Some See Profit in Hawaii Hemp!

Some See Profit in Hawaii Hemp!
Posted by FoM on July 14, 1999 at 06:52:01 PT
Malia Zimmerman  PBN Staff Reporter 
Source: Pacific Business News
The governor this week approved House Bill 22, legalizing cultivation of industrial hemp -- a plant related to marijuana -- on a plot of highly secured land at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. 
With the first planting expected this fall -- and a crop up to 90 days later -- Hawaii's experiment marks the first of its kind in the United States. North Dakota and Minnesota passed similar legislation this year, and legislatures in Montana, Virginia, Vermont, Illinois, Oregon and Colorado are considering measures. But state and federal law enforcement agencies still must examine and permit the hemp crops.Widely used in other countries, such as China, Canada and Germany, hemp products are consumable and wearable. Hemp, for example, can be made into durable fibers that can be used for rope and material for clothing. Hemp building materials are more fire retardant and hurricane resistant than most similar materials currently available in Hawaii. Although hemp is not smoked and cannot be used as a drug, it has remained illegal since the 1970s because the Drug Enforcement Administration of the U.S. Department of Justice does not distinguish between marijuana and hemp THC levels. Marijuana contains large amounts of the psychoactive chemical THC that can provide a "high." Industrial hemp contains minuscule amounts of THC, but the low levels cannot create a high. Cheers and jeers Many politicians and businesspeople are cheering the state Legislature and the governor, saying hemp growth would stimulate the economy, strengthen the agriculture industry, foster new hemp products and hemp-related businesses, and lower prices of hemp products currently on the market. Rep. Jerry Chang, D-South Hilo, who helped push the hemp bill through, said the UH experiment will prove whether industrial hemp is a viable crop for Hawaii. Rep. Cynthia Thielen, R-Kailua, Kaneohe Bay Drive, also fought hard for the legislation. She cited the potential for local production of three main items: hemp-based food, and hemp seed oil and building materials. If such products were available in the islands, Hawaii could avoid paying higher prices for similar -- and inferior -- imported materials, she said. Not everyone, however, is bullish on industrialized hemp, especially county, state and federal law enforcement agencies. Those opposing the legislation say that rather than helping the local economy, hemp growth will pave the way for more drug problems. Marijuana, critics say, would be legalized next. Capt. Thomas Nitta of the Honolulu Police Department's Narcotics Division said he and the department strongly oppose legalizing industrial hemp. Police officers, prosecutors and other citizens fought the legislation last session. Retail cultivation Local businesspeople don't seem to share their fears. Instead, they seem high on the potential economic benefits of growing hemp locally. Debbie Ah Chick, co-owner of the Global Village Market in Kailua, said growing hemp locally would likely would lower the price of hemp products. Imported fabrics from China and other foreign countries raise prices "out of control," she said. Ah Chick sells backpacks, hats, aloha shirts, picture frames, jewelry and women's clothing made out of hemp, but the materials are so outrageously priced that few people buy them, she said. A woman's dress, for example, may sell for $50 in a linen blend and for more than double that if made in hemp, she said. "The prices scare people off," Ah Chick said. At Island Hemp Wear on Kauai, Peter and Shannon Thielen wholesale aloha wear and board shorts made from industrial hemp. Their 4-year-old company brings in around $500,000 annually, but they'd sell more if hemp were in larger supply and less expensive. It is impossible to quantify how much industrial hemp will help Hawaii business, Peter said, but it will create innumerable opportunities for manufacturing hemp foods and growing hemp seeds. Damian Paul, owner of The Source Natural Foods in Kailua, already sells hemp chips and has sold other hemp foods, which he stopped selling because popularity waned with increasingly higher prices. In addition to helping the local food industry, legalization of hemp crops would help bring back small farming operations and boost the economy, Paul said. Farming and science One private company fully backing the experimental crop at UH is Alterna, a high-end hemp hair-care product maker that invested $200,000 in the project at Hawaii's request. The Los Angeles-based company purchases hundreds of barrels of hemp oil overseas for its line of beauty products, according to President Michael Brady. But the investment will not benefit the company directly or immediately because the size of the Hawaii crop will be too small, taking up just one acre of land. However, the crop may encourage other states to follow suit, and this will help Alterna in the future, said Brady. If enough industrialized hemp is produced in the United States, the company's costs will decrease, and consequently its prices. In addition, Brady said, the company's products would be accessible to a wider base of customers. The Alterna grant will pay, in part, for an "investigator," or scientist, to develop an industrial hemp seed that can grow in Hawaii. That scientist is David West, a plant breeder, author, geneticist and co-founder of the North American Industrial Hemp Council. He has spent the last two decades trying to perfect industrial hemp crops. "I'm where the rubber meets the road," West said. "I have to see this project through from beginning to end." How the project expands to help the Hawaii economy will depend largely on government encouragement. If state and federal agencies allow hemp growth in other controlled areas throughout the state, rather than treating it as a high-security problem, the crop should have a very positive effect on the state, West said. "This first crop is just a political act," he said. "But in order for this to be a decent scientific experiment, we'll have to have more than one crop on one acre." Three crops a year are expected to be cultivated from this acre on the Manoa campus. Legislators may re-examine the experiment next year to determine its success. Reach Malia Zimmerman by e-mail or by phone at 596-2021. Pubdate: July 12, 1999
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