Hemp Is Not Pot: It's the Economic Stimulus and Green Jobs Solution We Need
While Uncle Sam's scramble for new revenue sources has recently kicked up the marijuana debate -- to legalize and tax, or not? -- hemp's feasibility as a stimulus plan has received less airtime.
But with a North American market that exceeds $300 million in annual retail sales and continued rising demand, industrial hemp could generate thousands of sustainable new jobs, helping America to get back on track.
"We're in the midst of a dark economic transition, but I believe hemp is an important facet and has tremendous economic potential," says Patrick Goggin, a board member on the California Council for Vote Hemp, the nation's leading industrial hemp-farming advocacy group. "Economically and environmentally, industrial hemp is an important part of the sustainability pie."
With 25,000 known applications from paper, clothing and food products -- which, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal this January, is the fastest growing new food category in North America -- to construction and automotive materials, hemp could be just the crop to jump-start America's green economy.
But growing hemp remains illegal in the U.S. The Drug Enforcement Administration has lumped the low-THC plant together with its psychoactive cousin, marijuana, making America the planet's only industrialized nation to ban hemp production. We can import it from Canada, which legalized it in 1997. But we can't grow it.
"It's a missed opportunity," says Goggin, who campaigned for California farmers to grow industrial hemp two years ago, although the bill was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, citing the measure conflicted with federal law.
Considering California's position as an agricultural giant -- agriculture nets $36.6 billion dollars a year, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture -- Goggin's assessment is an understatement. Especially if extended nationwide.
"Jobs require capital investment, which isn't easy to come by at the moment, and we need hemp-processing facilities, because the infrastructure here went to seed. But this is a profitable crop, and the California farming community supports it."
Just how profitable? According to Chris Conrad, a respected authority on cannabis and industrial hemp and who authored Hemp for Health and Hemp, Lifeline to the Future, the industry would be regionally sustainable, reviving the local economy wherever it was grown.
"Hemp will create jobs in some of the hardest-hit sectors of the country -- rural agriculture, equipment manufacturing, transportable processing equipment and crews -- and the products could serve and develop the same community where the hemp is farmed: building ecological new homes, producing value-added and finished products, marketing and so forth," he writes in an e-mail from Amsterdam, where he is doing research. "Add to that all the secondary jobs -- restaurants, health care, food products, community-support networks, schools, etc., that will serve the workers. The Midwestern U.S. and the more remote parts of California and other states would see a surge of income, growth, jobs and consumer goods."
In America, industrial hemp has long been associated with marijuana, although the plants are different breeds of Cannabis sativa, just as poodles and Irish setters are different breeds of dog.
While hemp contains minute levels of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana (compare 0.3 percent or less in Canadian industrial hemp versus 3-20 percent for medical marijuana), to get high you'd have to smoke a joint the size of a telephone pole.
Still, the historical hysteria caused by federal anti-marijuana campaigns of the 1930s, which warned that marijuana caused insanity, lust, addiction, violence and crime, have had a long-term impact on its distant relative.
Doomed by the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which in effect criminalized cannabis and levied high taxes on medical marijuana and industrial hemp, hemp cultivation wasn't technically disallowed.
However, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the DEA's predecessor, said its agents couldn't differentiate between industrial hemp and marijuana, a stance the DEA maintains today, so fewer farmers were willing to grow it. The exception came during World War II, when the armed forces experienced a severe fiber shortage and the government launched an aggressive campaign to grow hemp.
But after the war, hemp production faded away, and the last legal crop was harvested in 1957. Marijuana's propaganda-fuelled history, one filled with lurid stories, one-sided information, slander and corporate profiteerism, is too lengthy to address here, but hemp has never managed to remain unscathed.
Considering today's economic crisis and the combined threats of peak oil and global warming, there is increasing pressure to move toward sustainable resources before everything goes up in smoke. If there was any time to revisit hemp, it's now.
"Industrial hemp is the best gift a farmer could have. It's the ideal alternative crop," says Gale Glenn, on the board of the North American Industrial Hemp Council. Glenn, now retired, owned and managed a 300-acre Kentucky farm producing burley tobacco, and she immediately launches into hemp's benefits: It's environmentally friendly, requiring no pesticides or herbicides, it's the perfect rotation crop because it detoxifies and regenerates the soil, and it's low labor.
"You just plant the seed, close the farm gate and four months later, cut it and bale it," she says.
And there's more. As a food, hemp is rich in essential omega-3 fatty acids; the plant's cellulose level, roughly three times that of wood, creates paper that yields four times as much pulp as trees; hemp is an ideal raw material for plant-based plastics, used to make everything from diapers to dashboards.
In fact, Germany's DaimlerChrysler Corp. has equipped its Mercedes-Benz C-class vehicles with natural-fiber-reinforced materials, including hemp, for years. Even Henry Ford himself manufactured a car from hemp-based plastic in 1941, archival footage of which can be found on YouTube, and the car ran on clean-burning hemp-based ethanol fuel.
This leads to the most compelling argument for hemp: fuel. Hemp seeds are ideal for making ethanol, the cleanest-burning liquid bio-alternative to gasoline, and when grown as an energy crop, hemp actually offsets carbon emissions because it absorbs more carbon dioxide than any other plant.
As the world rapidly depletes its reserves of petroleum, America needs to create a renewable, homegrown energy source to become energy independent. Luckily, unlike petrol, hemp is renewable, unless we run out of soil.
"As a farmer, it's frustrating not being able to grow this incredible crop," says Glenn. But if Glenn did try to grow it, the American government would consider her a felon guilty of trafficking, and she would face a fine of up to $4 million and a prison sentence of 5 to 40 years. Because no matter how low its THC content, hemp is still considered a Schedule I substance, grouped alongside heroin.
It's exactly this war-on-drugs logic that has kept serious discussion of hemp off the table.
"I've met with senators over the last 13 years, and I've been to the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) four times, and I'm always amazed by what they tell us -- that industrial hemp is by far one of the most superior fibers known to man, but since it's a green plant with a five-point leaf, you'll never grow it in America," says Bud Sholts chairman of the the North American Industrial Hemp Council and former economist for Wisconsin's State Department of Agriculture.
Sholts' research into sustainable agriculture convinced him of industrial hemp's value, and he has been lobbying for it ever since. "We're overlooking something huge."
Luckily, farmers are practical folk whose pragmatism ensures their survival, and they have championed industrial hemp, which they see as a potential economic boon, by pushing for it through their state legislatures, where it has become a bipartisan issue.
To date, 28 states have introduced hemp legislation, including Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Maryland, North Dakota, New Mexico, Virgina, Vermont and West Virginia. Fifteen have passed it, and seven have legalized hemp production, according to Vote Hemp.
Yet in cases like North Dakota, the DEA still insists that federal law trumps the state's and farmers need a DEA-granted license before growing. This is exactly what happened to David Monson and Wayne Hauge, two North Dakota farmers given state permission to grow but who have been waiting a while for their federal licenses -- in Monson's case, since 1997.
"Here we are in 2009, and it seems like we're still taking baby steps. We're a little closer, but I'm not making any predictions," says Monson, who also happens to be a Republican state representative.
Monson lives only 20 miles from the Canadian border, where fields of profitable industrial hemp have been growing since 1997, and he believes it's a simple case of "if they can grow it, why can't we?"
"The profit potential is there. Practically and economically, it makes sense to raise it," says Monson. "I truly believe as a farmer that hemp is good for farmers, it's good for the environment and it's good for state of North Dakota. And for that matter the whole nation."
As the law currently stands, to legalize hemp production, all the DEA has to do is remove hemp from its Schedule I drug list, a process that does not require a congressional vote.
Now that the Obama administration has announced an end to medical marijuana raids, hemp advocates are hopeful the move could open the door for hemp, because the president voted for a hemp bill while he was in the Illinois legislature.
The DEA follows the government's lead, and the government, which does not want to be seen as being soft on drugs, has been notoriously skittish tackling drug policy reform. If Obama told the DEA to move forward aggressively and issue all pending research, commercial and agronomic licenses, farmers like Monson could grow hemp tomorrow.
"Politically, I liken the situation to pulling bricks out of a dam," says Vote Hemp's Goggin. "There are now so many leaks, the dam's getting ready to burst. We're working hard for a shift in policy, but at the moment, Washington doesn't consider this a top issue."
While industrial-hemp advocates are becoming hopeful that policy change is in the winds, they caution that the industry still requires a massive, coordinated effort to develop.
"I'm hesitant overselling hemp and touting it like the magic beans that will save the economy or the planet," says Tom Murphy, national outreach coordinator for Vote Hemp. "Industrial hemp is an answer but not the answer. It has a great deal of potential -- but it doesn't have any potential if you can't grow it."
Conrad, who believes in American ingenuity to find creative solutions using hemp, says, "Only the scourge of prohibitionism can see to it that our economy and environment rot into sewage. It is up to the good, hard-working and honest people to end cannabis prohibition and start the process of rebuilding the planet and our global and regional economies."