High Hopes for Industrial Hemp Farming

Before hemp became known as a mascot for hippies everywhere, it was used as a crop in various civilizations around the world for more than 10,000 years. One of the first crops ever to be spun into fiber, hemp has an astounding number of functionalities, ranging from paper to food to clothing, and it is more environmentally friendly than comparable crops such as wheat or cotton. Starting in the late 1600s, hemp was a fundamental cash crop in the United States, even farmed by George Washington for the production of rope and canvas. But even though hemp seed has a THC level below 0.3 percent, which is not enough to produce a high, industrial hemp production has been banned in the US since the first half of the 20th century after federal laws were passed banning all forms of Cannabis. Despite a rocky history and an uncertain future, a revived hemp industry has the potential to create new growth in the US economy and create jobs for American farmers.

Hemp farming was first outlawed in the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which placed a tax on the sale of all forms of cannabis, rendering it economically infeasible to produce. As a consequence, the vibrant hemp industry quickly faded away. Later in the century, hemp was once again grouped with marijuana in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970; this time it was declared a Schedule I drug, even though it’s not potent enough to produce a high. Although the importation of hemp was legalized in 1998, it was illegal for hemp to be grown at all on US soil until the 2014 Farm Bill, which included an amendment allowing for research on industrial hemp production by states that have passed legislation to legalize hemp farming.

As a result of this new law, universities, agriculture departments, and licensed farmers in 20 states are able to start pilot programs and conduct new research. Researchers are kept under close watch of the government and DEA to ensure that the yielded hemp has low enough levels of THC to be in compliance with federal standards. On top of this, the DEA is reluctant to allow licensed researchers to import hemp seed in the first place, which means that it can take months before they can actually get the seed in the ground and begin doing fieldwork.

Despite the longstanding roadblocks facing the hemp industry, it has still managed to achieve some success:  The total value of hemp products in US is $581 million and growing. With this economic potential in mind, there exists widespread, bipartisan agreement that hemp farming could net large gains for the agricultural and manufacturing industries in the US. Hemp is multifunctional, able to be used in a wide range of products manufactured or sold in the US, including natural soaps, clothing, and even cars. It’s also a nutritious source of fiber, and it’s found in brands such as Hempzels, Living Harvest, and Nutiva. All of these manufacturers, however, have to import their hemp instead of buying it domestically.  If hemp were available domestically, which would probably be cheaper than importing it, both manufacturers and American farmers would benefit.

More companies might consider using hemp in their products if locally sourced hemp was available. Since legalizing the commercial production of industrial hemp in 1998, Canada has seen an increase in small businesses finding new ways to use and market hemp products – and most of these businesses have experienced growth. Food products especially have high potential in the US market: Manitoba Harvest, a Canadian hemp-based food company, reported 500 percent growth in sales over the past five years with about half of the sales coming from US consumers.

Less stringent marijuana laws in states across the country play a hand in changing people’s attitudes toward industrial hemp; as public opinions and state laws around marijuana change, people start to realize that it doesn’t make much sense to ban its less powerful cousin.

The legalization of industrial hemp could also seriously help American farmers: hemp seed is valued at anywhere from $477 – $900 per acre, compared to wheat, which is valued at $485 per acre. Support for this issue by organizations of local farmers has lead to bipartisan support in Congress: Senate Republicans Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul represent two of industrial hemp’s biggest supporters, largely because they believe in this industry’s potential to create jobs for their constituents in Kentucky, where the soil and landscape is a good fit for the crop. Paul argues that the new industry could help replace unproductive land that was previously used for tobacco farming and coal mining.

The growth of the hemp industry would also be a win for the environment. Compared to comparable crops like rye, wheat, and cotton, hemp tends to be more pest-resistant, friendlier to biodiversity, more beneficial for the soil structure, and more conservative of water. Hemp is a pioneer plant, which means that planting hemp in a damaged ecosystem can improve the quality of the soil and make way for new biodiversity. The industrial products of hemp are also more environmentally friendly than their alternatives: for instance, hemp can be used to create a renewable plastic compound that is much greener than non-renewable plastic compounds.

Although measures to legalize the production of hemp are supported on both sides of the aisle, Congress has been unable to make much headway. Progress has stalled on a bill Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) proposed to remove industrial hemp from the list of controlled substances in the Controlled Substances Act; a previous version of this bill died in committee in 2014. An increase in lobbying efforts by agricultural and business organizations could put pressure on Congress to pass a more expansive law, but investors are apprehensive about investing in the industry because of the tight federal regulations and skepticism on the part of the DEA, creating a political Catch-22 that prevents any strong legislation from even getting a vote. New research about the potential impact of industrial hemp on the economy might motivate more lobbying by agricultural and business groups to legalize commercial hemp farming, which could put an end to the negative feedback loop. But in the meantime, law enforcement groups are actively fighting against legalization efforts.

Opponents of a domestic industrial hemp market are concerned that the new industry would allow farmers to illegally grow and sell illegal marijuana because law enforcement officials would be unable to differentiate between the two different plants. This problem has not arisen in Canada, which requires a criminal background check on farmers applying for licenses to farm hemp and controls the production, sale, transportation, and processing of the crop, all without overwhelming local police forces. Additionally, researchers are working to produce a variety of certified hemp seed that guarantees a THC level below .3 percent, which would make the crop much easier to regulate.

Despite the federal ban, fifteen states have already passed pro-hemp legislation. Even though these laws are largely symbolic, they send the message to Congress that the country is starting to accept the idea of American industrial hemp production. Less stringent marijuana laws in states across the country play a hand in changing people’s attitudes toward industrial hemp; as public opinions and state laws around marijuana change, people start to realize that it doesn’t make much sense to ban its less powerful cousin.

Industrial hemp farming in the US would benefit American farmers, manufacturers, consumers, and the environment. Unfortunately, because of its association with marijuana, there are still misconceptions about hemp and a serious stigma that is quite hard to overcome for some members of law enforcement – former DEA administrator Michele Leonhart commented that the lowest point in her 33 years at the DEA was when she learned that a hemp flag had flown over the Capitol on the 4th of July.  But the attitude about hemp seems to be slowly changing, and both the federal government and various state governments have taken major steps forward in restarting an industry that has been in hibernation for almost a century.

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