The possibilities abound with hemp

The August acquittal of actor Woody Harrelson on charges of hemp cultivation was one of several recent incidents to bring public attention to the fight for legalization of industrial hemp. The controversial complications that surround legalizing hemp have led much of the nation to debate the pros and cons of a plant that played an integral part in our country’s history and could, if given the chance, become an agricultural asset.
During the mid-19th century, U.S. hemp production peaked at 7,000 tons when hemp was the primary product for paper producers. The strength and durability of the plant’s fibers were an asset to our country in World War II. Former President George Bush owes his life to a parachute made from hemp.
After the war, access to tropical fibers and competition with the nation’s timber industries brought an end to hemp cultivation in the United States, and the regulation of all cannabis sativa plants — such as marijuana and hemp — came under the Drug Enforcement Agency’s jurisdiction.
U.S. law enforcement agencies are opposed to the legalization of hemp because there is no way to visually discern marijuana, which has a high content of tetrahydrocannibinol, or THC, from its benign cousin, hemp, which contains only traces of the mind-altering drug. Legalizing hemp would likely lead to difficulty in regulating marijuana, as there is no way to differentiate marijuana from hemp without a THC test.
But the regulating difficulties could be well worth the trouble when one considers the economic possibilities. In 1998, the University of Kentucky estimated that legal cultivation of hemp could produce $17.6 million a year in worker earnings alone. Additionally, the controversial plant can grow in nearly any climate and needs neither pesticides nor herbicides because it is resistant to insects and grows faster than most weeds. Estimated earnings suggest that the crop would be more profitable than corn, soybeans, sorghum or hay.
Critics caution that hemp is not the miracle product supporters make it out to be. In order to process the crop, hemp mills would have to be established within a 60-mile radius of hemp-producing farms. There is currently also not a large demand for hemp products at this time, according to Judy Kreamer, president of Educating Voices, an anti-drug organization.
Kreamer might be correct in her assumptions about demand levels, but just as soy products were not commercially prevalent until recently, hemp has the potential for large-scale commercial applications.
The crop can be used as a wheat flour or lactose alternative. Its coarse fibers make clothing with a durability exceeding denim. Many health food stores have recently started importing hemp seeds, a viable source of protein which is low in fat. The ability to create a market for this diverse plant is certainly there, and many states are pondering the economic possibilities.
Illinois, one of 15 states currently debating legislation to research industrial hemp, was a major hemp producer less than 50 years ago. Considering the agricultural possibilities for their farm-centered economy, senators easily passed the bill, which awaits legislative action in the House.
If the bill is enacted, hemp research fields could mirror those of neighboring Canada, which legalized industrial hemp in 1998. Farmers there are subject to random THC tests by law-enforcement officials who monitor the hemp fields for hidden marijuana plants. Hemp growers are put under considerable financial risk if any narcotics are found amid their crops.
To successfully integrate hemp into the U.S. agricultural economy, cooperation between the DEA and farmers would have to occur. The visual similarities between hemp and marijuana are cause for concern, but hemp, with its low levels of THC, is no more harmful than poppy seeds. The possibilities are endless, and the obstacles can be navigated. U.S. farmers should be allowed to stretch their creativity, develop markets and increase their income.