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Hemp industry poised for a comeback

Posted on April 22, 2005

Industrial hemp has long been a lucrative crop for farmers in Canada, Europe, and Asia, and governments in many countries have encouraged research into its development. In April, for instance, the Government of Canada’s Scientific Research and Experimental Development Program awarded Hempton Clothing, Inc., the world’s largest hemp T-shirt apparel brand, a $223,118 grant in recognition of the company’s work in developing environmentally friendly fabrics and garments in 2002 and 2003.

This is one of many such grants the Canadian government has made available for hemp research.

In the United States, however, the forces of drug prohibition have long associated hemp with marijuana, and the U.S. government has blocked its use. Yet, hemp and marijuana come from different varieties of the cannabis plant, and low THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) varieties of cannabis are cultivated for non-drug uses, such as soap, paper, food, and even high tech bio composites used in automobiles. THC is an active ingredient found in hemp, marijuana, and hashish.

“There are millions of cars on the road with hemp door panels, tens of millions of dollars spent annually on hemp food and hemp body care, and hemp paper is being made in the U.S.,” said Alexis Baden-Mayer, director of government relations for Vote Hemp, a Washington, DC, nonprofit dedicated to the acceptance of industrial hemp. ”So people are asking tough questions about why the U.S. government won’t distinguish low THC hemp from high THC drug varieties.”

But it looks like this state of affairs is about to change. Hemp industry spokesmen are optimistic that hemp farming is about to make a comeback almost 50 years after federal law prevented U.S. farmers from growing the crop. The end of its three-year battle with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and recent pro-hemp, state sponsored initiatives are the two big reasons for the hemp industry’s optimism.

The hemp industry’s battle with the U.S. government ended in February when the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ordered the DEA to pay $21,265 in legal expenses to Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps. The Escondido, CA-based company, which has used hemp oil in its soap products since 1998, largely financed the Hemp Industries Association’s fight to overturn DEA efforts to ban the sale of foods containing hemp products. The association is a trade group of hemp businesses that represents the interests of the hemp industry and works to encourage research and development of new hemp products.

Earlier, the 9th Circuit ruled that the DEA had ignored Congress’s exemption to the Controlled Substance Act, which specifically exempts hemp seed, fiber, and oil from government regulation, and agreed with the association that hemp seed contained just minor traces of THC, much like poppy seed contains insignificant amounts of opiates. In regulating the manufacture and distribution of controlled substances, the Controlled Substance Act provides the legal foundation for the U.S. government’s war on drugs. Then, on July 2, 2004, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit denied the DEA’s petition for a re-hearing of the case. The DEA had the option of appealing the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the allotted time for an appeal expired on September 28, 2004.

“Nobody has ever been able to block the DEA in court from interpreting the law the way it wanted,” said Adam Eidinger, Vote Hemp’s communications director. “The court decision was 3 to 0, and even the Reagan appointee on the court agreed with us. It was a reality check for the DEA.”

David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, added, “It’s a sweet victory and certainly an embarrassment to the DEA. It proves that the DEA’s attempt to ban hemp never had any legal merit.”

In making its case to ban hemp, the DEA claimed that the use of hemp products could cause a false positive reading of drug tests. Hemp activists maintain that companies in the hemp industry voluntarily observe reasonable THC limits similar to those observed by hemp businesses in Canada and European countries, and that these limits protect consumers with a wide margin of safety from workplace drug testing interference.

Manufacturers of hemp nut and oil products in North America also participate in a TestPledge program, hemp activists pointed out. Manufacturers pledge to hold the THC in hemp nut and oil below levels that makes failing a drug test extremely unlikely, even when a person consumes large amounts of those products on a daily basis.

As for personal care products made with hemp seed oil, Eidinger said, “In recent years, a handful of people have alleged that they failed workplace drug tests because of using hemp oil products on the skin. Such allegations were routinely proven false, and there has yet to be a case in which someone was excused [from work] due to the use of hemp oil personal care products.”

As the hemp industry savors its court victory, it is making gains in the legislative arena. This year, several state legislatures are considering hemp legislation that would allow farmers to grow industrial hemp. Five states (Hawaii, Kentucky, Montana, North Dakota, and West Virginia) allow for hemp farming on a commercial or research basis, but hemp can’t be legally grown in the United States without a permit from the DEA. According to Vote Hemp, the agency has allowed only an experimental plot in Hawaii.

In California, Assemblyman Mark Leno introduced a bill that would allow the California State Department of Food and Agriculture to issue licenses to grow and process hemp. Companies that sell hemp products must now contract with Canadian farmers for their hemp. Nutiva, a California-based organic food company, estimates that it would save more than $100,000 in transportation and related costs if it could buy hemp seeds from California growers and process them at a plant the company plans to build in California.

“We pay Exxon and Chevron a lot of gasoline for truckers,” John Roulac, Nutiva’s president and founder, told the Sacramento Union newspaper. “We’d rather pay that money to California farmers to grow a sustainable crop.”

Leno’s bill bans anyone with a criminal conviction from getting a license to process or grow hemp and requires that the hemp be tested in the fields so as to ensure that the THC levels don’t exceed the prescribed limits. A hearing of the bill before the Senate Environment and Wildlife Committee was scheduled for April 19.

The California initiative is similar to other bills introduced in North Dakota, New Hampshire, and Oregon.

  • In North Dakota, House Bill 1492 passed Feb. 16 by a vote of 87 to 3; a similar bill passed in the Senate on March 1 by 46 to 0, and is awaiting the governor’s action. In 1999, North Dakota became the first state to pass hemp farming legislation, but it hasn’t challenged the DEA’s authority in the courts. The proposal allows North Dakota State University to begin storing “feral seed hemp” in anticipation of the day the growing of industrial hemp becomes legal.
  • The bill in Oregon allows the State Department of Agriculture to administer a licensing, permitting, and implementation program for growers and handlers of hemp. On April 6, the state Senate Environment and Land Committee took testimony.
  • The New Hampshire proposal requires qualifying farmers with no criminal convictions to plant at least five acres of hemp annually. A bill passed the New Hampshire House on March 23 by a margin of 199 to 68, and has moved to the Senate for consideration.
  • Vote Hemp is currently working with Congressman Ron Paul, R-TX, to introduce the Industrial Hemp Farming Act, which aims to distinguish hemp from marijuana and legalize the former for U.S. farmers to grow.

Hemp advocates say these legislative initiatives make them excited about their industry’s future. “We want American farmers to have the opportunity to grow industrial hemp without being harassed by the DEA,” Eidinger said.

About the author

Ron Chepesiuk is a Rock Hill, SC based freelance writer and Fulbright scholar. His latest book, Drug Lords: The Rise and Fall of the Cali Cartel (Milo Books), will be published in May.

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