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Farming Hemp: Economic Boon, or Law Enforcement Nightmare?

February 8, 2013
hemp plants
Photo by Evelyn Simak  

Some legislators are eyeing hemp as a way to boost their states' economies. But will it just open doors for the drug trade?

Lawmakers and business leaders alike are promoting an unlikely way to boost economic development: Grow cannabis.

This week, U.S. Representatives Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) introduced H.R. 525, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2013, with 28 original co-sponsors. Later this month, U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are expected to introduce a Senate companion bill to H.R. 525. If passed, the bills would remove federal restrictions on the cultivation of industrial hemp, the non-drug oilseed and fiber varieties of cannabis.

"Industrial hemp is a sustainable crop and could be a great economic opportunity for Kentucky farmers," Massie says. "My wife and I are raising our children on the tobacco and cattle farm where my wife grew up. Tobacco is no longer a viable crop for many of us in Kentucky, and we understand how hard it is for a family farm to turn a profit these days. Industrial hemp will give small farmers another opportunity to succeed."

Massie's home state of Kentucky is currently embroiled in a heated debate, as momentum grows to bring back hemp farming and processing in the state. Kentucky leaders want their state to become the king of hemp, a plant that comes from the same species as marijuana, though doesn’t contain enough of the intoxicating ingredient to cause a high.

They want to help state farmers overcome the federal government’s treatment of hemp as an illegal drug, and produce it on an industrial scale, for use in items such as soap, horse bedding, building materials and auto body parts. Kentucky is one of at least five states, including Indiana and Vermont, where lawmakers have introduced measures allowing hemp farming.

The Kentucky effort is supported by legislative leaders, the state chamber of commerce, Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and agricultural commissioner James Comer, a Republican who campaigned on bringing the crop to his state.

"It could produce thousands of jobs," Comer said in an interview."Industrial hemp is totally different than marijuana. It should be treated like corn or soybeans."

U.S. retail sales of products with imported hemp were more than $452 million in 2011, according to an estimate by the Hemp Industries Association, based in Summerland, California.

All One God Faith Inc., a closely held company in Escondido, California, that markets Dr. Bronner’s soaps, is considering expanding to Kentucky if hemp is grown there, said David Bronner, the company’s chief executive officer. The soaps contain hemp.

Passing Laws

Since 1996, at least eight states have passed laws removing legal barriers to hemp farming, according to a report last year by the Congressional Research Service in Washington. Colorado voters in November signed off on hemp farming.

Even in those states, anyone who wants to grow hemp needs a permit from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said Dawn Dearden, an agency spokeswoman. Dearden said she didn’t know when the agency, which doesn’t distinguish between hemp and marijuana, last issued a permit and referred a question on the matter to the Justice Department. A telephone message left with the department’s press office wasn’t immediately returned.

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