DENVER, CO. May 12, 2015. Story by Mark Hudson/Potcha — Americans love hemp. We’re the world’s largest consumers of hemp products, a fact that has made hemp-growing nations rich on our dime. Take Canada. Hemp is a $1 billion a year industry for our northern neighbor, thanks largely to American demand for omega-balanced hempseed oil.
U.S. companies like Whole Foods Market have seen explosive growth in sales of hemp lotions, shampoos, satchels, T-shirts, birthday cards, food, hemp-infused water – you name it. Hemp is also used all over the world in an astonishing array of products. Famously “stronger than steel,” hemp fiber is used in Mercedes door panels, and “Hempcrete,” which outperforms fiberglass insulation, is fast becoming a key material for the green construction industry. Hemp fiber could also help make graphene both cheaper and more effective.
While hemp has climbed in popularity as a safe, clean, strong, largely organic fiber, American farmers have been left out of the economic boom. Hemp-growing has languished under federal prohibition for almost 80 years, leaving farmers with ideal land for the crop trying to eke out a living from far less profitable alternatives. Canadian farmers cleared $250 per acre from hemp in 2013, compared to a mere $71 per acre netted by U.S. farmers growing soy, according to South Dakota State University.
Hemp was once a boom industry for America. Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper. Pioneers in Colorado drove covered wagons protected by hemp canvas. American hemp – like our cotton – was the envy of the world, with U.S. seed stock seen as the gold standard, globally. Hemp farmers prospered growing a plant that only requires half the water of wheat or cotton, does not need pesticides, and produces fiber that is always in high demand. Hemp was so valuable from 1631 until the 1800s that it was considered acceptable legal tender, along with silver, gold, and cash. Kentucky was among the world’s leading producers of premium hemp.
The golden era ended in 1937, with the Marijuana Tax Act, which did not distinguish between industrial hemp and it’s psychoactive cousin, the marijuana plant. No one can get stoned trying to smoke hemp; it contains less than 0.3 percent THC (the ingredient that causes a “high”). By comparison, marijuana plants usually contain THC concentrations of between 5-20 percent. The 1937 Act did not outlaw hemp-growing, per se, it imposed an exorbitant transfer tax on hemp transactions that made the crop uneconomic.
Hemp production was briefly encouraged during World War II after Japan invaded the Philippines and cut off supplies of Manila hemp the U.S. Navy relied upon for rigging. (Hemp makes the world’s strongest rope). The U.S. Department of Agriculture stepped in to induce farmers to produce hemp for the war effort, lifting taxes to enable domestic supply. The brief respite ended after the war, and eventually industrial hemp was banned under the Controlled Substances Act, which makes no distinction between different species of cannabis.
Proponents of industrial hemp have been fighting the ban for decades, and in states like Kentucky hemp-growing continued illicitly. The landscape finally began to change in February 2014, when President Obama signed the farm bill, which included a measure introduced by Colorado Rep. Jared Polis (D) that legalized industrial hemp production for research purposes by colleges and universities, if permitted by state law. In the wake of the federal change, 20 states have now legalized industrial hemp production. Further protections were added in December under a hemp provision in the $1.1 trillion federal spending bill, which blocks Drug Enforcement Administration from using federal funds to disrupt industrial hemp research programs that are legal in a state.
The measure was added by Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie (R) after the DEA had U.S. Customs seize a 286-pound shipment of Italian hemp seed bound for the state’s agriculture department. Kentucky’s seed imports were legal, but that did not prevent a stand-off with federal officials. Shortly after, the DEA seized another shipment of hemp seeds, this time destined for Colorado. Agency director Michele Leonhart, a fierce opponent of all things cannabis, including the innocuous hemp, has since stood down. No, not because her agency was involved in willful obstruction, stuck in 1950s reefer-madness mindset, and at odds with the president – she got the shove ostensibly because of a sex scandal involving DEA agents.
The farm bill hemp provision breathed a little life into the hemp industry, giving hundreds of small family farmers fresh hope. The new era they are hoping for will only be ushered in by the Industrial Hemp Farming Act, introduced in January 2015 by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), which would legalize commercial hemp cultivation nationally. Colorado, already ahead of federal law on cannabis, is already leading the pack of states allowing commercial hemp cultivation.
Hemp’s economic potential is too vast for lawmakers to ignore, so the bipartisan Act is expected to pass with a sizable majority. In comments to Congress in January 2015, Rep. Polis said, “The federal ban on hemp has been a waste of taxpayer dollars that ignores science, suppresses innovation, and subverts the will of states that have chosen to incorporate this versatile crop into their economies. I am hopeful that Congress will build on last year’s progress on hemp research and pilot programs by passing the Industrial Hemp Farming Act to allow this historical American crop to once again thrive on our farmlands.”
In drought-stricken areas of California and Kansas, family farmers close to walking off their land are counting the days. The 2015 NoCo convention in Denver was jammed with local farmers ready to put the last of their life-savings into the crop they believe could save their land and secure an agricultural future for their children. Zev Paiss, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Hemp Association, said hemp’s market potential is much stronger than marijuana’s will ever be. “While most of us are only familiar with hemp as a fabric, it is used in some 25,000 to 50,000 products,” Paiss said. “You can buy hemp milk at your local grocery store, hemp ice cream at some gas stations, silky-soft hemp clothing in malls, and hemp products loaded with Cannabidiols, or CBD’s, for medicinal use are showing up nationwide.”
Colorado quietly cultivated 200 acres in 2014. This year will see the states second crop in almost 60 years. Colorado is the only state that allows unfettered growing as long as farmers obtain permits from the state’s Department of Agriculture. Growers intending to cultivate on a commercial scale are required to pay a $500 registration fee, plus a fee per each acre sewn.
Though it’s no longer a legal battle to grow within Colorado, getting hemp off the ground again won’t happen overnight. Would-be farmers face a severe seed shortage. America’s coveted hemp seed stock became a casualty of prohibition, along with hundreds of small family farms. To restart, American farmers will have to import hemp cultivars from seed stock worldwide. Because soil and climatic conditions vary from state to state, distinct cultivars must then be trialed, acclimatised, and developed to produce seeds perfectly adapted to their growing conditions – it took Canada eight years to perfect its enviable seed stock.
In the climate-change era, few crops offer the versatility and diversity of hemp. Farmers in Texas will be able to grow the crop as successfully as farmers in North Dakota or Colorado. Rushing to get seed stock underway, a few entrepreneurs harvested wild hemp in Nebraska in 2014 – descendents of legally grown World War II varietals — selling seeds to Colorado growers willing to experiment. The offspring proved to be as rangy as the parent plants – ditch weed by any other name – and less than ideal for Colorado’s soil and altitude.
“It would be wonderful if there was a certified seed distribution center that farmers could access,” Paiss said. “The demand is there, but it’s the federal blockage of imported seed that’s holding planting back.” Until federal law is changed or the state itself takes a more active role in importing seeds, he fears Colorado farmers and the industry as a whole will be hampered. Though Colorado a federal permit to import and distribute seed to universities and other approved researchers, “that program has not yet been set up,” says Paiss, who wants to see the state government get more involved in resolving seed availability. “I know of over 30,000 acres farmers want to sew with hemp, but they can’t legally get quality seeds.”
The Industrial Hemp Farming Act will smooth the path for investment in the has the backing of Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky as well as freshmen Senator Cory Gardner (R-Col.), who is on record saying hemp legalization would create jobs and “has the potential to be a major boon to Colorado agriculture, giving farmers another viable and profitable option for their fields.”
Gov. John Hickenlooper appears lukewarm on the prospect of yet another job-creating industry for his state. In a Colorado Public Radio interview last year he showered faint praise upon hemp as a “niche crop without much of a market” worldwide. However he won’t stand in the way of farmers who envision thousands of planted acres and an agricultural rebirth that does not rely upon fracking revenue. Hickenlooper has said he supports legalization efforts and has asked federal regulators to permit the controlled importation of seeds.
The world’s leader in hemp production these days is China, which increasingly faces challenges to the quality of its product, mostly from environmental pollution and low quality thresholds. American farmers could offer stiff competition and could expect to secure a significant chunk of the domestic market. Hemp product manufacturers who spoke with me at the 2nd annual Northern Colorado Hemp Expo (NoCo), Denver almost unanimously agreed that they would source their raw hemp in the U.S. rather than importing it, as soon as the law changes.
“We have no choice, right now,” said Edmundo Correa, operations manager for Hemp Traders, a leading hemp textile company that supplies numerous clothing manufacturers. “We are watching closely, waiting for the American industry to move ahead.”
NoCo also held its convention in Loveland, Colorado where exhibitors encountered, firsthand, the confusion that has dogged the industry ever since hemp was bundled into the Controlled Substances Act. Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith refused to allow hemp plants and germinating seeds to be sold at the expo, despite legal permits. Event organizer Morris Beegle, said, “The Sheriff’s position is that it’s still Schedule 1 and illegal on the federal level, and he can’t tell the difference between a hemp plant and a marijuana plant.”
Frustrated farmers hoping to lay their hands on seedlings may not have to wait much longer. After months of wrangling, the Colorado Department of Agriculture has finally secured a DEA permit to import industrial hemp seed from foreign countries. The seeds are essential to kick-start Colorado’s legal industry, which officials say has been constrained by a bottleneck in research and cultivation due to a lack of viable seed stocks. With the new federal permit in place, the first shipments of seed could arrive by late May 2015, mostly from Italian universities.
“There’s plenty of seed out there,” said Mitch Yergert, head of the hemp program within Colorado’s Department of Agriculture. Yergert added that the difficulty involved “getting a registration and then getting an import permit and making sure all that lines up to be able to import the product.”
Yergert says most of the seed will go to Colorado State University and the University of Colorado-Boulder, where researchers will use them to grow more reliable seeds that farmers can plant in a certified seed program. Under a pilot program, individual farmers may also partner with the Colorado Department of Agriculture to grow the seed for research purposes.