Industrial hemp is not a pipe dream

On June 4, the Minnesota Legislature passed a bill that paved the way for growing experimental plots of industrial hemp in the state. While Minnesota’s legislators have begun to see the benefits on industrial hemp, the law might not do much good unless leaders at the federal level also realize the potential of hemp.
Industrial hemp could be a huge boon for struggling small Minnesota farms. The author of the bill, Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, said, “Our farmers are facing an incredible financial crisis, and, as a result, our rural communities are dying. They need to diversify.”
The market for hemp products is expanding rapidly. A study completed by North Dakota State University’s Institute for Natural Resources and Economic Development showed that retailers sold $75 million in hemp products in 1997 and expect enormous growth in the coming years. The uses for hemp range from “construction materials and cosmetics to papers and textiles,” Gov. Ventura said in a letter to President Clinton, urging the president not to let the federal government “stand in the way” of Minnesota farmers wishing to apply for federal permits to grow industrial hemp.
There is not a lot of time to waste. Although it is currently illegal to grow hemp in the United States, it is legal to purchase hemp products. If the United States continues to lag behind other countries in legalizing industrial hemp, other nations will reap the benefits of U.S. consumer interest in hemp.
Industrial hemp is also a very environmentally friendly crop. Hemp is unique among crops in that it generally does not require insecticides, fungicides, herbicides or irrigation. Hemp tends to naturally repel pests, the leaves continually replenish the soil and, because it grows quickly, weed growth is limited.
Hemp also has the potential to help save our nation’s forests. Hemp has a storied history as a paper replacement; even Thomas Paine utilized hemp in the pamphlets published during the Revolutionary War period.
While some worry that industrial hemp and the related illegal drug marijuana will be grown side by side, this is extremely unlikely. The two plants are actually quite different, and growing the two breeds in close proximity would ultimately weaken both varieties because of cross-pollination. The two breeds are also planted in very different ways; hemp in closely packed rows, marijuana in widely spaced bushes.
In addition, the provisions of the legislation would make it particularly foolish to grow the two plants together. Growers have to seek permission from the state’s Department of Agriculture and register with the U.S. attorney general. It would be foolhardy for someone interested in growing illegal drugs to do so in a field that is registered and subject to random police inspections.
Despite the minimal threat of expanded production of marijuana and the profit potential of industrial hemp, the Drug Enforcement Agency continues to harshly restrict the production of industrial hemp. The DEA should reassess its classification of industrial hemp and make it easier for farmers to grow this extremely beneficial crop.