The plant is almost magical, advocates say, with a range of applications from paper to medicine. So why is it illegal to grow?
Imagine a plant that cuts cholesterol, reduces our exposure to toxins, can ease joint inflammation, proves more durable than concrete, and can provide the economy with much-needed jobs for farmers and manufacturers. This wonder of the world exists its hemp. But it is illegal to grow in America.
Hemp and marijuana both are cannabis plants in fact, both are cannabis sativa. Hemp, however, contains virtually no THC (the psychoactive ingredient in pot), so smoking it will not get you stoned. Yet industrial hemp has endured 80 years of purgatory and prohibition at the hands of the government.
Hemp has been hailed as the little plant that could for centuries for making fabric, rope, sails, paper and canvas. Hemp plants require less chemical spraying than cotton, soy, corn and wheat. It can help reduce soil degradation by faring better with less water and in drier climates. Paper made from hemp could help reduce deforestation, and requires fewer chemicals for processing than wood pulp. Hemp fabric has antibacterial qualities that can help it fight staph infections in hospitals.
Thats not all. Hemp seeds and oils offer more and better proteins than soy, along with the highest percentage of essential fatty acids and the lowest percentage of saturated fats compared with other oils. The cannabinoids (CBD) in hemp can reduce inflammation and may even protect against anxiety and depression, seizures and brain injuries, according to recent studies.
Former NFL quarterback Jake Plummer became a promoter of hemp in general after he discovered that CBD oil from hemp alleviated headaches and post-football aches. If he was still playing, however, hed be forbidden from using it. We need to change the perceptions about hemp, he says, adding that hed love to see the stodgy NFL lead that charge by funding research into the oils benefits. The NFL needs to help get players off prescription meds as much as possible, and hemp could help.
A political battle
America already safely consumes $580m worth of products made from imported hemp every year from milk to T-shirts to soaps. Yet because it has been illegal to import or cultivate seeds, the farming, processing and manufacturing jobs associated with hemp belong to the 30 countries growing it, from Canada to France to China.
We are the only industrialized nations not to allow it, says Joseph Yost, a Republican member of Virginias state legislature and hemp supporter, who points out that hemp could replace tobacco as a cash crop and bring back some of the manufacturing jobs that have left his state.
But after years of lobbying, Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp and executive director of the Hemp Industries Association, says efforts to legalize it are having an impact. The first breakthrough came in 2014, when Congress allowed for hemp to be grown for research purposes in states that permitted it. In 2016, 9,649 acres of hemp were planted across 15 states, and 30 universities conducted research on the crop. It allowed skeptical legislators to see the plants potential up close, and helped demystify it for some, Steenstra says.
The next, more politically daunting, step is persuading Congress to remove hemp from Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act, where it was added by Richard Nixons administration.
Only kneejerk drug warriors are still against hemp and every month that becomes increasingly more absurd, says David Bronner, CEO of Dr Bronners, the popular health product company. Bronner positioned his company as an ardent backer of the cause. I never dreamed the process of making it legal to grow hemp would take this long, he said.
Growing and dissent
Alex White Plume, a former tribal president of the Oglala Sioux, began trying to grow hemp nearly two decades ago but was repeatedly persecuted by the federal government. He recently returned to South Dakota from the Standing Rock pipeline protests and equates the two struggles. They are exactly the same, he says. We need to heal the earth and hemp can be used to replace many of the things we use today that [are harmful].
In 1998, White Plume realized hemp could help break the Pine Ridge reservations cycle of deep poverty. He persuaded the tribe to legally adopt an ordinance differentiating between industrial hemp and marijuana, and thought tribal sovereignty would protect him from federal incursions.
His family researched the farming and business side he envisioned as many as a dozen different businesses arising from the different parts of the hemp plant and in 2000 they planted the crop not far from Wounded Knee Creek. The Bureau of Indian Affairs had long tried to turn us into farmers, and I thought hemp was the way to do it, White Plume says.
Then US officials showed up with guns, bulletproof vests and weed-whackers. They decimated his plants. White Plume tried again in 2001 and 2002, until the government got an injunction against him for growing hemp without DEA permission. Despite help from Vote Hemp, White Plume says he nearly went broke appealing and still lost the case.
It is awful and oppressive, White Plume says. The state wont do diddly squat for our people but the government comes in and takes away my plants.
Vote Hemp backed by money from Bronner recently hired a new lawyer and last year a federal judge finally lifted the federal court order. White Plume, 65, is still not allowed to grow hemp, but can now be paid to consult on hemp projects in other states.
The whole thing makes me angry, says White Plume, who adds that he no longer has the energy to become a hemp mogul but that his sister and daughter are developing business plans. The United States should honor the treaties and our sovereignty.
Ryan Loflin, a Colorado alfalfa and sorghum farmer, followed White Plumes footsteps. In 2013, he planted 60 acres of hemp without government permission as an activist statement. This is a political movement, he says.
Loflin got media coverage, successfully daring the government to step in. It was just time for this to happen, Loflin says. My community has been struggling for 30 years and lost a lot of farms but hemp can be beneficial to society and valuable to my community.
A long political battle
Hemps demise traces back to the 1937 Marihuana Act, which imposed taxes and bureaucratic burdens on farmers. The culprit was the First Federal Bureau of Narcotics commissioner, Harry Anslinger, whose department needed a worthy project when alcohol was legalized.
After Prohibition politicians needed their next new enemy to fight against, says Dan Ratner, co-founder of Healthy Brands Collective, which owns the Tempt line of hemp-based food products. Ratner believes that the DuPont company (which made nylon, a new rival for hemp) and newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (who owned many paper and timber interests) slandered hemp by playing up its cannabis roots, but its also plausible that hemp got accidentally caught up due to indifference and misunderstanding.
During the second world war, with Filipino imports cut off by Japan and the war machine desperate for hemp products such as tow lines, parachutes and aviation lubricant, the government produced a short film called Hemp For Victory, encouraging farmers to return to the plant; with federal aid thousands of acres of hemp were grown. Afterward, hemp faded back into obscurity until 1970 when Nixon put marijuana on Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act and industrial hemp was again lumped in with it.
Yost, who sponsored a Virginia bill legalizing hemp, says years of educational efforts have made inroads. These days, both Steenstra and Bronner are optimistic about legalization, thanks to changing perceptions and the demand for farming and manufacturing jobs.
Outsourcing American jobs is not a popular concept right now, adds Polis. Theres so much potential for the economy it would be crazy not to move forward, Steenstra says, adding that it is also a states rights issue that should appeal to conservatives.
He says Iowa senator Charles Grassley, the judiciary committee chair, has repeatedly bottled up hemp bills to prevent a vote but Bronner says Republicans like Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul of Kentucky see the crops commercial potential and have been amazing champions who may finally liberate hemp.
Legalization is just the first step. We need infrastructure, Bronner says, so hemp can be processed and manufactured on a large scale. Legalization will attract investors and banks but supporters also hope for government grants and subsidies to create a market for hemp.
Loflin, the Colorado farmer, agrees: We need to build this industry from the ground up.