Hemp, a botanical cousin of marijuana, can be used to make clothes, horse bedding, auto parts, soap, even concrete. But it can’t get you high. That’s why Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, New Hampshire, and Vermont are moving bills this year to allow commercial hemp production, so farmers can tap into an estimated $452 million domestic market for the plant. The push is solidly mainstream: In Kentucky the state chamber of commerce, the Republican agricultural commissioner, and U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are all backers.
North Dakota, Montana, and six other states wish them luck. They’ve passed similar bills since 1996, resulting in a domestic hemp crop of exactly zero. What’s standing in the way? The U.S. government, which defines all cannabis plants, of which hemp is one variety, as Schedule One substances. That’s the same narcotic classification as heroin.
Farmers wanting to grow hemp need a permit from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Otherwise they risk 20 years in prison and forfeiture of their farms. It’s been that way since 1970. David Bronner, chief executive officer of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, a California company that uses imported hemp, calls the rules absurd, especially now that states are legalizing marijuana for recreational use. “It’s becoming increasingly ridiculous that the nondrug form of cannabis is still caught up in this prohibition,” he says.
North Dakota farmer David Monson tried for a hemp permit. The application process included a criminal background check, a site visit, and a questionnaire that asked: “Will you have a 12-foot-high chain-link fence with guards and razor wire?” “Where are you going to sell this drug?” and “How are you going to keep it from getting into the wrong hands?” Monson submitted his paperwork to the DEA in 2007. He’s still waiting for an answer. Dawn Dearden, a spokeswoman for the agency, says she doesn’t know when it last issued a hemp permit.
The Hemp Industries Association, in Summerland, Calif., says it knows of only one the U.S. has ever granted. David West, a plant geneticist, got it in 1999 to conduct a research project in the 2.4-square-mile town of Wahiawa, Hawaii. He says the DEA required him to keep his seeds in a locked safe and his plants protected by a barbed wire fence and infrared beams “as if I was a museum.”
U.S. companies that use hemp import most of it from China and Canada. Police would like to keep it that way. They say commercial hemp growers could use their fields to hide illegal marijuana crops. “It would be a nightmare,” says Michael Webb, spokesman for the Kentucky State Police. West disagrees. Because hemp pollen dilutes pot’s potency, “most people who know how to grow marijuana don’t want it anywhere near hemp,” he says. Besides, it’s not hard to tell them apart: Pot plants are bushy, hemp stalks have just a few leaves.
Congress has tried to pass bills allowing industrial hemp farming since 2005, to no avail. Representative Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican, and Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, are expected to introduce similar proposals this month. Michael Bowman is one farmer who says he won’t wait around for Washington to act. Come spring, he’ll plant 100 acres of hemp on his Colorado land without asking for the DEA’s permission. The agency will look foolish if it tries to prosecute him for his hemp crop, Bowman says. “We like to say you’d need a joint the size of a telephone pole to get high.”