What's All the Hype About Hemp?



Hemp advocates are working hard to cultivate this growing industry.

By Jack Queen

Barred from farmers’ fields once “reefer madness” took hold of U.S. drug policy in the 1930s, hemp has long struggled to escape the shadow of its hallucinogenic cousin.

Hemp advocates argue the crop offers tremendous opportunity for struggling rural economies; it has a wide variety of applications in plastics, fuel, textiles, food and soil rehabilitation, and worldwide demand for it is growing. But, because hemp contains trace amounts of THC, the same hallucinogen found in marijuana, the federal government classifies it as an illegal drug, even though it is nonintoxicating.

Skeptics of loosening controls argue industrial crops could accidentally cross-pollinate with marijuana via wind or insects, and that law enforcement officials would have difficulty differentiating marijuana from its benign cousin, hemp.

First Steps?

In the Farm Bill passed in February, Congress included a provision allowing universities and agriculture departments to plant crops for research in states that permit it. Industrial hemp supporters believe this is an important first step in establishing a commercial industry.

Laws in 14 states—California, Colorado, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont and West Virginia—have laws permitting industrial hemp cultivation under restricted conditions; eight of them specifically permit its commercial cultivation. Another 20 states have considered industrial hemp bills this year.

Regulators are faced with the difficult task of navigating these opposing state and federal laws. In addition, while Congress has sanctioned industrial hemp research in opaque terms, it has not yet reclassified the plant in the Uniform Controlled Substances Act (Drug Code), which the Drug Enforcement Agency is obligated to enforce.

Legal Ambiguity

This legal disconnect recently led to a standoff between federal agents and Kentucky agriculture officials when the DEA seized a shipment of seeds destined for the state’s industrial hemp pilot program. The DEA said the state had failed to obtain federal drug permits for them.

After much high-profile legal wrangling, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture ended up with the 300 pounds of seeds, which it distributed to a dozen farmers approved to grow industrial hemp under state supervision. Kentucky’s attorney general issued a supporting opinion, holding that commercial production is consistent with the Farm Bill’s broad language regarding pilot programs that study industrial hemp marketing.

Kentucky is unique in taking such an active role in industrial hemp production, but other states appear to be adopting a similar interpretation of the Farm Bill’s pilot program language. Bills almost identical to Kentucky’s are circulating in Michigan and Delaware. And in Hawaii, Representative Cynthia Thielen (R) told BigIslandNow.com she and her colleagues closely followed the drama in Kentucky, as they hope to expand their industrial hemp program, which currently is limited to research.

Colorado appears to be making no distinction between industrial hemp and nonmedical marijuana, which it legalized in 2012. The state agriculture department has issued 42 industrial hemp-growing permits since the law took full effect on Jan. 1.

Tennessee recently passed what has been called the strongest pro-hemp bill in the country, with language that compels officials to actively develop permitting systems. The agriculture department is drafting guidelines and hopes to begin issuing permits by next February, according to regulators.

Oregon is on the same timeline, but is coming from a different angle. Having observed the federal government’s tolerance of marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington, Oregon officials have decided to pursue their own industrial hemp regulations. They hope to license industrial hemp growers by next year’s planting season.

Wait-and-See Approach

Other states are taking more cautious approaches. Montana and North Dakota have offered commercial hemp permits for years, yet participation has been negligible due to fears of federal interference. Even if farmers are willing to hazard planting, they must obtain seeds through illicit channels. California, Indiana, Maine and West Virginia have passed commercial hemp bills, although they will remain null and void until Congress differentiates hemp from marijuana in the Drug Code. Like Hawaii, Nebraska and Utah have passed more narrow legislation that permits research only in specific university settings to gather important data, such as what species of hemp will grow best in various climates.

Future hemp producers hope this industrial crop will again become an important commodity for rural America. Whether it will—or even should—remains an open question for lawmakers. But for now, many will keep a close eye on this budding market to see if growers really do hit pay dirt.

A Little History

  • Hemp was cultivated as early as 12,000 years ago by the Chinese to make shoes, clothes, rope and paper.
  • Around 1000 BC, people on the European continent grew hemp in abundance for use in sailing rope and canvas; a large gunship during the late colonial period required as much as 120,000 pounds of hemp fiber for its rigging.
  • Hemp was an important cash crop for colonial America, feeding the British fleet’s enormous appetite for naval rope. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wrote of growing commercial hemp on their estates.
  • During World War II, “Manila hemp” imported from Japan was an important commodity for the U.S. military, which used its fibers for uniforms, canvas and rope. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, however, America’s supply was cut off. In response, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched a campaign to encourage large-scale hemp cultivation, producing a short film in 1942, “Hemp for Victory.”  

Sources: North American Industrial Hemp Council, Hemp Industries Association, FarmCollector.com and academia.edu.

Top Hemp Products


Food and beverages

Auto parts


Building supplies

Body care (lotions, etc.)

Animal feed

Source: Industrial Hemp Profile, 2012, Agricultural Marketing Research Center.

Jack Queen, a former NCSL intern, is a student at Colorado College studying international political economy.

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