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All you need to know about hemp

Posted on April 16, 2005

It’s not what you think it is

In Thursday’s column I mentioned a brief story told by our Wednesday columnist, Kerri Thoreson, about a local woman whose hemp lotion wasn’t approved carriage at the airport security line. After explaining that the hemp ban was an outdated DEA rule and no longer a valid law, I promised more information today on this product of dubious origin.

There’s the heart of the confusion: origin.

Hemp, used for centuries in this country and others to manufacture a number of personal and industrial products, comes from the same plant as marijuana. Cannabis sativa is a leafy green plant with blooming tops. That’s where the link ends. For the illegal drug, users select the leaves and flowery tips, as well as different growing practices from hemp users. Hemp involves the stalk and seed oil.

The key chemical component that makes one a drug and the other a safe product is the level of THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol. In marijuana, THC content runs 15-20 percent. For hemp, it’s about three-tenths of a percent.

Thomas Jefferson is one of hemp’s most famous growers. He grew it on his plantation as an industrial crop, selling the dried stalk to the U.S. Navy as outfitting material. George Washington grew it too, harvesting the fibrous seed for a variety of commercial uses, including the same oil now used in the locally sold lotion in question. For more than a century, hemp was legal tender to pay American taxes.

Unfortunately, we can no longer substitute hemp when we’re low on cash to pay Uncle Sam, but it’s still big business. One 2000 year-end figure put hemp product sales at $90 million nationwide. One of the customer industries is auto manufacturers, who like it for its fiber strength.

Other uses include feed for animals and for humans in veggie burgers, salad dressings, and pastas. I don’t know if the Navy is still using it, but the textile industry remains a hemp customer and you can find hemp clothing in stores.

Cosmetics manufacturers, such as Revlon, include hemp oil in makeup, lotion, and shampoo. In Europe they’re using hemp in household cleaners as a natural alternative to harsher chemicals.

Hemp is a renewable resource, more quickly and easily renewed than trees, so advocates believe that while we’re waiting decades for trees to grow, hemp can act as an alternative.

Of course, it’s easy to see why the Drug Enforcement Agency made a fuss about it; when a useful product comes from the same plant as a controlled substance, potential for fraudulent farming is a factor.

So it makes sense that some rules exist, although how extensive they should be is a matter of debate. In the U.S., restrictions on growth of industrial hemp (fencing and walls, armed guards, alarms) are so great that it’s not economical and most of it is imported. Some want to change that, others don’t.

Whether hemp production should or shouldn’t be regulated, I admit I’m curious about the taste of a hemp burger.

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