For centuries, North Americans have utilized hemp in their homes, diets, and health regimens. For decades, we've also turned to imported products to meet much of our growing need.
And now, after years of major change for US agriculture and industry, real investment in this versatile crop stands to significantly elevate our economy and quality of life for generations to come.
The idea of upping hemp production is already common ground politically. As farmers have faced water shortages, unstable markets, and punishing seasonal conditions, communities around the country have pressured lawmakers to help them restore US agriculture with more profitable, sustainable plants.
Hemp has long been seen to fit that bill. Best known for its use in textiles, it offers wide-ranging applications that countless sectors are keen to get in on.
For example, hemp seeds in whole or processed form contain an impressive amount of protein, nutrients, and essential fatty acids, among other things — offering an efficient way to boost nutrition in human and animal diets — while hemp seed oil has increasingly become a preferred ingredient in common food, beauty, and health products.
Its sturdy fibers have also been put to growing use in high-quality plastics and auto paneling, durable building materials, and other common industrial commodities. And when it comes to environmental impact, hemp is not only a low-fuss crop capable of flourishing in US farmland; it can also clean up tainted water and soil, bully weeds away, and be converted into biodiesel.
Unlike other Cannabis sativa varieties and hybrids, which are mostly grown for their chemically potent flowers (or 'buds'), hemp is also legally distinguished from marijuana in the US as containing less than 0.3% of the cannabinoid chemical THC — considered to be the most intoxicating, psychoactive component in cannabis plants, as well as a treatment option for certain serious illnesses.
So while hemp crops can be used to extract the non-intoxicating chemical cannabidiol, or CBD, which has a demonstrated and growing list of compelling health uses, they can't get anyone high.
In short, it's no wonder that hemp has been described as an industrial 'miracle plant.'
For Rocc Johnson, owner and operator of New Orleans' Uptown Hemp, the plant has become both his calling in life and a way to revitalize the economy in his home state.
"I'm so excited and humbled to be part of the [cannabis] industry that's coming to Louisiana," he commented by phone. "For me, it's not about money at all; it's about a better way of life, and helping people get the knowledge to help other people."
Johnson said he got the idea to get involved in marijuana and hemp from his uncle, a member of Louisiana's National Guard, and from his mother, who died from cancer in 2011 after "never smoking or drinking in her life."
Prior to 2005's Hurricane Katrina, which caused widespread destruction and fatalities across New Orleans, Johnson had moved to California, and spent years there soaking up knowledge and culture around cannabis plants and the industry. After witnessing the pain and nausea his mother experienced during her treatment, Johnson decided to help bring the medicinal and economic value of cannabis back to his hometown, starting with hemp.
Today he sells numerous hemp-made items, from shoes to shirts, as well as a range of hemp-based health and medicinal products. After some productive networking at recent cannabis conventions, he's also in talks with Julian Marley to distribute his products around the country, and hopes to help bring a full-scale hemp festival — codename Hemp Hop — to New Orleans next year.
Down the line, Johnson also plans to create an onsite grow-space in the large two-story building where he's set up shop. In addition to getting deep satisfaction from the relief that customers say his CBD products provide, Johnson remains enthralled with "the fun side" of hemp production: namely, planting a seed and letting it grow. "It's just like in life," he added. "I can't say enough about the process, about the feeling of actually producing something."
The arguments for hemp's advantages are mostly long-standing (aside from ongoing discoveries about cannabinoids, new applications in nanotechnology and industrial oils, and so on). But our current opportunities to advance hemp's status as a crop — as well as a transformed cultural climate for cannabis generally — certainly qualify as 'groundbreaking' conditions.
One way that proponents have sought to steer US agriculture toward hemp is through the next federal 'Farm Bill,' an omnibus package of food and agriculture policy that lawmakers can renew every five years.
Since 2013, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Rep. Earl Blumenaur (D-OR), and other members of Congress have been gathering support to bolster hemp production through this process; they also helped to pass a 2014 version of the package, currently in effect, with new allowances for agricultural hemp pilot programs.
Like most major bills, the latest Farm Bill has not been free of controversy. At present, legislators have seemingly missed their Sept. 30 deadline to approve the package, which has stirred numerous arguments in Congress over its core principles, funding levels, and a proposed work requirement for low-income recipients of food assistance.
Under the Senate-approved version of the bill, hemp and derivatives, hemp extracts, and cannabinoids derived from hemp "would be treated as agricultural commodities and removed from the purview of the Controlled Substances Act and the Drug Enforcement Administration," according to CannaLawBlog.
The more recently House-approved version, which introduced the well-publicized provision affecting up to two million Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients, doesn't take such steps to remove federal barriers around hemp. It also stipulates that anyone with a felony drug conviction would be barred indefinitely from participating in federal or state hemp programs.
According to many industry members, the latter provision — which would become permanent law, requiring change at the federal level to get rid of —would also exclude key populations from contributing to and benefiting from an enriched industry.
Cannabis entrepreneur and organizer Bonita "Bo" Money called the idea of blocking members of the previous illegal industry from joining the new, legal one "ridiculous" — much like hemp's continued Schedule I drug status, she said.
Money, who founded the National Diversity and Inclusion Cannabis Alliance (NDICA) and left a Hollywood career to promote equity in cannabis businesses, explained that the programs she helps run in California and Wisconsin take the opposite stance on prior experience.
"Here in Los Angeles, we make sure that applicants to our equity program have had a cannabis conviction, or come from zip codes affected by the war on drugs." Money said. "For [lawmakers] to ban people with experience working in hemp from doing so again is ridiculous."
In Wisconsin, she and her team are in the process of setting up the only social equity, Black-owned hemp farm in the state, where they hope to create more jobs for Black farmers, and plan to primarily hire military veterans and ex-offenders under the US' long drug war — in other words, people with the need and/or skills for this new career.
As in Los Angeles' equity program, the group will offer participants mentorship, job placement, and help with starting businesses in Wisconsin's hemp industry, where close to 220 hemp licenses have already been issued under the current Farm Bill; they also plan to provide on-site housing for participants struggling with homelessness, which often impacts veterans and those recently released from prison.
"By not allowing ex-offenders to work, and not giving support and licenses to black farmers and small businesses, [officials] are trying to keep people of color out of a billion-dollar industry that they payed the price for."
Rather than keeping people out of the industry, Money thinks regulators should focus on helping farmers sell their products: for example, by connecting them with the "biomass brokers" who deal in the fibers, stalks, and seed matter produced by industrial hemp. "What I'm finding is that a lot of farmers in Wisconsin don't know what to do with their products," she said. "We tried to get a list of licensed farmers to help connect them with brokers, but the state wouldn't release that list."
In the meantime, Money said, the hemp industry is continuing to grow under current legal conditions, though a Wisconsin rule prohibiting hemp extracts had been requiring her to export hemp from the state for extraction. Still, business is good, she said. "We have investors approaching us all the time, wanting to be a part of what we're doing."
Hemp activist and entrepreneur Joy Beckerman, who has spent decades building the US hemp movement, and assists many of the world's leading hemp advocacy and industry groups, said it's still likely that Congress will pass a pro-hemp version of the Farm Bill in the coming months — hopefully without added blows to communities that have been hurt most by nearly a century of cannabis prohibition.
“As data have proven over and over again, the war on drugs has dramatically, disproportionately impacted minorities and people of color, and [bans on ex-offenders] would continue that discrimination,” Beckerman commented by phone.
She also believes that the Senate's Farm Bill would alleviate confusion caused by the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)'s issuance of conflicting “guidance” to state and federal agencies, which leaves them "scratching their heads," and often "bullies them into making decisions that directly contradict the legislative intent and spirit of the last version of the Farm Bill," Beckerman said.
"This version of the Farm Bill deliberately amends six different Acts and broadens the definition of ‘hemp’ to fully and finally remove all ambiguities and make way for hemp as agricultural commodity in the United States of America, with crop insurance and all,” Beckerman explained.
To illustrate how hemp programs can wither without proper support, she pointed to California, where regulators continue struggling to keep up with rules and infrastructure for the more potent (and popular) marijuana industry, from lab tests to license approvals; the state's hemp operators, meanwhile, are still waiting for their official license application to come out.
Even though Congress didn’t pass such a bill in time to move on from the 2014 version yet, Beckerman said, farmers and leaders can continue under the permanent protections of the current agricultural pilot program pathway to learn how and where to invest their time and resources in the industry, rather than dive in without a strategy in place.
“Folks at the various state Departments of Agriculture are so excited to bring in hemp – excited to introduce any crop, really, and especially to reintroduce this extraordinarily versatile one,” Beckerman said. “But they’re not experts; they’re learning like anybody else. So getting in there, looking at proposed legislation and rules to make sure [proposals] actually make sense for the crop – on an agronomic level, on a regulatory level – and monitoring changes to that legislation, regulation, or industry, is common sense.” She went on,
The repeal of prohibition of marijuana, the repeal of prohibition of industrial hemp, has never been done in the US before. And right now it’s about the chopping of the wood, the carrying of the water, and engaging in the process, and bringing it all the way home. The work is just beginning.
Beckerman also urged supporters of hemp (and of its danker cousin) to be more vigilant than ever about federal and state-level law and policy moves going forward. “Special interests and residual hysteria will continue to try to get in there, to stomp on the little guy, and on consumer rights and safety, and to over-regulate, so it’s more important than ever that we organize and engage,” she said.
"Farmers are suffering around the country; the soil is suffering."
All told, a strong American hemp industry could provide billions of dollars in renewable revenues and hundreds of thousands of jobs, especially in regions that have been devastated by damaging and/or departed industries and under-invested social resources, Beckerman said.
Money pointed out that hemp is already poised to outshine recreational and medical cannabis production, and that CBD products (which hemp can provide) are currently outselling THC products at a rate of 10:1.
"Moving forward, hemp will be even bigger than cannabis," she said. "[Lawmakers] need to look at the history: when George Washington was president, people were required to grow hemp. If they didn't, he'd throw them in jail."
She continued, "Hemp affects so many industries — its uses are never-ending — and I think the government is afraid of that."
" Hemp could change the world, not just the US. It will change communities, it will change the way we treat medically. It will improve our lifestyle, completely."
"Everyone deserves the opportunity to create generational wealth for their families," Money added, "and to have that quality of life."
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