Hemp on the ropes 

Efforts to liberalize hemp growing could offer jobs and revenues

Back in the 1970s, a friend of mine was headed to Missouri on a motorbike. Due to the low horsepower and speed of his vehicle, he stuck to the back roads. As he cruised through rural Indiana he looked over and gosh-a-mighty there was a field of marijuana as far as the eye could see. Feeling like he'd hit the jackpot on a one-armed bandit he grabbed as much as he could carry and headed on down the road.

When he finally got around to smoking it, imagine his surprise when it didn't get him high. It was probably a wild hemp field left over from World War II, when it was widely grown as part of the war effort. Back then, the U.S. government produced and distributed Hemp for Victory, a film encouraging farmers to grow hemp because industrial fiber was in short supply.

Hemp is the non-psychoactive cousin of marijuana. It has about a 0.3 percent level of THC, the part of marijuana that gets you high, while marijuana's level is more like 5 percent to 10 percent. There are some 25,000 products made from hemp or with hemp ingredients or parts, from textiles to soap to cooking oil to cars. Yet almost all of them come from outside of the United States, because the hemp plant is lumped in with marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug along with the likes of heroin and cocaine. Even during World War II, farmers who grew it needed a special permit.

"The United States has sweeping anti-marijuana laws that don't recognize that hemp is not the same as marijuana," says LaMar Lemmons Jr., a former state representative who introduced three bills supporting hemp in Lansing last year.

"The Chinese make a massive amount of hemp products, everything from foodstuffs to bricks. There's a biodegradable plastic that's made from hemp, there's a brick that's stronger than concrete. It's all part of the new green economy."

Lemmons' bills — one called for Congress to reschedule industrial hemp and remove barriers to farming it, another for a feasibility study on growing hemp in the state, a third to allow hemp farming here without DEA permits — went to the Committee on Agriculture and died when the new legislative body came in on Jan. 1. Lemmons, who retired due to term limits, says the main problem around hemp is "ignorance."

"For lack of a better word, people are unfamiliar with the difference between psychoactive and non-psychoactive," Lemmons says. "They see no upside and they're hesitant to do anything courageous or think outside of the box."

Maybe a little education would help. That's certainly the goal of the Michigan Industrial Hemp Education and Marketing Project that is, according to its website, "working to expand hemp as a natural resource for industrial and private enterprise." MIHEMP is holding an Industrial Hemp Education Bazaar Feb. 19, at the Atlanta Senior Center in Atlanta, in northern Michigan. The event will feature hemp products for sale, speakers on hemp farming, workshops connecting retailers with producers of hemp products, video presentations and hemp history. There will be an auction too — though I'm not sure what folks will be bidding on.

"We'll have a hemp block that is a mixture of hemp and lime. They built a house out of it in Asheville, N.C.," says Everett Swift, director of MIHEMP. "We import $350 million of raw hemp materials each year. It's used in Dr. Bronner's soap; Johnson Controls uses it to make switches. Importing drives the cost up. It could create a new crop for farmers, and it's better for the environment than many crops."

Swift's most immediate legislative goal is to get Montmorency County — Atlanta is the county seat — to pass a resolution in favor of industrial hemp farming in order to push the state Legislature to act on the issue. In an "up North" area where agriculture is a frontline reality, that seems to make sense.

That's also the case in tiny Benzie County, population 15,998, just south of the Traverse City area.

"Two of our main farmers, they're just waiting for hemp to become legal so they can start growing it," says the Rev. Steven B. Thompson, director of Michigan NORML. "If our agricultural community were allowed to grow hemp, it would create jobs. Companies are now buying hemp, but bringing it in from other countries. It would help our farmers. Farms in this area are suffering greatly."

Hemp is the flip side of the cannabis coin. While medical marijuana activists tout the economic benefits of the medical marijuana industry, and those fighting to outright legalize the weed tout the potential revenues of a regulate-and-tax approach, hemp itself may be good medicine for the economy.

There is a page on the MIHEMP website (tinyurl.com/5t9xh2a) that displays an amazing number of products that can be made from hemp. The seed itself seems to be a trove of plenty, used in the making of such edible products as bread, ice cream, protein powder, salad oil, margarine and granola. The seed also contributes ingredients for shampoos, cosmetics, diesel fuel, printing ink and pet foods. The fibrous stalk accounts for numerous textile products, fiberboard, insulation, paper products and ethanol. That's a short list. Note that the leaves and flowers aren't used, although in marijuana those are the main source of THC.

At last year's Electric Vehicle trade show in Vancouver, Canada's Motive Industries debuted the Kestrel, a four-seat car with an outer shell made of a hemp-based composite. Production is to kick off this year. But that's in Canada, where regulated hemp agriculture was legalized in 1998. It's a wonder Canadians have enough hemp for manufacturing; U.S. companies buy up about 90 percent of Canada's hemp harvest.

Hemp has a venerable history in the United States. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were hemp farmers, and early drafts of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were written on hemp paper (which reportedly does not yellow with age). For those concerned with the environment, one acre of hemp is said to yield four times the pulp used for paper-making than an acre of trees.

Hemp can be grown in any state and some 17 of them have passed resolutions to study the possibility of hemp agriculture. A handful of states have passed legislation allowing some experimental hemp farming with DEA approval. However, the feds have not handed out any approvals.

Michigan is not one of those states pursuing hemp, but Swift hopes some state legislator picks up the idea and runs with it. Lemmons says he has talked to one current legislator who has an interest but wants to know more. That's not a ringing endorsement, but Lemmons has some hope that hemp will have its day.

"It can create thousands of jobs," says Lemmons. "In Detroit I'm happy if someone creates 12 jobs. But there are potentially tens of thousands of jobs with hemp. We can ship it anywhere from here. We can do the agricultural part in the many farms throughout the state and the processing in Detroit. With the large amount of vacant land in Detroit, we could do some of the agriculture right here."

Last week, state attorney general Bill Schuette's spokesman John Selleck called medical marijuana the "No. 1 growth industry in Michigan," in an argument disparaging it. Flip the coin to the hemp side and it looks like you could tie up some tidy profits with a nascent hemp industry.

And, as we should all know by now, you can't smoke rope.

More by Larry Gabriel

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