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Why Hemp (Not to Be Confused with Pot) is Making a Comeback

Hemp – a substance that can't get you high but can be used to make products like paper and plastic – was banned along with marijuana because they have a similar chemical make-up. As states legalize pot, even more are legalizing hemp.


When Colorado legalized the use of marijuana last fall, voters also approved a provision that opens the door for farmers to once again grow and harvest hemp. Unlike marijuana, hemp can’t get you high. It can give you a massive headache, but it can’t get you high. And that’s the problem. In many people’s minds, hemp is erroneously intertwined with marijuana.

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It’s an association that led to the plant’s ban in 1970 under the Controlled Substances Act. Hemp and marijuana are both part of the cannabis family, but they’re different varieties. Hemp—first grown in the U.S. by Jamestown, Va., colonists—can be used to make several products, including food, fuel, paper, textiles and plastics. It contains very low levels of THC, the chemical in marijuana that produces a high. But after the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act by Congress in 1937, the federal government started to crack down on the plant, fearing marijuana and hemp were one and the same. The last legal hemp crop grown in the U.S. was in Wisconsin in 1958.

But with the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington state, the federal ban on hemp cultivation is being tested. This summer, a farmer in Colorado became the nation’s first commercial-scale hemp grower in almost 60 years when he sowed a 60-acre field with the plant. At the same time, other farmers in Colorado planted another two-dozen hemp crops, on smaller plots, and there are dozens more in eight other states. Colorado, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont and West Virginia now have laws to promote the growth and marketing of industrial hemp. And earlier this year, bills were introduced in the U.S. House and Senate that, if ever passed, would remove federal restrictions on the domestic cultivation of the crop.

Why the push to grow hemp now? Economics, for one thing. Hemp is still used in a host of things produced by major manufacturers, such as Ford Motor Co., Patagonia and The Body Shop. These companies have been importing hemp from Canada, China and Europe, leaving a lot of money on the table for American farmers.

But probably one of the strongest reasons to grow hemp again in the U.S. is an environmental one. In the quest for more sustainable crops, many see hemp as a no-brainer. Its cultivation does not need any particular climate or soil—it can be grown anywhere. It’s a dense plant, meaning sunlight cannot penetrate the leaves to reach the ground, so it’s free of weeds. It’s naturally resistant to pests so growing it doesn’t require pesticides or herbicides. It can be harvested just 120 days after planting, and it’s so leafy that it produces more oxygen than other crops. It could replace trees as the main source of raw material for wood and paper, thereby preserving forests. Fabrics made of hemp don’t have any chemical residue, making them safer for consumers and the environment. And hemp products can be recycled, reused and are 100 percent biodegradable.

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But unless Congress passes a bill to allow its cultivation, states and the federal government are at an impasse. The Controlled Substances Act doesn’t distinguish between marijuana and hemp. And while the Obama administration has said it will not challenge laws legalizing marijuana in Colorado and Washington, any farmer who opts to grow hemp is still at risk. Growing it could mean the loss of agricultural subsidies, farm equipment and livelihoods if federal agents raid a farm.

Indeed, the last word from Washington on the hemp issue was two years ago, when Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Obama administration’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, warned states in response to a petition seeking to legalize industrial hemp that, “Hemp and marijuana are part of the same species of cannabis plant. While most of the THC in cannabis plants is concentrated in the marijuana, all parts of the plant, including hemp, can contain THC, a Schedule I controlled substance.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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