Coalition Presses to Revive U.S. Hemp Industry!

Coalition Presses to Revive U.S. Hemp Industry!
Posted by FoM on May 28, 1999 at 05:59:51 PT
LEXINGTON, Ky. In the quiet heart of the conservative Bluegrass state, a small corps of techno-savvy activists is playing a big role in the national campaign to legalize industrial hemp, a crop the activists call an economic life preserver for U.S. farmers but which the federal government says is a dangerous drug.
The tall, cane-like hemp plant was cultivated throughout the United States for decades to make clothing, rope and other items but lost its respectable reputation in 1937, when the government banned marijuana -- and hemp along with it.However, it isn't illegal to import hemp from countries like China, and right now, hemp is an eco-celebrity of the green movement, used to make everything from diapers to dashboards, shampoo to sneakers. Nut butter, fuel, lip gloss, horse feed -- the list is as long as the hemp stalk.In 1997, North Americans spent $75 million on hemp products, up from $3 million in 1993, according to John Roulac, founder of Hempbrokers, an international hemp-seed product supplier in Sebastopol. He estimates that annual sales could approach $1 billion within the next five years or so.Using e-mail, faxes and cell phones, and in friendly, easy-going Southern style, the Bluegrass group, whose members include actor and part-time Kentuckian Woody Harrelson, have been doggedly educating state lawmakers and activists across the country who are pressuring the government to lift the hemp ban.Their mission is to enable U.S. farmers to grow a profitable, sustainable, pesticide-free crop that will keep rural towns thriving -- and benefit the environment with what they believe is the soybean of the new millennium.``We knew we'd have to grow the word before we could grow the crop,'' says Lexington hemp activist Joe Hickey.The hemp seed is tiny, almost birdseed-like, with a gray-brown hull that develops when the seed matures on the flowering plant at summer's end. Inside the glands of the female flowers, a low level of the chemical delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is produced; this is the mind-altering compound found in marijuana. The flowers' sticky resin can cling to the seed hulls, leaving traces of THC.Marijuana, hemp's botanical cousin in the cannabis family, contains about 5 to 20 percent THC; hemp usually contains less than 1 percent, way too little to get a person high, say hemp activists and numerous scientists.The U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington answers queries on hemp with a three-page fax that classifies marijuana and hemp as the same plant because both contain the psychoactive compound. At the Drug Enforcement Administration, officials say it's not their job to make or change the law, just to enforce it.Bob Weiner, spokesman for National Drug Policy Director Barry McCaffrey, says the government fears that legalizing hemp would send the wrong message about drugs to young people. He adds that law enforcement finds it difficult to tell the difference between hemp and marijuana ``from the sky'' (via helicopter) when it comes to pinpointing illegal fields for eradication.``We're open to new research ... we have no objection to hemp as a product, we just don't want to see a drug culture come in through the back door,'' says Weiner.``The DEA says, `We can't tell the difference between industrial hemp and marijuana,' '' says Hickey, ``Well, that's the difference between poppy seeds on a bagel and poppy seeds in heroin.''Some hemp activists say the federal opposition arises in part from fears of budget cuts for law enforcement. In Kentucky, as in other states, wild hemp -- also known as ditchweed -- is routinely eradicated with the same vigilance used against marijuana fields. According to a 1996 report from the Vermont state auditor's office, 78 percent of the marijuana that was destroyed in the state, and 99 percent destroyed across the country with federal money, was ditchweed.Weiner denies any budget fears and calls the activists ``paranoid.'' He also questions the market potential for hemp: ``We want to make sure farmers with economic problems aren't given a silver bullet that's not real.''Hawaii Rep. Cynthia Thielen, however, sees hemp as the eventual savior to Hawaii's eight-year economic slump. Thielen introduced in the state Legislature a bill to permit growing industrial hemp; it recently passed the House and Senate. The governor is expected to sign it into law in June. The bill calls for test plots, which would be monitored by the Drug Enforcement Administration.``Sugar is dead,'' Thielen says of Hawaii's ex-cash cow and the state's inability to compete with the bargain-bin prices of sugar in the global marketplace. ``Every day that passes, and we do not allow farmers to grow industrial hemp, means agricultural workers are unemployed. And our land lies fallow.''Other states are pushing hard for hemp. Last month, North Dakota became the first state to make growing and selling industrial hemp legal. (Growers will apply for DEA permits to do so.)Pro-hemp legislation has either passed or is brewing in at least 11 additional states. (No hemp legislation is pending in California, although the Democratic Party passed a measure endorsing industrial hemp April 3 at its annual convention.)Nearly all the states' pro-hemp legislators and advocates have consulted the Bluegrass activists at one time or another. They have become hemp authorities -- reeling off history, factoids, scientific research results -- from the amount of information they have gathered in their efforts to legalize hemp in Kentucky.``The Kentucky group is key; they are the leaders,'' says Thielen. ``They are helping everyone else.''Across the gently sloping hills of Lexington and surrounding towns, hemp grows tall and wild, a reminder of when the plant and the state's economy were intertwined as closely as mint juleps and Derby Day. Even Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser and a beloved native son, was a hemp farmer.The state was a top hemp grower when the crop was legal (this includes a brief time during World War II when the U.S. ban was lifted in order to allow rope to be made for the military). Kentucky lore has it that hemp seed is what made the canaries in the coal mines sing.The current Kentucky hemp movement started in 1993 and moved into national focus in '96, when Harrelson joined forces with Hickey, Lexington tobacco farmer and businessman Andy Graves and others. They also brought in Jake Graves, Andy's 76-year-old father, to educate farmers on the issue. Jake Graves, a pillar of Lexington society, was a leading Kentucky hemp farmer in the early '30s.Harrelson decided to join up with the feisty Bluegrass contingent because ``they were full of vision and energy,'' he says. He adds that the state's hemp history made it the logical place to do battle. A suit challenging the state ban is currently before the Kentucky Supreme Court, filed after Harrelson planted four hemp seeds on his small Lee County property in 1996.As far as the state fight goes, Graves says the government's moral stance on hemp doesn't make sense because Kentucky already ``raises all the vices -- thoroughbred racing, whiskey and tobacco.''The activists are plotting their next move on a federal suit that was dismissed in March. It will either be appealed or a new suit filed, possibly arguing that the hemp ban violates the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade by putting U.S. farmers at a disadvantage to those in hemp-growing countries.While Harrelson and the Kentuckians regularly travel around the United States giving hemp sermons -- as they did at the University of California at Berkeley campus last fall -- a crucial part of the effort's success has been the techno-campaign. Without e-mail and a Web site (, the word would not have spread so far and fast.The activists point to Canada as a model of what could be. The country legalized hemp last year, and about 6,200 acres were planted, yielding a crop that sold for approximately $450,000, according to Robert L'Ecuyer, general manager of Kenex Ltd., Canada's largest hemp grower and processor. L'Ecuyer says he doesn't know yet how much hemp will be planted across Canada in '99, but it may be five or six times as much as last year.In the center of Lexington, at Tattersall's Tobacco Warehouse on the first day of the annual tobacco sales last fall, the auctioneer reeled off the bids in a gravelly Southern streak as farmers waited to see how much multinational tobacco companies would pay for their harvest. The sweet, almost choking smell of tobacco from hundreds of huge, honey-colored sample bales filled the dim warehouse. Underneath that aroma was something else: the smell of fear.It's unclear how much of the nation's tobacco settlement -- more than $200 billion -- will go to U.S. farmers whose lives, towns and families thrive only as long the tobacco plant does. The fate of the quota and price-support system is also uncertain. Tobacco farmers fear the rise in cigarette prices will lead to less demand, and foreign competition from countries like South Africa lies ahead. Tobacco currently sells for about $6,000 an acre, compared to $300 an acre for corn.Throughout the battle to legalize hemp, the priority for Hickey, Graves and the other hemp activists in Kentucky is the future of U.S. farmers of tobacco and other crops with depressed prices, such as wheat.The Kentucky tobacco farmers, like those in other states, are one of the most conservative groups in America, and yet they are also behind hemp. Farmers like Jimmy Sharp, who remembers his father growing fields of hemp in the '30s. ``I don't have a problem with it,'' he says, leaning over a bale at the auction during a break.Standing next to him, tobacco farmer Graves adds, ``Everybody's daddy or grandaddy grew hemp. It helped support a way of life around here. As long as it makes money, they'll grow it.''Hickey believes hemp will grow rural economic development across the country. He envisions local processing plants for items as bold as the car made from plastic hemp that Henry Ford once built -- plants like the one a Canadian firm just announced will be built in northwestern Manitoba.Change in federal policy might be afoot. Although the DEA maintains official silence about the future of industrial hemp from its public affairs office in Washington, Rep. Thielen in Hawaii says she is hearing a different tale. She says DEA Chief of Operations Gregory Williams told her recently that the agency is working on revising security regulations to permit U.S. farmers to plant hemp because of the commercial interest. A DEA spokeswoman for Williams wouldn't comment other than to say the office is reviewing Hawaii's request on ending the hemp ban.Change can't happen soon enough for the Bluegrass hemp team. Says Harrelson, ``The argument has been that hemp sends the wrong message to our youth. What about cigarettes, alcohol and tobacco? What kind of message do they send? Those are the real drugs. Hemp isn't.''
Home Comment Email Register Recent Comments Help

Comment #1 posted by FoM on May 28, 1999 at 08:29:59 PT
Hemp -- It's Rope, Not Dope!
Hemp -- It's Rope, Not DopeFarmers, Activists Seek to Legalize Crop!This article is similar to the above one but with more detail so I thought I'd post it in the comment section.SF Gate:
[ Post Comment ]

Post Comment

Name: Optional Password: 
Comment: [Please refrain from using profanity in your message]
Link URL: 
Link Title: