Farming Hemp: Economic Boon, or Law Enforcement Nightmare?

07:21AM Feb 08, 2013
hemp plants
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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.

The hemp association is aware of only one DEA permit issued, for a now-ended research project in Hawaii, said Eric Steenstra, the group’s executive director.

Importing Hemp

U.S. businesses import hemp, usually from Canada and China. The plant is also grown in Europe, and is approaching harvest now in the Southern hemisphere.

Hemp has been a source of oilseed and fiber for centuries, according to the congressional report. It was grown in the U.S. from the colonial period until the mid-1800s, when cotton became more competitive as a clothing fabric. More than 30 countries grow hemp as an agricultural commodity.

The Kentucky State Police oppose growing hemp, saying fields could be used to hide marijuana and that pot growers will claim their plants are hemp, requiring state police to prove otherwise in overburdened state labs.

"It would be a nightmare," said Trooper Michael Webb, a police spokesman. "You can’t look at the plants and tell the difference between the two."

Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear, a Democrat, has said law enforcement concerns must be satisfied before he would support allowing hemp.

Cannabis Plant

The cannabis plants used for hemp typically look different from those cultivated for marijuana. Hemp grows taller and in a single main stalk with few leaves. Marijuana usually is bushy with leaves and branches to promote flowers and buds, according to the research service report.

The chemistry of the plants is more distinct. Marijuana typically contains about 10% tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which gives users a high, compared to less than 1% THC in hemp, according to the congressional service report.

A smoker would need a hemp joint the size of a telephone pole to get high, said Michael Bowman, a wheat farmer in Colorado. Bowman, 53, said he plans to plant hemp on 100 acres in April—without a permit. He said he doesn’t anticipate being prosecuted.

The law restricting hemp farming is the 1970 Controlled Substances Act. Those who raise hemp without a DEA permit risk as much as 20 years in prison and forfeiture of their property, according to federal guidelines.

Permit Application

An application for a DEA hemp permit is identical to asking for permission to grow pot.

Representative David Monson, a Republican in the North Dakota House and a wheat farmer, is among those who have unsuccessfully sought permission.

In 1999, Monson watched hemp growing across the Canada border, at a time when a disease was ruining wheat and barley. Rotating those crops with fast-growing, disease-resistant hemp was a way to fight the blight, Monson said in an interview.

North Dakota created a hemp farm licensing program. Two farmers applied, including Monson. Both got state permits and applied unsuccessfully to the DEA. The application process included a criminal background check and a questionnaire that asked questions like "Where are you going to sell this drug?" and "Will you have a 12-foot high chain link fence with guards and razor wire?"

Monson said he planted no hemp.

"I wasn’t going to do it without a permit," he said. "They could threaten to take my farm."

Comer and Bronner said that as more states approve hemp production, the DEA may be forced to change its approach.

"It’s becoming increasingly ridiculous that the non-drug form of cannabis is still caught up in this prohibition," Bronner said.