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.


Earlier this year, Google announced it would be pulling its membership from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a nonprofit that has sponsored conservative state legislators and members of the private sector to draft legislation expressing climate change denial and prohibiting action on global warming. The anti-environmentalist bent of the group is a philosophy inconsistent with Google’s belief in a clean energy future; to date, the tech company has donated over $1.5 billion dollars to clean energy projects. This is not only a sizable investment, but it’s also an indicator of the company’s commitment to reversing the effects of climate change. Though this progressive move is encouraging, it begs the question of why Google was funding ALEC in the first place. For one, ALEC’s goal of developing “the fundamental principles of free-market enterprise, limited government, and federalism” sat well with the company’s political contribution criteria, which are based around the ideals of an open Internet. As Google’s break with ALEC shows, Google’s contribution policy might be too narrowly focused on one set of policy objectives not to contradict the the company’s social responsibility goals. Other companies, like Facebook, Yahoo and Yelp, who also left ALEC under the same circumstances, might face the a similar problem. Indeed, tech companies’ ties with ALEC are not an isolated incident of political contributions incongruent with company beliefs.

The tech world has recently turned a keener eye to politics, partially because politicians have forced their hand. In 2012, two pieces of legislation, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), attempted to make it more difficult for sites to distribute pirated materials. The acts would have required companies to protect the integrity of piracy laws by not allowing links to sites that were “dedicated to the theft of US property.” Many sites and companies responded by posting links to petitions to stop the legislation. After huge uproar, SOPA and PIPA were suspended indefinitely. SOPA and PIPA highlighted for Silicon Valley what Fortune 500 Companies have always known: Business has a serious stake in politics. Building up to the 2014 midterm elections, Google, Facebook, eBay and other large Silicon Valley tech companies expanded their influence in the political sphere: Google donated over $1.43 million to political candidates all across the country, while Facebook spent $375,000 and Amazon contributed $177,000. In fact, Google’s political campaign donations now exceed Goldman Sachs’, indicating the growing tech interest in politics is now operating on a large scale. Generally, Silicon Valley companies have sought to support candidates who they believe will protect their interests in privacy, Internet access and patent laws — all things that are integral to the success of their businesses. In the past few years, donations have included both Democratic and Republican candidates and organizations. And by no means are elections the limit of tech’s dive into the political world; they regularly spend money on lobbying for key causes, a practice demonstrated by their former membership in ALEC.

However, in attempting to advance their causes in a largely bipartisan manner, tech companies have inadvertently backed causes that undercut their own social investments and are largely out of step with liberal techies back in the Valley. One prominent example is Facebook’s backing of Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens. While Olens is a large supporter of government deregulation, a favorable platform for many tech companies who favor open Internet, he has also held a hard conservative line on LGBTQ rights. Olens recently asked a federal judge to dismiss challenges to the Georgia’s gay marriage ban, claiming that the state’s heterosexual marriage laws are “premised upon the unique ability of opposite-sex couples to procreate.” But Olens is just the tip of the iceberg. Google has backed several prominent anti-LGBTQ candidates, and Facebook’s political action committee, FBPAC, has donated a total of 41 percent of itsoverall political contributions to anti-LGBT rights politicians since it was established. At the same time, Facebook and Google have prided themselves on their LGBTQ-friendly atmospheres and programs —Google calls its LGBTQ employees “Gayglers” and has been a corporate sponsor at gay pride events across the globe. In response to a California proposition banning same-sex marriage, CEO Sergey Brin claimed “it is the chilling and discriminatory effect of the proposition on many of our employees that brings Google to publicly oppose Proposition 8.” In addition, Ebay, Intel, Apple, and Facebook signed a Supreme Court brief in 2013 that stated, “Recognizing the rights of same-sex couples to marry is more than a constitutional issue. It is a business imperative.” If these tech companies consider marriage equality so essential to their corporate culture, they often contradict themselves in which politicians they back. Although these companies try to present themselves as diverse and accepting, they have also been complicit in the efforts of politicians who seekto dismantle the human rights advances of the LGBTQ community — missions misaligned with the reputations and values for which these companies are known.

LGBTQ rights are not the only area in which the actions of technology companies have had a questionable impact. —n environmental issues, tech companies have been downright duplicitous. Over the past decade, Silicon Valley has taken extensive steps to counter climate change and raise awareness of the issue. Google, for example, has invested over a billion dollars in various wind and solar energy initiatives to expand the use of renewable energy sources, and Apple has also taken significant steps to reduce its carbon footprint by ensuring its own facilities are environmentally friendly. Despite industry-wide support, companies continue to fund candidates and organizations in favor of environmental deregulation, ALEC being only one example of several. One in three Facebook donations to politicians went to politicians who voted against the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, despite the fact that Facebook is a member of the Digital Energy Solutions Campaign and publicized an internal “going green” campaign in 2009. Google and Facebook also donated significant amounts to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which combats regulations on pollution. This is not to say that these companies don’t have a compelling interest for funding these organizations. Yelp, for instance, aligned itself with ALEC in order to craft legislation to protect its users who post bad reviews from Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. On the other hand, the problems with funding organizations and candidates that are opposed to company beliefs are not abstract debates and clearly have an adverse impact on the company’s mission and identity.

The most egregious hypocrisy comes in the form of Google’s support for Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe. In 2013, Google hosted a fundraiser for Inhofe, widely recognized as one of Washington’s loudest climate change skeptics. In an official statement, Google said, “while we disagree on climate change policy, we share an interest with Senator Inhofe in the employees and data center we have in Oklahoma.” Although Inhofe might be a likely supporter for Google’s initiatives in Oklahoma, he will become the new chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in January when the Republicans officially become the majority party, making him the most powerful Senator on climate change legislation. It will be interesting to see how Google will adjust to continue its climate change legislation lobbying efforts in the Senate.

As the tech industry struggles to reconcile its business and its politics, donations out of Silicon Valley show a true crisis of identity — and are often both contradictory and counterproductive. Additionally, many of these tech PACs’ donations don’t line up ideologically with the individuals who run them. The Democratic Party has received about 65 percent of individual donations from Silicon Valley employees as opposed to Republican candidates, who only received about 35 percent in the 2014 election cycle. When you compare this to the 53 percent tech industry PACs gave to Republicans and the 47 percent they gave to Democrats, it is easy to see that the companies’ donations are not only incongruent with their practices, but also their employees’ own political leanings.

These tech giants’ conservative ties have not gone unnoticed, and they aren’t sitting well with the Silicon Valley tech crowd. Last year, a Google shareholders meeting was the site of a “Don’t Fund Evil” climate change protest, which played off of Google’s formal corporate motto: “Don’t be evil.” Executive Chairman of Google Eric Schmidt soon after called the company’s membership in ALEC a “mistake”, and Google soon withdrew its membership followed by Facebook, Yahoo and Yelp. Not all companies backed down — eBay reinforced its decision to stay loyal to ALEC, even though it was one of 33 companies to sign a climate declaration urging Congress to take stronger action on climate change. Over 80 organizations petitioned the tech giant to reconsider to no avail.

While tech companies have figured out that their businesses have a large stake in politics, they haven’t figured out how to navigate the complexity of political ethics. Because many tech companies have largely built their reputations on community ideals, the American public must hold them to higher political standards. With more precision in their donations, the tech industry can fund politicians and organizations that align with both their business and political concerns. They just need to learn how to navigate the halls of the Capitol as well as they navigate the wires of the web.

Art by Olivia Watson.