By Alan Bjerga Nov 9, 2014
Jim Barton is finally harvesting a crop of hemp, the cannabis variety used in colonial times to make rope, sailcloth and other goods.
But the 80-year-old Kentucky farmer isn’t celebrating the successful drive to loosen marijuana laws that also moved Congress to allow pilot plots of his non-intoxicating version of the plant.
“Marijuana has always been the problem with hemp,” said Barton, taking a break from a green Deere & Co. (DE) combine on a farm outside Lexington. “Marijuana is a danger, hemp is not.”
Confusion over the two plants has kept hemp-growing illegal in the U.S. for generations. As attitudes toward marijuana ease — voters in Washington, D.C., Alaska and Oregon on Nov. 4 became the latest to legalize it for recreational use — hemp has gained support for legal cultivation on an experimental basis. Success could help Kentucky farmers struggling with falling tobacco output and lower revenue from corn and soybeans.
While the size of a potential market is difficult to estimate, hemp’s uses are staggering: 25,000 possible products in agriculture and food, textiles, recycling, automotive, furniture, paper, construction materials, and personal care, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Some farmers are also planning to market a strain for medicinal purposes and sell it across state lines.
While pot advocates remain some of hemp’s most vocal proponents, “there are stereotypes people want to walk away from,” said Anndrea Hermann, president of the Hemp Industries Association, which has no position on marijuana legalization.
“We have a lot of steps to take before we are really launched onto a mainstream scale,” she said.
Blurred lines between hemp and marijuana literally stunted Barton’s first crop, as a shipment of seeds was delayed by drug-enforcement officials and this year’s planting got in later than desired, creating plants about half as tall as hoped.
Hemp was a major crop in the U.S. from colonial times until the mid-1800s, when other crops became more lucrative. Planting revived in World War II, peaking in 1943 after the Japanese takeover of the Philippines deprived the U.S. of its main fiber for ropes and parachutes. Farmers, including Barton’s family, grew it at the urging of the government to help win the war.
The market collapsed afterward, as competitors regained market share and new types of fibers were developed. Legal restrictions also expanded with concern over marijuana use. Plantings disappeared altogether by the late 1950s.
Now, recreational use of pot is legal in Colorado and Washington State and at least 30 states have some form of decriminalized or medical pot, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
A farm bill passed this year permits pilot projects in 14 states, including Kentucky, for hemp.
Senator Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who opposes legalization of marijuana, touted his support for hemp in his successful re-election campaign. With the Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate, he’s in line to become majority leader.
Hemp is grown in more than 30 nations, led by China. Even though it couldn’t be grown in the U.S., sales of hemp products, such as oilseeds and fiber, reached $581 million last year, up 24 percent from a year earlier, said the Hemp Industries Association, a trade group.
“I see hemp’s future as one where it’s not a hemp protein bar, it will just be a protein bar,” said Hermann, the group’s president. “The product won’t be ‘hemp,’ it will be a naturally gluten-free, lactose-free, high-amino-acid oil. Hemp happens to be an ingredient.”
Traveling among test plots planted in combination with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, Joe Hickey is seeing two decades of advocacy bear fruit. Hickey was with actor and marijuana activist Woody Harrelson in 1996, when the star of “Natural Born Killers” and “Cheers” was arrested for planting four hemp seeds in a field about 50 miles southeast of Lexington.
“I was the one who called the cops on him,” Hickey chuckles, remembering the preplanned role he played in a milestone event publicizing the pro-hemp cause.
The crop he fought for is now legal — and has buyers. Hemp Oil Kentucky, based in Lexington, last week announced that Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap and Nutiva, an organic-foods company, agreed to buy their products. And Hickey’s no longer calling the cops on Woody. The two are now business partners at Baswood Corp., which develops wastewater-treatment technology.
Hickey shakes the pollen off a hemp plant in a secluded field, sending a white cloud of dust into the air.
The pollen is a key reason why authorities shouldn’t fear his hemp fields, Hickey said. Marijuana relies on unfertilized female plants, which have the highest levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical that gives that plant its euphoric effect. Hemp, which has negligible amounts of THC, uses male plants that can fertilize marijuana via pollen drift, wrecking their THC content in the process.
“Give it three generations, and all the THC would be gone,” he said. “You want to destroy outdoor marijuana fields, grow hemp everywhere.”
Tom Hutchens, a retired tobacco breeder now trying to adapt foreign hemp varieties to U.S. growing conditions, calls himself a realist.
Acceptance of hemp fostered by changes to marijuana laws is a double-edged sword, he said. Attitudes toward the drug could reverse, setting back hemp. And opponents are watching for mistakes — anything that confirms to them that if one is illegal, the other should be, too.
The only way to instill confidence will be tight regulation of hemp, and strict separation from marijuana, Hutchens said.
That’s not as easy as it sounds. Legal hemp complicates marijuana eradication by making it more difficult to identify the illegal crop, said Jeremy Slinker, commander of the Kentucky State Police Cannabis Suppression Branch.
This year, the agency relied on the state’s Agriculture Department to keep track of pilot-project hemp plots. With GPS coordinates for each field, distinguishing hemp from marijuana was manageable as he and other officers flew helicopters overhead.
Yet GPS can be off by a few hundred feet. In one case, suspected marijuana was growing near a legal hemp field — by the time officers were able to say with certainty which was which, the suspicious crop had been harvested.
Meanwhile, neighbors of hemp-growers would call police to report marijuana cultivation, leading to investigations that a year ago would have been simpler. “We’d find it, we’d eradicate it, and we’d arrest someone,” Slinker said.
Such problems would multiply as hemp production expands, he said.
“We are all completely new to this,” he said. “Criminals always find new tactics, and we don’t have the time or resources to become hemp inspectors.”
Even legal marijuana, should that become prevalent in the future, would likely be regulated differently from hemp, making law-enforcement headaches inevitable.
“We’re kind of learning along with the test-growers,” he said. “In one year, two years, we’ll have better answers.”
Choosing friends carefully will be crucial to industry growth, said Ken Anderson, chief executive officer of Original Green Distribution, a Minneapolis provider of hemp-based materials such as drywall, marketed as a sustainable, natural fiber. When Minnesota enacted a medical marijuana law this year, the state asked Anderson for advice on operating its state dispensaries.
Crusading for hemp is his life’s passion. “My business has nothing to do with marijuana,” he said. “The two need to be considered separately,” which he said is a challenge given what he calls a “fight-the-man” constituency of drug-legalizers among hemp’s proponents.
“At a certain point, you have to work with the man,” he said. “That’s when you’ll start to see the scale this industry can achieve.”
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