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Hemp Is Not Pot: It's the Economic Stimulus and Green Jobs Solution We Need

We can make over 25,000 things with it. Farmers love it. Environmentalists love it. You can't get high from it. So why is it still illegal?

While Uncle Sam's scramble for new revenue sources has recently kicked up the marijuana debate -- to legalize and tax, or not? -- hemp's feasibility as a stimulus plan has received less airtime.

But with a North American market that exceeds $300 million in annual retail sales and continued rising demand, industrial hemp could generate thousands of sustainable new jobs, helping America to get back on track.

"We're in the midst of a dark economic transition, but I believe hemp is an important facet and has tremendous economic potential," says Patrick Goggin, a board member on the California Council for Vote Hemp, the nation's leading industrial hemp-farming advocacy group. "Economically and environmentally, industrial hemp is an important part of the sustainability pie."

With 25,000 known applications from paper, clothing and food products -- which, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal this January, is the fastest growing new food category in North America -- to construction and automotive materials, hemp could be just the crop to jump-start America's green economy.

But growing hemp remains illegal in the U.S. The Drug Enforcement Administration has lumped the low-THC plant together with its psychoactive cousin, marijuana, making America the planet's only industrialized nation to ban hemp production. We can import it from Canada, which legalized it in 1997. But we can't grow it.

"It's a missed opportunity," says Goggin, who campaigned for California farmers to grow industrial hemp two years ago, although the bill was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, citing the measure conflicted with federal law.

Considering California's position as an agricultural giant -- agriculture nets $36.6 billion dollars a year, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture -- Goggin's assessment is an understatement. Especially if extended nationwide.

"Jobs require capital investment, which isn't easy to come by at the moment, and we need hemp-processing facilities, because the infrastructure here went to seed. But this is a profitable crop, and the California farming community supports it."

Just how profitable? According to Chris Conrad, a respected authority on cannabis and industrial hemp and who authored Hemp for Health and Hemp, Lifeline to the Future, the industry would be regionally sustainable, reviving the local economy wherever it was grown.

"Hemp will create jobs in some of the hardest-hit sectors of the country -- rural agriculture, equipment manufacturing, transportable processing equipment and crews -- and the products could serve and develop the same community where the hemp is farmed: building ecological new homes, producing value-added and finished products, marketing and so forth," he writes in an e-mail from Amsterdam, where he is doing research. "Add to that all the secondary jobs -- restaurants, health care, food products, community-support networks, schools, etc., that will serve the workers. The Midwestern U.S. and the more remote parts of California and other states would see a surge of income, growth, jobs and consumer goods."

In America, industrial hemp has long been associated with marijuana, although the plants are different breeds of Cannabis sativa, just as poodles and Irish setters are different breeds of dog.

While hemp contains minute levels of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana (compare 0.3 percent or less in Canadian industrial hemp versus 3-20 percent for medical marijuana), to get high you'd have to smoke a joint the size of a telephone pole.

Still, the historical hysteria caused by federal anti-marijuana campaigns of the 1930s, which warned that marijuana caused insanity, lust, addiction, violence and crime, have had a long-term impact on its distant relative.

Doomed by the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which in effect criminalized cannabis and levied high taxes on medical marijuana and industrial hemp, hemp cultivation wasn't technically disallowed.

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