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 – it’s 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.
That’s 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 generalafter he discovered that CBD oil from hemp alleviated headaches and post-football aches. If he was still playing, however, he’d be forbidden from using it. “We need to change the perceptions about hemp,” he says, adding that he’d love to see the stodgy NFL “lead that charge” by funding research into the oil’s benefits. “The NFL needs to help get players off prescription meds as much as possible, and hemp could help.”
A LONG POLITICAL BATTLE
Hemp’s 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 it’s 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 representative Jared Polis (D, Colorado). “There’s 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 crop’s 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.”