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Plan To Study Hemp As A Cash Crop In Illinois Ignites Controversy

Posted on November 15, 2000

Is it rope, or dope?

That’s the question at the heart of a smoldering debate over a proposal in Illinois to explore growing industrial hemp as a legitimate cash crop. The controversy, which has already brought a threatening letter from the White House drug policy director, has state lawmakers growling at each other.

“The sails on Columbus’ ships were hemp. The first American flag was made from hemp,” said 79-year-old state Sen. Evelyn Bowles, D-Edwardsville, the leader of the Legislature’s industrial hemp movement.

“It’s the oldest fiber crop in existence … and we need alternative crops for Illinois farmers.”

Bowles expressed outrage Tuesday at critics who alleged she and other hemp proponents are pawns of the drug-legalization movement. “I don’t condone the use of marijuana,” she said.

The issue could hit the floor of the Illinois House as early as this week, putting downstate lawmakers on the hot seat as they balance the concerns of socially conservative constituents against desperate farmers.

On Tuesday, a group of Illinois anti-drug activists relighted the year-old issue with some of the harshest rhetoric yet. Led by state Rep. Mary Lou Cowlishaw, R-Naperville, they portrayed industrial hemp supporters as cohorts of the “drug culture.”

The talk of hemp rope, clothing and other useful products, they said, is a ruse to make society comfortable with hemp’s close herbalogical cousin, marijuana.

“To make the choice that this is just a crop is simply beyond the comprehension of a mature adult,” Cowlishaw said in news conference at the state Capitol.

She invoked the safety of her seven grandchildren as her reason for leading the charge against the hemp proposal. “Why would we risk the safety of our children?” Cowlishaw said.

Joyce Lohrentz, president of the Naperville-based Illinois Drug Education Alliance, displayed full-color reproductions of pro-hemp advertisement in a prominent drug-culture magazine.

“Industrial hemp is one of the foothold strategies used by the drug culture,” Lohrentz said. “They will stare at you with their glassy eyes and sermonize on the numerous commercial uses for industrial hemp. But the industrial hemp movement is more about legalizing drugs than about finding alternative crops for farmers.”

Bowles, long one of the Legislature’s chief hemp proponents, bristled at the characterization, though she acknowledged she’s used to it.

“The ladies from Naperville,” Bowles said, nodding grimly. “To give the impression that people who are supportive of industrial hemp are a bunch of druggies is a horrible, horrible insult.”

Bowles’ bill authorizing a study of hemp’s possibilities passed the Senate this year and is pending in the House. It would allow the agriculture departments at the University of Illinois and Southern Illinois University at Carbondale to grow hemp to study its viability as a cash crop for use in clothing and other textile materials.

Critics — including White House Drug Policy Director Barry McCaffrey, who wrote legislators on the issue in February — note that hemp contains hallucinogens and is similar enough to marijuana to confuse police and make drug enforcement difficult.

The pending bill is SB 1397.

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