Slow, but progress on hemp

Congress and President Obama took a too-small step toward common sense with an amendment tucked inside the mammoth farm bill the president signed on Feb 7. But a step nonetheless. A provision legalizes the cultivation of industrial hemp for research purposes in states where industrial hemp is already legal under state law. Washington is among 10 states whose colleges and universities that can now grow hemp for research purposes.

The law supersedes our Legislature’s attempts to achieve the same results, according the Hemp Industries Association and the Washington Farm Bureau. The law defines and distinguishes industrial hemp from marijuana. It’s about time, if not decades overdue. The Drug Enforcement Agency, however, trying to confuse the issue to the end, opposed the amendment.

Marijuana and hemp are cousins, but while the plants look similar, their properties are totally different. Mainly, hemp doesn’t contain any of the psychoactive ingredients that give marijuana its “high.” A person cannot get high off hemp, a hardy and easy-to-grow crop. (Marijuana is “fussy,” not hardy and difficult to grow.) What one can do with hemp, however, is seemingly endless: It can be made into soft shirts and strong rope, it can be made into paper more easily, and with less chemicals, than wood. Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper, according to the North American Industrial Hemp Council. And the DEA may be surprised to know, it was grown commercially in the U.S. until the 1950s. All the hemp products now available here, of course come from somewhere else.

In 2011, the U.S. imported $11.5 million worth of legal hemp products, up from $1.4 million in 2000. Most of that growth was seen in hemp seed, which finds its way into granola bars and other products.

Which is why the new law, while finally acknowledging reality, doesn’t go far enough. What’s the point of only allowing hemp to be grown for research purposes? The whole point is to allow farmers to cultivate it and others to make products from it. Farmers and industry are still shut out of a lucrative market as more than 30 countries, including Canada, but dominated by China, grow hemp as an agricultural commodity.

“The market opportunities for hemp are incredibly promising — ranging from textiles and health foods to home construction and even automobile manufacturing,” said Eric Steenstra, the president of Vote Hemp. “This is not just a boon to U.S. farmers, this is a boon to U.S. manufacturing industries as well.”

Well, once it gets beyond the research phase, it will indeed be a boon.