers — it’s the fibrous stalk that interests them.

Few people know it, but before 1937, when Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act, hemp was among the nation’s leading cash crops. Drafts of the Declaration of Independence were written on hemp paper, and Betsy Ross’ American flag was made from hemp. The crop even made a brief comeback during World War II, as the government urged farmers to cultivate it to supply fiber for rope, parachute webbing and other military materials.

The fact is, there are products made from hemp in use all over the country right now. But the raw material has to be imported from Europe or Asia. It’s perfectly legal to use hemp in manufacturing, but growing it is against the law everywhere in the United States. Maslack and some of his struggling constituents see changing that law as a partial answer to their economic problems.

They aren’t the only ones who see it that way. Earlier this year, the American Farm Bureau Federation, representing 4.6 million farmers, passed a unanimous resolution urging research into “the viability and economic potential” of hemp. “The American Farm Bureau gave this issue credibility,” says Maslack. “They’re obviously not a bunch of smoking potheads.”

The Farm Bureau effort is making some progress. Colorado, Missouri and Hawaii all considered hemp legislation this year, and the latter two, like Vermont, passed resolutions to study hemp’s economic and agricultural viability. Colorado state Senator Lloyd Casey, who sponsored his state’s Industrial Hemp Production Act, estimates that as many as 10 states could consider hemp bills next year.

But if the Farm Bureau is a force in hemp’s favor, there is a powerful one working against it: the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA makes no distinction between hemp and marijuana. DEA agents insist it is impractical to try to separate the two when they are zapping marijuana plants from the air. In Colorado this year, the DEA lobbied against Casey’s efforts to go beyond academic studies and actually authorize test plots. “The DEA is absolutely unconvinced it’s an honest effort,” complains Casey. “They see the whole thing as a sham to get people to smoke high-content THC.”

As the hemp lobby is fond of pointing out, there’s little danger of that. Hemp isn’t potent enough to produce marijuana. It contains less than 1 percent THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive agent in cannabis that induces a euphoric high. Experts agree that it takes considerably more than that to produce any recognizable effect. And hemp can’t be used to cover up marijuana plants, since the two can’t be grown in close proximity — the cross-pollination of one with the other will ruin either crop. “They are of the same species, but that doesn’t mean they’re identical,” says agronomist Scott Smith of the University of Kentucky.

Missouri farmer Boyd Vancil, co-owner of the Oxford Hemp Exchange, emphatically makes the same point. He and other hemp activists want to take the entire subject out of the jurisdiction of drug control officials and give it to the state agriculture department, where they say it belongs. “Hemp and marijuana,” he says, “are two different products. The similarities end at the leaf. We don’t talk about drunk driving when we’re trying to build an ethanol plant.”

In a technical sense, he is clearly right. His arguments, however, collide with one important fact: Full legalization of hemp is among the leading priorities of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. NORML activist Allen St. Pierre admits that his group sees hemp legalization as a preliminary step toward legal use of marijuana in all its forms. And with friends like St. Pierre, the hemp campaign may not need many enemies in order to fail. In both Colorado and Vermont this year, hemp’s perceived ties with the drug-legalization movement were at least as important in its defeat as the position of the DEA. “Cannabis sativa is cannabis sativa. It’s the same plant,” says an aide to Vermont Governor Howard Dean, explaining Dean’s opposition to the measure.

“I think the farmers’ motives are legitimate and they are interested in hemp, period,” says Jim Claycomb, who served on a 1994 hemp task force in Kentucky. “I also think there are others who have ulterior motives. I know that some of these groups are trying to distance themselves from the others. It’s unfortunate that they’re lumped together.”

So far, the marijuana connection has proved so troublesome that even when preliminary research is approved, universities are often reluctant to do it. At the University of Vermont, which has been authorized by the legislature to conduct a modest research project, Catherine Halberndt, an agricultural economics professor, is careful to deny affiliation with the legislative action and to insist that the institution’s inquiry is strictly academic.

In a few states, however, the hemp lobby is meeting with a little more success. Hawaii’s Agribusiness Development Corp., a group chartered to find alternatives for Hawaiian farmers strapped by a declining sugar cane industry, is researching the economic and agricultural opportunities of hemp with plans to report on its findings this winter. There the issue seems to be driven more by potential industrial users of hemp than by those who would grow it. State Representative Dave Tarnas, who sponsored Hawaii’s hemp bill, cites inquiries from major paper and textile companies both there and on the mainland who say they would buy domestically produced hemp if it were available.

At the lower reaches of the hemp lobby, however, in Hawaii and in most other places, the battle to grow the crop has little to do with large-scale commercial contracts and even less to do with drug policy. It is merely a survival scheme for some shaky farmers. “These people who say there are a lot of alternatives out there better put them on the table,” says Fred Maslack. “This is strictly an issue of getting something to pay the bills.”

Copyright © 1996, Governing. All rights reserved.