For decades, the many uses of the hemp plant have been known, and more are discovered every year. However, the plant also carries a stigma that environmentalists have worked hard to shake.
Because hemp contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana, growing it is banned under the federal Controlled Substances Act. But recent pushes by six states to pass legislation allowing farmers to grow industrial hemp have gone hand-in-hand with the efforts of Congressman and Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul of Texas to allow states to enact such legislation (H.R. 1009).
In a recent New York Times article, North Dakota State Legislator David C. Monson said, "This is not any subversive thing like trying to legalize marijuana or whatever. This is just practical agriculture. We're desperate for something that can make us some money."
Mr. Monson, a farmer himself, worked to pass a bill for industrial hemp after a fungus called "scab" began destroying crops around the state. As a result of his efforts, North Dakota passed the bill, created a licensing process for hemp farmers, and set up a global positioning satellite to track fields.
This could be an important first step in reforming the ambiguous Controlled Substances Act, which groups marijuana and hemp together in the same category. Because of this and a perpetual notoriety, this miracle crop has not entered United States agriculture. More importantly, many imported products are made with hemp, including car insulation, clothes, and a variety of other things.
What this means is that the American consumer can purchase hemp products made abroad, but domestic farmers are out of luck. In this age of sustainability, riddled with cries of "Buy American," opening up the agriculture market for hemp in the U.S. would provide an eco-friendly and prosperous opportunity.
The real distinction between marijuana grown for substance abuse and industrial hemp grown for agriculture is the THC content. Industrial hemp has considerably less THC, usually lower than 1%. Hemp is also grown for its seeds, fibers, and oils rather than for flowers and leaves, which are harvested for marijuana. Because of this, it would be impossible for someone to receive any mind-altering effects from smoking industrial hemp.
These seeds, fibers, and oils can be used for virtually unlimited applications, including clothing, food, cosmetics, and multitudes of other products, including other textile and wood composites. These uses make industrial hemp an incredibly versatile and eco-friendly crop.
Another benefit of growing industrial hemp is its compatibility with organic agriculture. Hemp is generally very weed-resistant, and therefore requires little or no herbicides to grow. Crops are generally not substantially affected by pests, which helps to reduce the need for pesticides. In this sense, hemp is very similar in needs and production costs to corn, which means it is very cheap and easy to grow. Many other countries have already figured this out, and have begun utilizing industrial hemp for many of its seemingly limitless applications.
If the United States could ditch its unfounded reservations about industrial hemp, it would open a whole new agricultural market and allow farmers such as those in North Dakota to get back into direct competition with the large, heavily subsidized farms that grow corn and soy. These products, while cheap and versatile, pale in comparison to the many uses of hemp.
In order for this to happen, however, an aggressive public relations drive is necessary to distance industrial hemp from its mind-altering cousin and espouse the many benefits of growing the crop: growing it opens agricultural opportunities, manufacturing derived products creates jobs, and purchasing those products supports the country's economy and makes us a little more green.
For information on the variety of uses of industrial hemp, visit the North American Industrial Hemp Council.