When most people think of hemp, they think of marijuana.
Because of this association with marijuana, hemp has been banned in the United States for years. But the governor of Hawaii has just signed a bill that allows farmers to grow a small test plot of industrial hemp for the first time in half a century. And more and more farmers are hoping other states will follow suit.
Kentucky farmer Andy Graves dismisses concerns that hemp crops could be used as a narcotic.
“You couldn’t pick enough of that and roll enough to get high in months,” says Graves.
Graves and his father Jake are among the thousands of farmers pushing to make growing industrial hemp legal again.
Industrial hemp was once one Kentucky’s most important crops. In fact, it still grows wild here.
Hemp has a solid history. George Washington farmed it. Pioneers’ Conestoga wagons were covered with it. The federal government actually pleaded with farmers to grow hemp during World War II.
But after the war, trouble with hemp’s illegitimate cousin marijuana got all hemp farming declared illegal. And drug enforcement officials, fearing marijuana plants could be easily hidden in hemp fields, want it to stay that way.
But interest in hemp is growing again. It’s used in beauty aids, trendy fabric and there are even hemp-based beers. Last year, Canada saw the opportunity and authorized farmers to grow industrial hemp.
Ontario farmer Geoff Kime says authorities need not worry about someone sneaking marijuana plants in his hemp fields.
“I mean, look how dense it is,” Kime points out. “For someone to go into the middle of the field, plant another plant and come back and find it is worse than a needle in a haystack.”
Still, hemp is a tightly regulated crop in Canada. Farmers undergo background checks, provide global positioning satellite coordinates to law enforcement in order to identify their fields and can only use government-approved seed with no narcotic value.
“It’s always exciting to see a new industry being developed and that’s where we’re at,” says Bill Baxter of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture.
It was the uncertain future of Canada’s tobacco crop that convinced the country to give hemp a go.
In Kentucky, where tobacco is on equally shaky ground, farmers see hemp as offering some hope.
“If I could sell it to a beer producer or to an oil company, I would do that and I would quit growing tobacco tomorrow,” says Graves.
“I’ve go to diversify if I’m going to keep farming,” says tobacco farmer Donnie Coulter. “My family’s been here almost 200 years and I’m not going to give up without a fight.”
But hemp still suffers from guilt by association with its nefarious cousin. So for now, the only legal hemp sold in America will be grown somewhere else.
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