Hemp Comes of Age

Date: 29 Jan 1997 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Hemp Comes of Age

by David Morris

January 29, 1997 – published in St. Paul Pioneer Press

As of January 23, 1997 growing industrial hemp is legal in two counties in Kentucky, thanks to a decision by District Court Judge Ralph E. McClanahan. Judge McClanahan dismissed a case against actor Woody Harrelson, who was arrested for planting 4 hemp seeds in June 1996 and ruled that KentuckyÕs law banning the growing of hemp was “unconstitutionally vague” because it did not distinguish between marijuana and hemp. The Judge declared, “We believe the enactment of (this statute) is an arbitrary exercise of power by the General Assembly over the lives and property of free men…”

Judge McClanahan’s decision on behalf of the free men and women of Kentucky will be appealed. But his ruling is just the latest indication that the walls of prejudice against hemp are crumbling fast. In an era of widespread cynicism about the ability of the average person to make a difference, the revival of industrial hemp is a hopeful tale of people acting together in the face of hostile governments, and winning.

Hemp is the world’s oldest continuously used industrial crop. The original draft of the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp. The sails of the ships that brought the colonists to the New World were made of hemp. So important was the crop that both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson urged their countrymen to “sow widely the hemp seed”. Until the 1930s, hemp continued to be a significant crop in Kentucky and was legally grown in Wisconsin and Minnesota until the 1950s. At one time Wisconsin boasted 10 hemp processing mills.

After World War II the hysteria over marijuana coupled with ignorance about the distinction between marijuana and hemp led most western governments to ban hemp. By the late 1980s hemp had become a minor crop even in Asian and central European countries where it was legal.

And then the pendulum began to swing the other way. Responding to a growing number of customers who demanded hemp, farmers and entrepreneurs convinced their governments to allow them to meet that demand. In 1992 the British government agreed. In 1994 Canada allowed hemp cultivation for research purposes and in 1996 its Parliament opened the doors to full commercialization. Germany legalized hemp in early 1996.

The market for hemp is tiny but growing rapidly. U.S. sales rose from under $1 million in 1990 to over $30 million in 1996. The number of retail stores selling hemp products has grown from 4 in 1988 to over 1500 today. Last year Adidas sold 30,000 hemp sneakers. Interface, the world’s third largest carpet manufacturer, is looking at hemp as a substitute for petroleum based fibers. International Paper, the world’s largest paper company is looking at hemp as a supplement for wood. Mercedes, BMW and other European auto manufacturers are looking at hemp for dashboards and doors.

Hemp has been compared to the soybean because of the many products that can be made out of different parts of the plant. Hemp is used to make paper, lip balm, snack bars, butter, beer, clothing and rope. New products enter the market weekly.

In 1997 hemp supporters are finding a rapidly growing and respectful audience. The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post have published favorable articles. In 1996 and again in 1997 the American Farm Bureau, the country’s largest farmer organization, unanimously approved pro-hemp resolutions. In the last 60 days farm bureaus in Missouri, Iowa, Virginia, and Colorado passed even stronger resolutions.

As many as 20 states will introduce legislation this year to legalize industrial hemp. In Wisconsin a coalition of farmer organizations, the Wisconsin Agribusiness Council and the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture is supporting a strong pro-hemp bill.

The pro-hemp movement is remarkably diverse. Urban environmentalists who support hemp because it requires no pesticides work hand-in-hand with rural farmers who view hemp as a promising new economic crop. Northerners seeking a new fiber crop that grows well in their climate partner with southerners seeking a substitute for tobacco.

Hemp still has a long way to go before we know if it can fulfill the hopes of its supporters. The industry is tiny. Hemp companies are woefully undercapitalized. Demand has far outstripped supply driving prices skyward. Hemp fiber is more expensive than linen. Hemp oil and hemp paper are far more expensive than their vegetable oil and fiber competitors.

This situation will improve. Breeding programs promise to dramatically improve yields. Recent advances in harvesting and processing machinery offer equally dramatic cost reductions.

The U.S. government needs to learn from its allies, stop treating hemp as a drug and begin viewing it as a potentially important new economic crop. An Executive Order by the President that industrial hemp is not marijuana would unleash a fever of activity at the state level. In county after county and state and after state, the people have spoken. It’s time for William Jefferson Clinton to listen to the people, follow the advice of his namesake and encourage Americans to again sow hemp seeds widely.

David Morris is vice-president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance

Avatar photo
Follow David Morris:
David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.