Industrial hemp was once a dominant crop on the American landscape. This hardy and renewable resource (one of the earliest domesticated plants known, with roots dating back to the Neolothic Age in China) was refined for various industrial applications, including paper, textiles, and cordage.
Over time, the use of industrial hemp has evolved into an even greater variety of products, including health foods, organic body care, clothing, construction materials, biofuels, plastic composites and more (according to one source, more than 25,000 products can be made from hemp).
In the U.S., the first hemp plantings were in Jamestown, Virginia, where growing hemp was actually mandatory. From then on hemp was used in everything from 19th century clipper ship sails to the covers of pioneer wagons. The Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper, and even the finest Bible paper today remains hemp-based.
In the early 20th century, hemp-derived cellulose was promoted as an affordable and renewable raw material for plastics; Henry Ford even built a prototype car from biocomposite materials, using agricultural fiber such as hemp.
After that things started to go downhill. In 1937, the passage of “Marihuana Tax Act” occurred, and, despite the U.S. government’s “Hemp for Victory” campaign during World War II, misplaced fears that industrial hemp is the same as marijuana combined with targeted harassment by law enforcement discouraged farmers from growing hemp. The last crop was grown in Wisconsin in 1958, and by 1970 the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) formally prohibited cultivation (although the state of Hawaii is home to the first industrial hemp crop to be cultivated since the passage of the CSA).
The Situation Today
Sustainable hemp seed, fiber and oil are still used in raw materials by major companies, including Ford Motors, Patagonia, and The Body Shop, to make a wide variety of products. However, most hemp product manufacturers are forced to import hemp seed, oil and fiber from growers in Canada, Europe, and China because American farmers are prohibited by law from growing this low-input sustainable crop.
In 2012 the U.S. hemp industry was valued at an estimated $500 million in annual retail sales and growing for all hemp products, according to the Hemp Industries Association, a non-profit trade organization consisting of hundreds of hemp businesses.
Not only can hemp be used for an astonishing number of products, its net environmental benefit is impressive. Among the more salient features, hemp grows in a variety of climates and soil types, is naturally resistant to most pests, and grows very tightly spaced allowing it to outcompete most weeds. A natural substitute for cotton and wood fiber, hemp can also be pulped using fewer chemicals than wood because of its low lignin content. Its natural brightness can obviate the need to use chlorine bleach.
Why is this incredible plant illegal?
Because it is erroneously confounded with marijuana, and many policymakers believe that by legalizing hemp they are legalizing marijuana, which is not true. Canada, Britain, France, Germany, and Spain, along with over twenty other countries, cultivate and process industrial hemp without affecting the enforcement of marijuana laws. (More common misperceptions about hemp and factual rebuttals.)
In fact, industrial hemp and marijuana are different breeds of Cannabis sativa; hemp has no value as a recreational drug. Actually smoking large amounts of hemp flowers can produce a significant headache, but not a high.
To delve further in the details, in most western countries industrial hemp is distinguished from marijuana on the basis of THC (the chief intoxicant in marijuana) content, which allows the growing of industrial hemp for fiber and seed. Regulations in the E.U. and Canada (31 countries currently grow industrial hemp) limit THC levels in hemp flowers to 0.2 percent and 0.3 percent, respectively, and prevent attempts to camouflage marijuana in hemp fields. Comparatively, THC levels in marijuana flowers are generally between 3 percent and 15 percent.
A hemp revival is beginning to gain momentum. Perception is beginning to shift in the U.S. Over the past several decades, there’s been a resurgence of interest in hemp by a diverse but increasingly politically influential and unified group of businesses, farmers, nutritionists, activists, and green consumers.
What has to occur is a change in the federal policy to essentially revise the definition of “marijuana” so that the term excludes industrial hemp, and then enact specified procedures and requirements relating to growing industrial hemp and those who cultivate industrial hemp.
“A change in federal policy to once again allow hemp farming would mean instant job creation, among many other economic and environmental benefits,” says Tom Murphy, the National Outreach Coordinator of Vote Hemp.
Current Federal and State Legislative Progress
The Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2013 (H.R. 525) was recently introduced in the House with 28 original co-sponsors, and it was quickly joined by a companion bill in the Senate (S. 359) which was introduced by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Rand Paul (R-KY), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), underscoring the bipartisan support around the hemp issue.
If passed, the bills would remove federal restrictions on the domestic cultivation of industrial hemp, defined as the non-drug oilseed and fiber varieties of Cannabis. The full text of the bills, as well as status and co-sponsors, can be found online.
H.R. 525 is the fifth bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in support of industrial hemp farming since the federal government outlawed it in the U.S. in 1971.
At the state level, the first hemp bill was introduced in Colorado in 1995. To date, 31 states have introduced pro-hemp legislation and 19 have passed such legislation.
- Eight states (Colorado, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia) have defined industrial hemp as distinct and removed barriers to its production;
- Three states (Hawaii, Kentucky and Maryland) have passed bills creating commissions or authorizing hemp research;
- Nine states (California, Colorado, Illinois, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Vermont and Virginia) have passed hemp resolutions; and,
- Six states (Arkansas, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina and Vermont) have passed hemp study bills.
However, despite state authorization to grow hemp, farmers in those states still risk raids by federal agents, prison time, and property and civil asset forfeiture if they plant the crop due to the failure of federal policy to distinguish non-drug oilseed and fiber varieties of Cannabis (i.e., industrial hemp) from psychoactive drug varieties (i.e., “marihuana”).
The Future of Hemp in the U.S.
Hemp is not a panacea for our social, economic, and environmental woes—no single crop can do that.
However, as we transition to a future that embraces more sustainable agriculture practices industrial hemp can help lead the way. With focused and sustained research and development, hemp could spur dramatic positive ecological and economic benefits. For instance, renewable, fast-growing hemp is a substitute for many unsustainable products like non-organic cotton (which currently uses more than 25 percent of the world’s insecticides and more than 10 percentof the world’s pesticides) and many plastic products.
In addition to supporting a federal policy change on industrial hemp, each of us can help grow the hemp marketplace by buying hemp products and also by staying informed and talking to our state and national representatives, and our friends and family, about the benefits of industrial hemp for the economy and the environment.
Logan Yonavjak is a freelance writer for Forbes.com, Ashoka Changemakers, and Nextbillion.net.