Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Victory for hemp? Something is growing on in Kentucky: re-igniting the industrial hemp debate in 2013.

An agricultural renaissance may be on the horizon; Midwestern states such as Kentucky are leading the way to Washington DC with bipartisan support. This month politicians made several key strides and pushes towards the legalization of industrial hemp farming. Kentucky made headlines on the 14th of February when the state senate voted to approve a measure (SB 50) that would allow the licensing of hemp growers should the federal government permit cultivation of the crop. The Kentucky Senate Agriculture committee voted unanimously in favor of the bill while the full senate passed the bill with a 31 to 6 vote.

The mention of farming hemp may conjure mental images of the natural-fabric-wearing and biodegradable-soap-using counterculture for some, but the truth is hemp is a significant contributor to America’s agricultural history. Hemp cultivation dates back to the late 1700’s and was grown by notable historic figures such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson before it was heavily taxed in the late thirties and later banned in the 70’s. The crop was used as a textile fiber, supplying material for cord and sailcloth in the 1800’s and is currently used in a variety of commercial industries around the world. In the early 1900’s Kentucky produced the majority of the United States’ hemp supply so it should come as no surprise that the state’s representatives are leading the way in Washington.

Although several states condone and permit the cultivation of industrial hemp, growing industrial hemp is currently illegal and farmers are subject to the DEA’s enforcement and prosecution. Industrial hemp is illegal because no distinction is made between cannabis cultivars. The narcotic variety and hemp marijuana are both Cannabis Sativa, but they contain different levels of THC and have very different phenotypes. Hemp does not contain enough THC to have a narcotic effect and unlike its shrubby high-inducing counterpart is a tall, fibrous plant with more stalk than foliage.

The distinction between the two varieties of cannabis sativa is what lawmakers in Kentucky and other states seek to define. Republicans and Democrats in Kentucky and DC are reaching across the aisle and teaming up to garner support for H.R. 525 The Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2013. This resolution seeks to amend the controlled substances act by excluding industrial hemp from the definition of marijuana.

It might seem odd that republican representatives and red states are in strong support of drug legislation reform, but many of these politicians are citing agricultural renewal and economic opportunity as the reason for a renewed dialogue on the issue. Hemp products and goods that contain hemp are part of a very profitable industry. In fact, the Hemp Industries Association estimated hemp product sales of more than 400 million dollars in 2011. Industrial hemp could provide substantial economic growth in depressed agricultural areas where previous industries such as tobacco or cotton have foundered. Industrial hemp proponents have a wide array of support in rural and agricultural industries, including the Grange and the National Farm Lobby. However, resistance remains among politicians and law enforcement who are convinced that legalizing industrial hemp will be both expensive and problematic. In order to ensure H.R. 525 doesn’t meet the same fate as the previous industrial hemp farming acts (H.R. 1009, 1866 and 1831) proponents will have to find new and constructive ways to present the issue.


Hannah said...

Something seems so odd about this - Republicans agitating for a less blunt set of drug laws, and Democrats on the side of law enforcement. I worked on Steve Beshear's campaign in 2007, when he was first elected, but here it seems like he's on the wrong side of the problem. I'm hoping his stake is in the politics, and not the outcome: expanding diversity of crop production for a hurting agricultural state like Kentucky seems like a positive thing. I'll be interested to see how this story develops.

Imron Bhatti said...

I'm interested in watching this play out as well. Hemp has been surrounded by a lot of hype, but it seems pretty clear that it's far far far less land and water intensive than cotton. It is my understanding that the plant can actually be fairly difficult to visibly distinguish from marijuana, which may be the basis for Beshear's criticisms. That said, Beshear's perceptions of marijuana and the 'war on drugs' are slowly yet steadily eroding in the public & political sphere, so hopefully this cash cow won't be held back for long.