April 3, 2009
A bipartisan group of agitating members of Congress introduced legislation Thursday to allow farmers to grow industrial hemp.
Currently eight states -- Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Montana, North Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia -- allow industrial hemp production or research, but federal law, which requires nearly-impossible-to-obtain-permits to grow hemp, trumps those state laws. The new bill would allow states to craft their own policy.
Hemp, a cousin of marijuana that can't get you stoned, is considered by the Drug Enforcement Administration to be a controlled substance because it kind of looks like pot. Synthetic fabric makers have long opposed hemp, which they see as competition.
The United Sates is the only nation that blocks its farmers from growing hemp, though hemp products are legal to import and to sell. Somebody would have to smoke several acres worth of hemp, which has negligible psychoactive properties, for that policy to make any sense.
But wild hemp continues to grow across the country. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan took the anti-hemp policy to its logical conclusion and ordered law enforcement to uproot wild hemp wherever it was found. It was a wild success: by 1989, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) estimated it uprooted 120 million of the plants that year, which it referred to in government reports as "ditchweed." In 2001, it eradicated half a billion such plants, though not even that total could get someone high. The war on ditchweed continues today, but the DEA has stopped its embarrassing habit of disclosing the total amount of useless plants it uproots.
The industrial hemp bill is being championed by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a powerful committee chairman and outspoken critic of the drug war, as well as Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), a libertarian-leaning former presidential candidate suspicious of federal power. Nine other members, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's close ally, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), cosponsored the bill.
"Federal law is standing in the way of farmers in these states growing what may be a very profitable crop," said Paul when introducing the bill.
Frank and Paul, in a letter [PDF] to congressional colleagues, note that "during World War II, the federal government encouraged industrial hemp farming to help the war effort."
The industrial hemp bill comes as policymakers are taking a fresh look at the war on drugs in light of the very real war in Mexico between the government and rival drug cartels. Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) has proposed an overhaul of the criminal justice system and Attorney General Eric Holder has vowed not to prosecute medical marijuana patients and clinics that are in compliance with state law.
Though the bill faces long odds in Congress, the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture has said it "supports revisions to the federal rules and regulations authorizing commercial production of industrial hemp." The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) has also passed a pro-hemp resolution.
Obama could change hemp policy without congressional action, noted Vote Hemp President Eric Steenstra. "Obama should direct the DEA to stop confusing industrial hemp with its genetically distinct cousin, marijuana. While the new bill in Congress is a welcome step, the hemp industry is hopeful that the new leadership in the White House will prioritize the crop's benefits to farmers," he said.
Ryan Grim is the author of the forthcoming book This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America