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The Federal War on Hemp

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It is one of the earliest-known domesticated plants. It is resistant to saltwater. It doesn’t require pesticides or harsh fertilizers. For hundreds of years all the major European maritime powers needed it to maintain their fleets. Its fiber is suitable for making clothes, paper, building material, and insulation. It can be turned into biofuel and converted to biomass. Mechanical Engineering magazine once hailed it as “the most profitable and desirable crop that can be grown.” It has nutritional benefits. It can be used as animal bedding. It can be used in the production of soap and cosmetics. It is biodegradable. Rudolph Diesel designed his engine to run on its oil.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture once extolled it as a high-yield, low-maintenance, excellent rotation crop. The ships of the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock were equipped with it. The Puritans cultivated it in New England. It was once America’s third-largest crop, behind only cotton and tobacco. The first American flags were made from its cloth. It once served in colonial America as legal tender. Its fiber made uniforms for George Washington’s soldiers. “Sow it everywhere,” implored Washington, who himself planted and harvested it. Thomas Jefferson also grew it and praised it as a cash crop over “pernicious” tobacco. He penned the original draft of the Declaration of Independence on paper made from it. A parachute made out of it once saved the life of the future president George Herbert Walker Bush during World War II. The federal government produced a motivational film in 1942 urging farmers to grow lots of it to help support the war effort. To help farmers cultivate more than 300,000 acres of it during the war years, the government gave farmers subsidies for doing so.

I am speaking of the plant Cannabis sativa, better known as cannabis or hemp. But since it is also known as marijuana, it is classified by the federal government as a Schedule I controlled substance (along with heroin and LSD), and it is therefore illegal on the federal level to cultivate it — not just for recreational use, but for medicinal, therapeutic, or industrial uses.

The plant clearly leads a double life, but because of the federal government’s irrational obsession with waging war on marijuana, the focus is always on its darker side.

Although the United States is the largest consumer of hemp products, it is the only industrialized nation that prohibits industrial hemp cultivation. Every industrial product in America made from hemp is legal, but the plant itself is illegal. It remains legal to import raw and refined hemp products. The United States actually exports hemp products made from imported hemp.

Just as many states have legalized marijuana for medical use, and a few states even for recreational use, so some states have legalized the cultivation of hemp for industrial purposes. Nevertheless, because hemp is a controlled substance, it is still illegal under federal law and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration has refused to issue permits for farmers to grow it.

There is an attempt in Congress to change all of this.

Two Democratic senators from Oregon, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, just recently introduced a bill (S.359) “to amend the Controlled Substances Act to exclude industrial hemp from the definition of marihuana [sic].” Bills like this normally die in a Senate committee. That is what happened when Senator Wyden introduced the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2012 last year. And it is also what happened when Rep. Ron Paul introduced into the House the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2011.

This time, however, Senators Wyden and Merkley are joined by two Republican co-sponsors, both from Kentucky: Sen. Rand Paul and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. According to a press release from McConnell’s office,

The Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2013 would remove federal restrictions on the domestic cultivation of industrial hemp. Specifically, the bill would remove hemp from the Schedule I controlled substance list under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, and would define it as a non-drug so long as it contained less than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Oregon is among eight states that have already defined industrial hemp as distinct from marijuana and removed barriers to production, and the Kentucky state Senate Agriculture Committee this week unanimously approved a bill to license hemp producers. However under current law, farmers in states that allow hemp must still seek a waiver from the Drug Enforcement Administration or risk raids and seizures by federal agents.

Said Senator Paul, “The Industrial Hemp Farming Act paves the way to creating jobs across the country — from Kentucky to Oregon and everywhere else. Allowing American farmers to cultivate industrial hemp and benefit from its many uses will boost our states’ economies and bring much-needed jobs in the agriculture community.” Said Senator McConnell, “I am proud to introduce legislation with my friend Rand Paul and Senate colleagues that will allow Kentucky farmers to harness the economic potential that industrial hemp can provide. During these tough economic times, this legislation has the potential to create jobs and provide a boost to Kentucky’s economy and to our farmers and their families.”

Senator Paul even testified before Kentucky’s Senate Agriculture Committee in favor of hemp while wearing a shirt made of it. “I wanted to show off my hemp shirt,” Paul said. “I had to buy it in Canada though. And we have soap manufacturers who would like to use the seed from hemp-plant — they got to import it. So, basically, we’re exporting our profit to Canada. I see no reason why we wouldn’t want to be a leader in this.”

A companion bill (H.R.525) has already been introduced in the U.S. House by Rep. Thomas Massie — a Republican from Kentucky. It has 28 co-sponsors.

That the two senators and a congressman from the Bluegrass State are in favor of home-grown industrial hemp comes as no surprise, considering that Kentucky was a center of hemp cultivation after the Civil War and produced more than 90 percent of the nation’s hemp before the Second World War. In Kentucky in 1996, actor Woody Harrelson was arrested after brazenly planting four hemp seeds in full view of the county sheriff’s office in Lexington.

The Toyota Company, which builds cars in Kentucky, has spoken in favor of hemp legalization, saying it wants to use the fibers in car panels and insulation. Naturally, some law-enforcement groups in Kentucky oppose industrial hemp because they say it is a step that could lead to the legalization of marijuana.

Drug warriors who likewise oppose the production of industrial hemp offer all kinds of reasons for their opposition but ignore the real issue.

Whether there are alternatives superior to hemp is not the issue. Whether hemp production would be insignificant compared with flax and cotton is not the issue. Whether other crops provide more nutritional benefits than hemp is not the issue. Whether crops other than hemp have lower processing costs is not the issue. Whether other crops have textile qualities that are better than hemp is not the issue. Whether other crops that can be turned into biofuel eclipse hemp in terms of efficiency is not the issue. Whether other crops that can be used for biomass exceed hemp in the amount of energy they can generate from a given amount of mass is not the issue. Whether a revived hemp industry would be quite unlike the hemp industry of colonial days is not the issue. Whether modern substitutes for hemp are more functional and less expensive is not the issue. Whether the advent of modern synthetic materials has made hemp obsolete is not the issue. Whether plastic offers greater longevity and resilience than hemp fiber is not the issue. Whether hemp is not a viable crop is not the issue. Whether hemp for industrial use is not the panacea that its promoters maintain is not the issue.

Whether hemp for industrial use would be a Trojan horse for the production of intoxicating marijuana is not the issue. Whether supporters of legalizing hemp for industrial use are just using its legalization as a springboard to getting marijuana legalized is not the issue. Whether industrial hemp legalization is just a slippery slope to pot legalization is not the issue. Whether advocates of industrial hemp just want to get high is not the issue.

The real issue is that the federal government has no authority whatsoever to criminalize, prohibit, control, or regulate the planting, growing, harvesting, or selling of any plant regardless of whether it is used for industrial, medicinal, therapeutic, or recreational use.

Every member of Congress who swears an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States” and “bear true faith and allegiance to the same” — regardless of how he personally feels about the government’s war on hallucinogenic drugs and regardless of whether his state has the potential to sustain a hemp industry — should be clamoring to pass any federal legislation that legalizes the production of hemp.

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