Today's reawakened market faces an uphill battle in the U.S., not just because source materials can't be grown here but because decades of enforced hibernation have left the industry light-years behind in technology, infrastructure, research and development, marketing and public acceptance. Hemp Industries Assn., a consortium of about 250 importers, manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers, says that in the past decade the North American market has gone from virtually nothing to an estimated $200 million. Not bad under the circumstances, but still a pittance for a plant that could clothe and house us, build and fuel our cars, enhance our diets and keep the front gate from squeaking.
Hemp has attracted many passionate advocates over the years simply because of its relation to the illegal drug. But a glance at hemp's resume makes it clear why a mere vegetable could inspire a devout constituency that transcends the counterculture. Hemp's products, its proponents insist, are interchangeable with those from timber or petroleum. The fiber volume supplied by trees that take 30 years to grow can be harvested from hemp just three or four months after the seeds go into the ground--and on half the land. Hemp requires no herbicides, little or no pesticide, and it grows faster than almost any other plant: from seed to 10 feet or taller in just a few months. Unlike most crops, it actually enriches rather than depletes the soil. As a textile it has proven stronger than cotton, warmer than linen, comfortable to wear and durable. As a building material, its extraordinarily long fibers test stronger than wood or concrete. As a nutrient it contains one of nature's most perfectly balanced oils, high in protein, richer in vitamin E than soy and possessing all eight essential fatty acids.
But because hemp contains traces of the chemical intoxicant known as tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the U.S. government lists cannabis as a Schedule I drug, a category reserved for the most dangerous and medically useless drugs. Methamphetamine, PCP and cocaine don't warrant that classification, but hemp does, right alongside heroin and LSD. The word hemp doesn't actually appear on the list, but the drug-war establishment, particularly the instrumental DEA, behaves as though it does by recognizing no distinction between varieties of cannabis.
The DEA sometimes seems bent on fomenting confusion. Two years ago, during his brief tenure as head of the agency, Asa Hutchinson stated that "many Americans do not know that hemp and marijuana are both parts of the same plant and that hemp cannot be produced without producing marijuana." One reason many Americans do not know this is because it's not true. That's like saying beagles and collies are both parts of the same dog and that beagles cannot be produced without producing collies.
Unmoved by logic, accepted nomenclature or the realities of plant genetics, the DEA insists that all cannabis is marijuana. Does the agency also consider industrial hemp grown legally outside the U.S. to be marijuana? "Yes, we do," says Frank Sapienza, the agency's chief of drug and chemical evaluation. Since more than 30 other countries manage to distinguish between marijuana and industrial hemp and allow their farmers to grow hemp, one wonders what they know that the U.S. doesn't. "I'm not going to comment on what other countries do," Sapienza says.
The DEA argues that the revival of hemp farming in the U.S. will somehow increase the availability, use and public acceptance of marijuana. Hemp activists dismiss this argument out of hand, as does one of their most formidable allies, former CIA Director James R. Woolsey. Hailing from the political right, Woolsey vehemently opposes any loosening of America's marijuana laws. But in his experience, he says, most people, once they become informed about hemp, see no justification for America's prohibition against the crop. "They understand that there's not been any increase in use of marijuana in, say, Europe or Canada as a result of industrial hemp cultivation. It's one of those issues in which there are no real substantive arguments on the other side."
Sapienza points out, as DEA officials often do, that the agency merely enforces the law. In truth, though, the DEA also interprets the law, creates exemptions to it and makes judgments that determine how statutory abstractions translate to on-the-ground realities. A case in point is the agency's declaration in late 2001 that all edible hemp products--cereals, health bars, sodas, salad oils and the like, products sold in the U.S. for years--are illegal. Hundreds of retailers were given a few months to get such items off their shelves. If a federal court hadn't intervened, a multimillion-dollar industry would have been wiped out by a DEA decision to reinterpret existing law. For now, edible hemp products remain legal and commercially available in the U.S., pending a 9th Circuit court ruling expected sometime this year.