In anticipation of final passage of the new farm bill it may be a good time to have a frank discussion about marijuana.
Actually, not the type of conversation one might have with their kids about the dangers and pitfalls of marijuana use, but an honest discussion about certain provisions of new farm legislation that could pave the way for the return of legal hemp farming in America in the not-too-distant future.
While hemp and marijuana have for long been wrongly called the same substance, in reality, they are, and then again, they are not.
Are you confused?
Just a few decades back if a reporter called an agriculture agronomist for an interview and the topic turned to hemp production, in spite of what you might think, chances are good the plant scientist would have engaged the journalist in a fascinating conservation about a truly amazing plant that once played a major and important role in U.S. agriculture.
While most Americans may think of hemp, or cannabis sativa, as being the popular plant that has long been grown in support of the illegal drug culture, the truth is hemp was a viable farm crop long before Congress declared it a Schedule 1 controlled substance in 1970. Hemp and marijuana belong to the cannabis species; hemp has long been grown as an industrial crop, the other is most often associated with recreational drug use because of its psychoactive properties.
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Without getting technical, or (pardon the pun) to clear the smoke out of the air, marijuana has a varying but generally high content of Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the substance that provides a user who absorbs it by eating or smoking the flowering buds of the plant to reach a state of relaxation that may also heighten the senses, creating a feeling of euphoria as THC causes dopamine to be released in the body. This is the “high” commonly associated with marijuana use.
Hemp, on the other hand, is a poor substitute for marijuana as a recreational drug because the THC content is minimal at best.
History behind hemp in America
Here is a bit of history you may not have known. In 1776, in the USS Constitution, the flag ship of the Navy, more than 120,000 pounds of hemp fiber were required to rig the warship with rope and canvas. Old Ironsides, you might say, was powered by hemp, because hemp grown and produced into a fiber is a remarkably strong textile. The word canvas actually comes from the name cannabis.
In fact, according to the global hemp industry, hemp fiber is about 10 times stronger than cotton and can be used to make all types of clothing, and hemp plants produce nearly twice as much fiber as cotton on the same amount of acreage.
When England first established colonies in the New World, hemp farming was actually mandatory for many new settlers. It was grown, traded, sold and shipped to distant ports, and it provided a good source of living for many of the early colonists. Two of America’s most famous hemp growers were George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Both were strong hemp advocates.
While hemp was subjected to many smear campaigns by logging companies and branded as closely related to marijuana and drug abuse, its demise was primarily the result of over taxation created by the 1937 Marijuana Tax Code.
But by the start of World War II, the U.S. government began encouraging hemp production again, since it was used to produce military uniforms, among other goods. Following the war however, cotton was booming again and with the introduction of synthetic fibers, hemp farming and processing became less popular and more controlled.
But there is no denying the advantages of hemp as an industrial crop. For one, hemp is friendly to the environment as it is biodegradable, nontoxic and renewable.
Other advantages include the many uses of hemp. For one, it is a great substitute for wood in the manufacture of paper products and can also be used to manufacture cost-effective building materials that are stronger than wood, meaning lower costs to builder and buyer.
From an agricultural perspective, growing hemp requires less effort than most production crops with substantially less input costs. Hemp is touted as a plant that repels weed growth and has few insect enemies, meaning few if any herbicide or pesticide requirements. A healthy hemp crop can easily reach heights of 20 feet, and the crop can be mechanically harvested and processed.
Hemp enthusiasts say it is soil friendly, makes a perfect alternating crop, and can be successfully grown in all 50 states. Farm-produced hemp also provides more biomass than almost any other plant grown domestically and can be converted to fuel as a clean-burning alcohol.
On top of that, according to a popular hemp web site, hemp seeds are a source of nutritious high-protein oil that can be used for human and animal consumption. Proponents claim extracting protein from hemp is less expensive than extracting protein from soybeans, and that protein can be processed and flavored in many of the same ways as soybean protein.
Hemp oil can be used to make alternative forms of butter, cheese, salad oils, and other foods. It can be used to produce paint, varnish, ink, lubricating oils, and plastic substitutes.
Hemp and the new Farm Bill
So growing and producing industrial hemp sounds like a good idea. So what is all the talk about hemp and more specifically, what are the hemp provisions in the new farm bill?
Don't get excited too quickly. The new farm bill does not clear the way for farmers across the nation to rush out and buy seeds that will germinate into a full crop. But it does lay some of the groundwork required to get there.
What came as a surprise to many, provisions related to a possible road to the legalization of hemp production came when Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, who is also the Senate minority leader, helped to add a small provision to the farm bill before just many knew what was happening.
To clear the air, growing hemp domestically is illegal according to federal law. While the farm bill provision will not overturn that prohibition, it will block federal authorities from cracking down on hemp farmers, researchers and higher-education institutions in areas where the crop is legal.
Industrial hemp cultivation is currently legal (according to state laws) in Colorado, Oregon, California, Kentucky, Vermont, Montana, West Virginia, North Dakota and Maine, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But hemp grown in these states still represents a violation of federal law, meaning if the feds wanted to clamp down on the issue, they have the legal authority to do so. Instead, they have turned a blind eye, but only after making a number of extremely limiting, and expensive, provisions including erecting tall fences and adding security measures to areas where hemp is grown.
But in spite of federal hemp laws, the popularity of the idea of hemp production is growing. In addition to the states where hemp production is already approved by state law, two dozen other states have passed pro-hemp resolutions, so the new farm bill provisions could open the door to a majority of states quickly opting to conduct research in an effort to speed federal legislation that would see the return of hemp as a preferred, commercially produced agricultural crop.
Universities in the states where local law allows hemp production will now be allowed to develop research plots, supposedly to provide the research needed to clear the way for not only relaxing federal anti-hemp laws, but also repealing them altogether.
The bottom line is that hemp is already being used in the U.S. to make rope, soaps, clothes, auto parts and numerous other products that are common. For now, the hemp used in them comes from Canada, Turkey or one of several other foreign sources/countries that have long produced hemp crops for world trade.
But now not only are many saying, and apparently the U.S. Senate is endorsing, the idea that the time is right for a return to lawful hemp production. The new farm bill seems to represent a step in that direction.