Often lost in the debate over marijuana legalization is the role that industrial, commercialized hemp production could potentially play in mainstream American society, as well as in our economy. But because all cannabis varieties, including hemp, fall under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, the many industrial and even medical uses for hemp-based products here in America depend almost solely on foreign imports – mostly from China.
According to a March 21 report delivered to Congress by the highly regarded, non-partisan Congressional Research Service, the most accurate industry estimates report that retail sales of hemp-based products in the US may exceed $300 million annually (some studies push that estimate to over $500 million). The paper, titled Hemp as an Agricultural Commodity, offers a comprehensive view of the variety of uses for commercial hemp, a history of its use in American agriculture, as well as its current legal status on both State and Federal levels. It concludes by stating outright that hemp “could provide opportunities as an economically viable alternative crop for some US Growers.”
A familiar cast of lobbying and watchdog organizations representing “concerned citizens” and law enforcement groups echo the same tired opposition to hemp legalization that have been used for decades. Drug Watch International says that the push to legalize hemp production is actually just a ploy by an “international pro-drug lobby” that really just wants to legalize weed and other illegal drugs. Ah, the old “Gateway Drug Theory”, but on an industrial scale. The California Narcotic Officers Association says that hemp grows will cost law enforcement precious time and resources, since it is so difficult for them to distinguish between hemp and cannabis cultivation from aerial surveillance. They go on to say that the similarities in the look of the two plants would “create an incentive” for commercial legal hemp growers to grow high-powered pot instead, and mask it with their hemp permits.
Really, that’s it. That’s the argument that has kept hemp production, and its $390/acre revenue, illegal in the US since the 1970’s.
That may be about to change though, as the US Congress mulls H.R. 525, The Industrial hemp Farming Act of 2013. Sponsored by Congressman Thomas Massie (R-KY), and co-sponsored by 27 Democrats and 12 Republicans, the bill seeks to “amend the Controlled Substances Act to exclude industrial hemp from the definition of marihuana, and for other purposes”. Yet even with bipartisan support, and even though the many legitimate reasons for commercial hemp production far outweigh the pathetic few arguments against it, the website GovTrack.us only gives H.R. 525 a 1% chance of ever being enacted. Recognizing the overall gridlock that plagues the current Congress, the site notes that only 3% of all bills introduced between 2011-2013 survived long enough to get signed into law.
Refusing to wait for the Feds to settle their decades-long debate on the difference between hemp and cannabis, rural Colorado farmer Ryan Loflin is looking to buck a half a century of government ignorance regarding the cash crop by becoming America’s first official commercial-scale hemp grower. With 400 hemp sprouts started in a local warehouse, and 60 acres leased on the family alfalfa farm, Loflin hopes to squeeze hemp seeds into gold and harvest his share of the half-a-billion-dollar-per-year boom.
Loflin’s leap into the headlines is made possible by the 2012 passage of Amendment 64 in Colorado, that among other benefits, legalized hemp cultivation in the state. Colorado is not alone when it comes to separation of hemp and cannabis in local laws. Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia all have a hemp cultivation permitting process in place.
While the specifics of the permits vary from state to state, one thing remains constant, federal law still prohibits hemp cultivation and the intimidation of federal charges and/or property confiscation still looms over the heads of growers like Ryan Loflin.
The CRS report from March lists current drug laws and DEA “concerns” as the main hurdles on the track to successful commercial hemp production in the US, and in fact, goes so far as to say: “Given the DEA’s current policy positions and perceived DEA opposition to changing its current policies because of concerns over how to allow for hemp production without undermining the agency’s drug enforcement efforts and regulation of the production and distribution of marijuana, further policy changes regarding industrial hemp are likely not forthcoming absent congressional legislative action.”
Established in 1914, by President Woodrow Wilson, as the Legislative Reference Service and renamed by Congress in 1970 to the Congressional Research Service, the CRS provides policy and legal analysis to members of the House and Senate, regardless of their party affiliation. They list their highest priority as “ensuring that Congress has 24/7 access to the nation’s best thinking.”
The March 21 report Hemp as an Agricultural Commodity, was authored by Renée Johnson, the CRS’ Specialist in Agricultural Policy, and is openly critical of the nation’s existing drug laws, and of the tactics of those who enforce them. The question is, with the nation’s best thinkers finally speaking, will Congress finally listen?