Over 30 countries around the world grow industrial hemp, including big players like China and France. Multipurpose and versatile - hemp makes its way into everything from ice cream to paint to clothing - hemp could be called the wonder resource. In North America alone, the hemp industry accounts for over $360 million annually, and yet the U.S. has yet to make its way onto the list of agriculturally and economically savvy countries that are reaping the benefits of cultivating the crop.
Cultivating industrial hemp isn't illegal in the U.S., but the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) strictly regulates it, and obtaining a permit to grow it is practically impossible. In fact, the "DEA ensures that industrial hemp is in the same class as marijuana," says Wayne Hauge, a farmer and industrial hemp activist from North Dakota. This drug taboo has made it difficult to pass legislation that would protect farmers and encourage them to grow industrial hemp. From an agricultural perspective, harvesting industrial hemp makes sense; it's a great rotational crop that requires little or no chemicals, and in an economic landscape where many farmers are suffering, wouldn't it be advantageous to allow them to grow a crop proven to be economically viable?
But it all comes back to a drug myth that incorrectly associates hemp with marijuana. On October 13, 2009, in a symbolic gesture to quell this myth, a group of farmers and hemp industry advocates took to the lawn of the DEA headquarters, planting industrial hemp seeds with specially made, chrome-plated shovels, stamped with the phrase "Reefer Madness Will Be Buried." The result? They were all arrested for trespassing and are now awaiting hearings. But their arrest managed to create some significant exposure for the issue.
Contrary to common perceptions, legalizing industrial hemp production is not a fringe issue supported only by a handful of bong-ripping stoners. Many of Tuesday's protesters were big names in the hemp industry including Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps President David Bronner and Founder of Livity Outernational Hemp Clothing, Isaac Nichelson. "We already have public support [for the issue]," says Adam Eidinger, Communications Director for Vote Hemp and one of Tuesday's arrestees. Vote Hemp is currently supporting a bill in Congress, H.R. 1866, which would amend the Controlled Substances Act to exclude industrial hemp from the definition of marijuana and permit states to cultivate non-drug industrial hemp under state industrial hemp programs. "We're hoping that by doing civil disobedience we'll get some momentum in Congress," says Eidinger.
In addition to activists, entrepreneurs across the world are changing the attitude towards industrial hemp. Ken Barker, CEO of Naturally Advanced Technologies, is working to ensure that industrial hemp is seen as a lucrative, viable resource that could change large industries, like textiles and paper, as we know them. NAT, a company operated out of Portland, Oregon, with its Crailar Fiber Technology, an enzyme treatment that makes hemp as soft as cotton, recently teamed up with industry giants Hanes and Georgia Pacific. But what is a pair of hemp underwear going to do to change the market? Actually, Hanesbrands Inc. happens to be among the world's largest consumer apparel brands with $4.2 billion in sales last year. Think of all the cotton t-shirts that translates into. Switching the traditional material out for an equally soft hemp fiber gives the company the potential to exponentially expand the market for hemp textiles.
Public support for industrial hemp cultivation in the U.S. may be slowly growing, but Barker believes it's up to business to be the driving force behind change. "That's why we think it's critical to build these relationships with global industry leaders in these categories and then legislation has no option but to follow as a result," says Barker.
Ultimately the question of whether or not to reduce restrictions on industrial hemp cultivation comes down to one of national interest. Nichelson points out that even his company, Livity, small if compared to other large apparel brands, was responsible for importing $1.5 million in hemp products from China last year. Imagine if that money went directly into the U.S. economy. Hans Fastre, CEO of Living Harvest Foods, the number one hemp foods company in the U.S. agrees. Living Harvest is also dependent on markets outside of the US, and plans to import over $2 million worth of hemp seeds next year to make their products. "If American farmers are able to grow hemp, we'll be able to better supply U.S. consumers with more affordable hemp foods, from locally grown hemp seeds, while directly supporting American farmers." More money for the American economy? Maybe it's about time we get over our baseless drug hang-ups and acknowledge that industrial hemp is exactly what we need to move forward.
Cross-posted from Wend Magazine.