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Backers push hemp as a wonder plant

Posted on November 2, 2000

Crop could help supplement farmers’ income, they say

Research Triangle Park, North Carolina — Growing hemp for industry could supplement incomes for tobacco farmers, but government controls on marijuana still limit its production, hemp supporters say.

People at the International Industrial Hemp Forum, which ended yesterday in Research Triangle Park, say that hemp has many uses, from chemicals, paper products and textiles to wood substitutes for building materials.

They say that hemp also can be burned to produce electricity, fueling the next generation of electric cars.

“People don’t understand that we can essentially grow a barrel of oil right there in the field and then make another thousand products out of it too,” said Scott Sklar, the executive director of the National Bioenergy Industries Association.

Hemp production has been hampered by government controls on its close relative, marijuana. Though the two plants look similar, hemp contains only minute amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the substance that makes marijuana smokers high.

“We like to say in the industry that you’d have to smoke 50 acres of a hemp crop before it would get you anything close to high,” said Ian Low of Hemcor Industries in England.

Hemp can be a great step toward getting rid of illegal marijuana plants, according to Gale Glenn, a former Kentucky tobacco farmer now with the North American Industrial Hemp Council. Besides competing for growing space, if a hemp plant pollinates a marijuana plant, the hybrid offspring has a lower THC content.

“That is not what an illegal pot producer wants,” Glenn said.

Hemp is already grown on large farms in France, England and Canada. Growing hemp is not outlawed in the United States, but law enforcement has difficulty distinguishing it from its illegal cousin.

Hemp grows in the same place as corn, tobacco or soybeans and requires very little maintenance. Very few herbicides or insecticides are needed to get a crop of 15-foot plants.

Businesspeople, hemp activists and scientists also talked about lobbying politicians early in the next presidential administration about encouraging commercial hemp production.

Politicians have been wary about backing it in the past because they don’t want their support misconstrued as support for legalizing marijuana, Glenn said.

In England, hemp permits are issued and a small fee is charged each year, Low said. Low’s Hemcor is a $40-million-a-year business with an extensive network of growers, buyers and companies that depends on it to supply pulp, chemicals and wood products.

“In the end this is going to be a viable worldwide crop,” Sklar said. “Ask yourself, are you going to be wanting to import it from Canada or England?”

Copyright © 2000, Piedmont Publishing Co. All rights reserved.