Hep on hemp

Why industrial-grade hemp should be a vital part of our economy

The United States government has cried wolf about cannabis so many times that its credibility on the subject must be at an all-time low. Nowhere is that more apparent than when it comes to hemp. 

Hemp is a strain of cannabis sativa, but is sort of the nerdish, boring, industrious cousin of the plants people use for medicine, and to just get stoned. Hemp doesn't get you high at all, but it is useful in many other ways as textiles, paper, food, fuel and much more. A Jan. 19 paper from the Congressional Research Service titled Hemp as an Agricultural Product estimates that the global market for hemp includes some 25,000 products.

So why is this product prohibited rather than a vital part of our economy? As far as I can tell it's because the government thinks people are stupid. The simple reason given for hemp prohibition is that law enforcement is too dense to recognize the difference between a field of marijuana and a field of hemp. It would probably take about 10 minutes to explain it to a 10-year-old. Marijuana is grown for its THC-rich buds, which form on the end of its leafy branches. The more branches, the more buds. Most marijuana growing operations feature shorter, bushier plants with lots of branches that are planted several feet apart so that the sun can get to its lower branches. These are created by pinching off the ends of the stems, causing them to branch out.

Hemp is grown for the fibrous main stem, its trunk, so to speak, and its seeds. In order to get the longest stem, hemp plants are sown a few inches apart so that the plants literally compete for sunlight by reaching up. Anybody who has visited a dense forest has seen the phenomenon of a canopy of tall, skinny trees with few lower branches and very bushy tops. That's the way hemp is produced, in order to maximize the harvest of fibers. Pinching the ends to make the plant bushy is a no-no.

It's true that the leaves are identical. However, cannabis is grown for the THC; hemp contains only negligible traces of the substance. As for any law enforcement officer who can't figure it out, technology has advanced to the point where you can actually test the stuff. It's not that hard. There is no need for cops to stand around in a field sniffing at a plant to try to figure out what it is.

You could come across a situation where a hemp farmer hides a few marijuana plants among the rest of his crop. It could happen. But by that standard it would be akin to prohibiting cars because some people drive too fast, or prohibiting alcohol because some people drink too much.

At the same time you have the weird situation of a vast, multibillion-dollar marijuana underground wherein people pretty much use pot with impunity in order to get high. Yep, a lot of people get arrested for marijuana use or distribution, but that doesn't seem to stop much of the action. 

Nobody is producing underground hemp — at least that I've heard of. There is not enough profit in it to risk running afoul of the law. Instead, we import piles of it from China, Canada and other countries where they grow it. Oh, yeah, we get a lot of marijuana from other countries too.

I'm not going to wax poetic about all the wonderful products that can be made from the hemp plant or how it could boost our economy. There are a lot of folks out there talking about those things, and I'm no economist. It's just that I find hemp prohibition to be flat-out stupid — way stupider than marijuana prohibition. When it comes to marijuana, there are effects that just make some people uncomfortable. But with hemp, there is simply nothing to object to other than the plant looks like marijuana.

Regardless of that anomaly, the two are cousins and seem to get treated the same. Since marijuana is coming out to the light of day through medicinal use, decriminalization and legalization initiatives, hemp is following a parallel path toward respectability. 

In June, Sen. Ron Wyden  (D-Ore.) introduced the Industrial Hemp Act as an amendment to the Farm Bill. Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ken.) and Jeff Merkley ( D-Ore.) co-sponsored the amendment. But it was pulled from the Farm Bill because, in Wyden's words, it was considered "non-germane" since the Controlled Substances Act would have to be amended to allow hemp farming. Had it passed, though, the amendment would have been a watershed for hemp farming. 

"It [the amendment] defines industrial hemp and excludes it from the definition of marijuana and leaves decisions on hemp farming up to the states," says Tom Murphy, national outreach coordinator for Vote Hemp and a spokesman for the Hemp Industry Association. "Wyden is interested in reintroducing it as a stand-alone bill. We were hoping to have it introduced before the August recess."

It's not just federal legislation in the works. Nine states — Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont and West Virginia — have legalized cultivation and research of industrial hemp. However a grower still must get a permit from the DEA in order to grow hemp. The DEA has not handed out any permits for hemp farming.

The state-by-state strategy is the same one used by medical marijuana activists and by those who want to legalize it outright. If you get enough states on board, eventually making a national move could be much easier. In Michigan, it could be a county-by-county strategy to get the state there, but we are far from that. Only three of Michigan's 83 counties have passed resolutions calling on the state to support hemp farming. 

"Michigan would be a great state for hemp farming," Murphy says. "Sen. Debbie Stabenow has the Grow It Here, Make It Here initiative. A number of car manufacturers use natural fiber in reinforced plastic for car parts. It would be a great boon for the state, not only for farmers; it has industrial applications."

Murphy points out the changes that have taken place regarding hemp during the last couple of decades: "We have made big strides; industrial hemp is grown again in Canada. That started in 1998. In Germany, they figured out how to run hemp seed through a modified buckwheat machine that makes it incapable of germination. The shelled seed is an important import; it is exempt from the definition of marijuana. The United States is a large market for hemp food. The hemp food and cosmetics market is more than $418 million a year."

Sharing in that is not going to rescue our economy, but every little bit helps when it comes to putting Detroit back on its feet.

The folks at Vote Hemp plan to continue their state level work, supporting legislation and resolutions, encouraging activists to work locally to change the tide. It's not flashy work, but hemp and marijuana seem to be traveling the road to respectability together. Public opinion polls show that the people are about ready to make some changes. That might not be the same for legislators. 

Cannabis of any kind just seems to make them stupid.


Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former Metro Times editor. Contact him at [email protected].

About The Author

Larry Gabriel

Larry Gabriel covers cannabis for Metro Times. He also writes the Detroit Watch in the monthly Michigan Cannabis Industries Report. Larry's chapter "Rebirth of Tribe" in the book Heaven Was Detroit, from jazz to hip-hop and beyond chronicles the involvement of Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Harrison, Harold McKinney,...
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