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The Legal Ties That Bind Hemp Farming

April 22, 1999|BOOTH MOORE

Shoes, socks, lip balm, paper, twine, coffee filters, snack bars, dog collars, soap, jeans, wallets, candles, insulation, paints, cosmetics, plasters, blankets and fuel are just a few things that can be done with hemp other than smoking it.

The environmentally friendly weed, which is used around the world for its fiber, seed and oil, requires little fertilizer and pesticides to grow. It can be used instead of trees to make paper and is a source of biomass fuel. So why aren't we using it?

Hemp is banned in the U.S. because law enforcement and the federal government have long identified it with a distant cousin: the mood-altering marijuana plant. Although it is legal to possess hemp (you cannot be arrested for sporting hemp Adidas sneakers), it's illegal to grow hemp.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy insists legalizing hemp would send the wrong message. But times are changing.

States are leading the way in this change. On Saturday, North Dakota became the first state to permit the growth and sale of industrial hemp, although growers will still need permits from the Drug Enforcement Agency. Virginia and Montana have formally called for an end to the federal ban, and Hawaii recently voted to allow 10-acre test plots. New Mexico recently approved funding for hemp research, and the Kentucky Hemp Growers Cooperative Assn. is working to reestablish the crop there. New Hampshire, Montana, Vermont, Iowa, Maryland and Tennessee are also considering pro-hemp legislation, and the California Democratic Party adopted a resolution supporting hemp at its state convention in March.

And why not? Sales are booming. In 1993, worldwide retail sales of hemp were only a few million dollars. In 1997, sales surpassed $75 million, according to HempTech, a Sebastapol, Calif.-based hemp research organization.

HempTech President John Roulac explains: "Hemp is making a comeback for several reasons--because the product attributes are superior; it's sustainable and can be grown without pesticides; and people are fascinated with why a crop that's so versatile is banned by the federal government."

Industrial hemp advocates are pleased because the campaign to legalize hemp seems at last to be moving away from the counterculture. "The North Dakota legislation was not the work of activists. It was North Dakota farmers listening to Canadian radio stations and hearing about the success of this amazing crop," says advocate Don Wartshafter.

Advocates hope the momentum will lead to the Justice Department lifting its ban on hemp farming within the next year. For more information, log on to

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