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Industrial Hemp: a crop whose time has come...again

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Industrial hemp was a staple crop at the time our country was founded. George Washington himself farmed hemp and our beloved Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper. This crop and its many uses were a fundamental part of America's agricultural landscape for many, many decades.

So, why does our country no longer grow industrial hemp? The answer to this question was examined in the movie "Bring It Home" which was shown at the Wheatsville Co-op in Austin on Wednesday June 4th. The film by Linda Booker examines not only the popularity of the crop around the world but also the reason it is no longer grown, for the most part, in the United States.

Part of the problem with reintroducing industrial hemp as a viable crop in our country is the fact that many people, especially those in regulation and law enforcement, believe that it is the same plant as marijuana. While they are the same species they are different varieties. Marijuana is high in THC which is the psychoactive element that gets you high when consumed. Industrial hemp is so low in this substance that not only can you not get high but it can cause you to become ill if smoked.

Back in 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act was enacted which required growers to pay for selling 'marijuana'. Chances are this had less to do with any drug related concerns and more to do with powerful business lobbies some of whom were putting their money into Dupont Chemical's new product, nylon, and others who feared that hemp's profitable use in the making of paper would threaten their lumber holdings. The hemp crop all but disappeared until World War II when the military needed rope and the hemp supply from Japanese controlled regions was no longer available.

Industrial hemp basically disappeared from the United States after that, especially after the passage of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. This legislation classified hemp, all varieties, in the same category as LSD and heroin. One could only grow industrial hemp now with a permit from the DEA and they have only issued three since the Act was passed.

At present there are at least thirty other countries around the world that grow industrial hemp with China leading the field. You can buy hemp products in the United States but they are all imported from another country, usually China or Canada.

Why is industrial hemp such a popular crop around the world? There are many, many reasons some of which include:

  • As a crop: hemp requires few if any pesticides or fertilizers; returns valuable nutrients to the soil; not disease riddled; high density growth; easy and economical to harvest; all parts of the plant are used.
  • As a building material: uses no chemicals when mixed; avoids 'sick building syndrome'; is actually carbon negative; insulation is not hazardous and has better thermal mass.
  • Textiles: produced without chemicals; durable; saves water versus cotton; antibacterial, sun protection and anti-wicking.
  • Food: contains healthy fatty acids equal to fish; high in protein; shelf stable oil pleasant nutty taste.
  • Beauty products: not petroleum based; sustainable; protective; nourishing.

So what can be and is being done to reintroduce this valuable crop to the United States? The Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2013 allows states to make their own decisions as to growing industrial hemp and several have already done so. In February of 2014, Congress passed an Ag bill that eases restrictions in the ten states that have made the growing of industrial hemp legal.

Unfortunately, the DEA is still extremely resistant to any changes in the Controlled Substances Act and still requires difficult to obtain permits. On the positive side, this debate is actually quite bi-partisan which may bode well in future legislative actions. If you would like to know more about the issue or get involved in the campaign check out the Vote Hemp website.

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