By Ryan Keith, Chicago Tribune
Patricia O’Brien has just the solution for Springfield lawmakers seeking an alternative crop that is economical yet environmentally friendly: industrial hemp.
A self-employed businesswoman in Chicago for nearly a year, O’Brien knows firsthand the economic and environmental benefits of industrial hemp. Featuring everything from lip balm and shampoo to shoes and clothing, her hemp-only shop, Eco’fields, is the fruition of O’Brien’s dream for a crop whose heyday in this country ended more than 50 years ago.
O’Brien and national activists are now pushing to expand uses of hemp. But a federal prohibition on growing industrial hemp and its psychoactive cousin, marijuana, limits the plant’s economic role.
O’Brien sees no better way to spread the word of the benefits of hemp and to dispel the myths surrounding the plant than for state legislators to study the benefits it could bring to the state’s sagging farm economy.
A bill pending in Springfield would do just that.
Part of a national push for the legalization of industrial hemp, Illinois lawmakers are considering a proposal that would authorize the state’s two largest public universities to study the possibility of growing hemp legally.
“We need to find something that’s going to keep people on the farm,” said sponsor Sen. Evelyn Bowles (D-Edwardsville).
But opponents say that while the plan initially permits only a study of the issue, it would open the door for encouraging the legalization of marijuana.
Hemp was grown and used extensively throughout the first 150 years of American history. It was used in the paper that the U.S. Declaration of Independence was written on, Betsy Ross’ first American flag and Henry Ford’s early cars.
Hemp first was banned under the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which was temporarily lifted to meet military needs for fiber during World War II. Since then the federal government has banned the growing of any forms of cannabis but does allow the product to be imported from other countries.
The problem with hemp is that, like marijuana, it contains THC, a psychoactive chemical.
Bill supporters say the usual 0.3 percent THC level found in industrial hemp would have no hallucinogenic effect. Marijuana has up to 20 percent THC.
But opponents contend that even small traces of THC in hemp can be cultivated into illicit drugs, a claim backed up by a federal anti-drug board.
Hemp can be used in as many as 25,000 products and is used in 31 countries, including England and Canada. Success there with hemp has fueled discussion of hemp as a viable alternative crop.
The issue prompted the General Assembly to create House and Senate task forces featuring lawmakers and experts from universities, farm bureaus and manufacturers to study the issue last year. The conclusions they presented in January were enough to persuade the Senate to approve legislation authorizing further study by a 49-9 vote two weeks ago.
Nationally, 16 states considered legislation concerning hemp legalization last year. Only Hawaii has been authorized by the federal government to study industrial hemp.
Bowles is intrigued by the options that hemp has provided farmers and manufacturers in Canada. Industrial hemp production in Canada grew from 6,000 acres in 1998 to 35,000 acres in 1999, according to the House task force study, and some farmers have claimed profits of as much as $200 an acre.
She says the bill is designed to study how to give Illinois a needed financial boost, not to provide a legal avenue for drug markets.
“We’re not going to go out and plant 225 acres of industrial hemp the day after tomorrow,” Bowles said.
Also supporting the bill are officials from the University of Illinois and Southern Illinois University, which would conduct the study.
Under the proposal, the universities would grow the plant in a secured test lot for two years, studying how easily it could be grown and what benefits it would provide. The schools would then present their findings to the legislature by January 2002.
Don Briskin, a plant pathology professor from the U. of I., said his department would focus on the growth of the plant. He estimates the work and adequate security for the plot would cost about $600,000.
David Shoup, dean of the College of Agriculture at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, said his school would take a more research oriented path. Shoup estimates hiring bioengineers for the job could bring the total to more than $900,000 over two years.
While Briskin and Shoup support the idea behind the study, they both want to make sure the legislature will provide funding to back up the proposed mandate.
Opponents of the proposal are concerned about hemp’s potential to encourage marijuana use.
State law enforcement officials and anti-drug activists say drug-abuse problems would be compounded by legalizing hemp.
Their cause is spearheaded by federal drug czar Barry R. McCaffrey, director of President Clinton’s Office of National Drug Control Policy.
In a letter sent recently to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), McCaffrey said that all of the hemp imported into the country in 1999 could have been grown on less than 5,000 acres of land. Another federal government study released in January showed the same hemp imports could be grown on as little as 2,000 acres.
“The federal government is concerned that hemp cultivation may be a stalking horse for legalization of marijuana,” McCaffrey wrote.
Madigan, who will have the final say on whether the House considers the study this spring, said he is keeping an open mind and is considering the concerns outlined by McCaffrey.
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