The Trials And Tribulations Of Hemp In America

Today is Earth Day and Monday was 4/20, which means we’re smack in the middle of a confluence of fascinating issues; specifically, issues surrounding hemp, America’s needlessly illegal and potentially ecologically beneficial agricultural phantom. Scientists, farmers, retailers, and even growing numbers of American lawmakers across the political spectrum know that hemp and marijuana are chemically and even visibly different plants. So why is hemp still classified as a Schedule 2 drug?

So What Is the Difference Between Hemp and Marijuana?

If you’ve watched any of those godawful History Channel documentaries on marijuana, you probably already know that hemp used to be a major crop in the United States; that we used to make cording out of it for ships, that we’ve printed all sorts of very important documents on hemp paper. It was phased out as a crop in 1937 with the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act, which made it unfeasibly expensive for farmers to grow hemp as a crop, and then the 1970 Controlled Substances Act wiped it out entirely by categorizing hemp as a controlled substance in the precise same way as its cousin, marijuana.

Which is ludicrous. It’s like saying that cauliflower and mustard are the same thing because they come from the same family of plants, even though everyone knows that cauliflower rules and mustard drools, duh. (A more apt comparison: It’s like saying that poppy seeds and opium are the same thing, which they aren’t, duh.) The differences between marijuana and hemp as forms of cannabis plants are not just vast, they’re actually obvious and visible. The value of hemp plants lies in the stalks, the outer portion of which contain long, strong bast fibers and the inner portion of which contain a woody fiber called hurds; and also in the seeds, which are themselves nutritious but which also produce oils that we use in cosmetics and foods. The value of marijuana, on the other hand, lies in the flowers and leaves, which contain concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that make the plant useful for hallucinogenic drugs.

For that reason, you can actually, visibly tell hemp and marijuana apart. Hemp plants are grown close together to

hemp versus marijuana

discourage leaf and flower growth. They’re grown taller, because the point is to harvest as much hemp stalk as possible. Marijuana plants are grown further apart and lower to the ground to encourage leaf and flower growth. They’re also way, way harder to grow, by the way, because in order for marijuana plants to have an optimal concentration of THC, the farmer can only grow female plants. All male plants have to be taken out of the crop ASAP, because pollination decreases THC concentration and therefore devalues the crop. Some marijuana farmers hand-pollinate selected female plants in isolation from the rest of the crop. It’s labor-intensive, is what I’m saying.

It’s for that reason, too, that marijuana farmers would want to keep their crop as far the hell away from hemp crops as they can, because pollination from male hemp plants would contaminate and devalue their crop. On the other hand, hemp farmers would want to keep their crop as far the hell away as possible from marijuana crops, because the DEA could make their lives a living hell, ruin their business, wrack them with legal fees, and possibly put them in jail.

That would be in an America that actually allowed the cultivation of industrial hemp as a commercial crop, of course. As it stands, it’s legal to grow hemp in Colorado, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia. But even so, farmers have to be not only licensed by their states but also certified by the DEA, and hemp can only be grown for cultivation and research, not for commercial use. Remember how insane this is: These hemp plants contain almost no THC, not nearly enough to make it a viable hallucinogenic drug at all, and the plants are cultivated in order to encourage the growth of exactly the parts of the plant that don’t contain THC. Hemp plants are pollinated and have no value as a drug, and yet federal law classifies it as the same thing as marijuana, because fuck science! Public image is all that matters.

Hemp and the DEA

And really, it is public image that matters. Renee Johnson from the Congressional Research Service notes that the DEA is concerned that (bolding mine):

“Commercial cultivation could increase the likelihood of covert production of high-THC marijuana, significantly complicating DEA’s surveillance and enforcement activities and sending the wrong message to the American public concerning the government’s position on drugs. DEA officials and a variety of other observers also express the concern that efforts to legalize hemp—as well as those to legalize medical marijuana—are a front for individuals and organizations whose real aim is to see marijuana decriminalized.”

Let’s break this down.

  1. You couldn’t use a hemp farm for covert production of high-THC marijuana because, as noted earlier, high-THC marijuana isn’t pollinated and it would be impossible not to have those plants pollinated if they were growing around hemp plants. Furthermore, maybe DEA agents could be trained to know the visible differences between hemp and marijuana plants, which doesn’t seem like a “significantly complicated” training requirement.
  2. It’s interesting that the DEA believes that deregulating something that is not a drug would “send the wrong message to the American public concerning the government’s position on drugs.” To me, the fact that hemp is classified as something it isn’t sends the message that our drug policies are far too broad and as such are probably costing American taxpayers way more than necessary in terms of DEA investigations, costs of imprisonment, and legal fees for appeals. What would the government rather have sent, that message – their current message – or the message that they know how to tell plants apart?
  3. The idea that efforts to legalize hemp are “a front” for the effort to decriminalize marijuana sounds ridiculous to me for a few reasons, like first of all that in a “free country” that allows “free speech,” if someone believes that marijuana should be decriminalized, they should be able to do it without being forced to be covert about it. Second of all, the effort to decriminalize marijuana hardly needs a “front,” since marijuana was legalized in Washington and Colorado over a year before this report was written (and I’m assuming Johnson’s description was an accurate, current reflection of the DEA’s attitude in 2014). Third, it implies, tone-wise, that there’s no valid, socially responsible reason to wish to see marijuana decriminalized, despite the fact that in 2013, 1.5 million people were arrested on nonviolent drug charges; 693,482 arrests were marijuana-related and of those, 88% were for possession only; 48.7% of the American prison population is there for drug offenses. For people with fewer than two arrests who are convicted on drug charges for the first time, the likelihood that they’ll be rearrested within 3 years is 40.1%, the likelihood that they’ll be brought to court again is 29.7%, that they’ll be reconvicted is 27.4%, that they’ll be reincarcerated is 24.1%.

In other words, first-time, non-violent drug offenders who come into contact with the prison system once are at a huge risk to recommit crimes, and as they are rearrested, reconvicted, and reincarcerated repeatedly, the recidivism rate only rises. The possession of any amount of marijuana, on a second time offense, carries a mandatory minimum of 15 days in prison, but those 15 days are enough that they count in those recidivism rates. A third offense can be counted as a felony (and remember, once a second offense occurs, a third is extremely likely to occur), and once you’ve been convicted as a felon, you do not have the right to vote in the United States. Consider the fact that Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately more likely to be arrested and convicted on drug offenses than Whites (meaning the rate use and sale of drugs among Blacks and Latinos is lower than their arrest and incarceration rates for drug offenses), and you have a system in which our police are patrolling “urban” areas and “suspect” racial communities and effectively disenfranchising them. Add onto that the fact that the taxpayer cost for prisons was $5.4 billion in 2010 and we’ve spent over $1 trillion on the “War on Drugs” since it was instituted in 1971, and honestly, it starts to look more socially responsible for us to decriminalize marijuana than for us not to. If the effort to legalize hemp, which, again, is not a drug, is a front for the decriminalization of marijuana, so be it. It’s better than letting the DEA and our drug policies run amok.

Rand Paul Wants Hemp Legalized, and So Should You

However, it’s interesting to note that there’s a legal effort in place to have hemp declassified as a controlled substance. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has been sponsoring a bill called the Industrial Hemp Farming Act since 2013, co-sponsored by, of all people, Senator Rand Paul and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. You can probably guess their motivations for co-sponsoring the bill, but if not, here it is, from the mouth of Rand Paul himself:

“The Industrial Hemp Farming Act paves the way to creating jobs across the country – from Kentucky to Oregon and everywhere else. Allowing American farmers to cultivate industrial hemp and benefit from its many uses will boost our states’ economies and bring much-needed jobs in the agriculture community.”

And here’s McConnell:

“I am proud to introduce legislation with my friend Rand Paul and Senate colleagues, that will allow Kentucky farmers to harness the economic potential that industrial hemp can provide. During these tough economic times, this legislation has the potential to create jobs and provide a boost to Kentucky’s economy and to our farmers and their families.”

And, for the hell of it, Wyden, since he’s the sponsor:

“Unfortunately, there are some dumb regulations that are hurting economic growth and job creation, and the ban on growing industrial hemp is certainly among them. The opportunities for American farmers and businesses are obvious here. It’s time to boost revenues for farmers and reduce the costs for the businesses around the country that use hemp.”

There you have it: There is bipartisan support for the legalization of industrial hemp based on the premise that it will provide economic opportunities for Americans – both farmers and businesses that use hemp as an ingredient or a material in their goods. According to Johnson, this legislation could be coming right on time – it’s hard to measure precisely because hemp is still classified as a controlled substance, but demand for hemp-based products is growing, if market and import data as well as market trends are any indication. But as it stands, if an American company wants to make hemp clothing, hemp milk, hemp seed granola bars, hemp jewelry, hemp lotion, or hemp whatever-else, that American country has to import its materials from elsewhere – usually China – which comes with its own financial and ecological costs.

hempest dress

Hemp and the Environment

Speaking of ecological costs, it’s been posited for a good long time that hemp is a more ecologically sound crop than some other crops, like cotton (for textiles) or eucalyptus (for paper). As far as textiles go, hemp comes out as being a little more ecologically sound than cotton, requiring more energy use and causing more carbon dioxide output; but hemp also uses far less water and is more land-efficient, meaning that less land can be used to get the same weight of fiber from hemp that we would from cotton.

And it turns out that if we’re going to keep using paper (ugh), eucalyptus is actually the way to go, according to scientists from the Center for Innovation, Technology and Policy Research in Lisbon, and the Portuguese Paper Industry Association. When it’s grown and pulped the same way as eucalyptus, hemp has a much higher environmental impact, mainly in terms of land use. Because it’s an annual crop, it has to be fertilized more often than eucalyptus, and field emissions to water and air from that fertilizer are higher than those of eucalyptus. Because it also has to be harvested once a year, it uses more mileage on a tractor, which itself has air emissions. In the Kraft pulping process, it doesn’t have the same by-production of a substance called “black liquor,” which is used as fuel to offset some of the energy costs of pulping.

Those Portuguese scientists – under Ricardo da Silva Vieira – also had some suggestions for changes to hemp growth that could significantly lessen its environmental impact as a crop, many of which could be applied to hemp crops in general and not just hemp meant for paper production, including:

  • Different, more ecologically safe methods of pulping rather than Kraft pulping (reducing energy and chemical needs),
  • Genetically modified hemp that has less need for nutrients (reducing fertilizer) or is more adaptable to winter conditions (reducing need for water),
  • Production of organic hemp (reduces need for fertilizer),
  • Combining hemp with a winter crop (reduces need for fertilizer and makes land use more efficient),
  • Using organic fertilizer, and
  • Building mills and other processing facilities closer to hemp farms (to reduce transportation costs and their ecological effects).

All of which seems pretty reasonable. The problem is that in America, because hemp is classified as a controlled substance (even though, I cannot say enough, it is not a drug), we have no industry for it. We don’t have the equipment or facilities to harvest or process it. Start-up costs would be high, and we’d have to think about how much to invest in hemp farming versus how much demand there truly is versus the cost of continuing to import hemp from abroad.

But from everything I’ve read (so many scientific papers, brain is melting), hemp is a sturdy, tough crop that’s adaptable to low temperatures and can be planted densely. It’s used in over 25,000 commercial products, many of which we manufacture domestically, and it seems silly not to have a domestic supply chain. If we were to build a hemp industry from scratch, we could take the idealistic route and put all of Vieira et al.’s suggestions into place from the get-go, introducing an agricultural niche that is set up to be environmentally friendly. Maybe we could start small, see how it goes, and build from there.

But first we need to legalize hemp. It’s just not a drug. Even Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell know that; it’s not just hippy-dippy liberal types who are advocating for hemp to be defined, under law, as what it is: A crop that produces nutrient-dense seeds, oil, and fiber. There are economic, technological, and environmental opportunities that we’re missing, so if you love America, go check out whether your Senators and Representatives are on board, and if not, hound them with the facts about hemp.

Hemp Citations:

[Johnson: “Hemp As an Agricultural Commodity”]


[Ron Wyden]

[Cherrett et al.: “Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester”]

[Vieira et al.: “Industrial hemp or eucalyptus paper? An environmental comparison using life cycle assessment”]

Drug Policy Citations:

[DrugPolicy (1), (2)]

[Federal Bureau of Prisons]

[Bureau of Justice Statistics]




[Images via HempEthics, Hempest, Shutterstock]

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