Robert Kraft: Indiana and industrial hemp
Thursday, February 20, 2014 10:30 AM
CARMEL - A few years ago I became convinced that industrial hemp was inappropriately banned because of its reprobate cousin marijuana and that its legalization represented a growth opportunity for Indiana agriculture. Since my retirement from Indiana Farm Bureau in October, I have assumed a greater level of involvement in the effort to legalize industrial hemp’s production in Indiana.
What is industrial hemp? The bill currently being considered by the legislature (SB 357) defines industrial hemp as a variety of the cannabis sativa plant that contains less than 0.3% tetrarahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration. THC is the chemical that induces the drug effect of marijuana where its concentration levels generally range between 5% and 20%, although higher concentrations occasionally occur.
According to Dr. Paul Mahlberg, professor emeritus of biology at IU and a leading authority on the subject, industrial hemp is a fiber-producing agricultural non-drug crop that is grown in more than 30 countries throughout the world. In the United States, the Drug Enforcement Agency classifies it as drug plant and prohibits its cultivation.
Industrial hemp is visually distinguishable from marijuana because of the purposes for which it is grown. Industrial hemp, grown for its long, strong and light fibers, is a single stalk often reaching a height of six feet or more. Marijuana plants are shorter and bushier with numerous branches with flower clusters where THC is accumulated. The plants will cross pollinate but when they do, the hybrid’s ability to produce THC is dramatically reduced.
Hemp fibers are long, strong and light, making them ideal for a number off industrial applications. Until it was outlawed in the 1930s, hemp was used for rope, sail and tent canvas, writing paper, clothing and other purposes. Hemp seeds can be crushed into an oil which is used for cosmetics and perhaps have some medicinal applications.
Testimony at the Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on SB 357 cited anecdotal evidence that a cannabidol (not THC) refined from industrial hemp has proven effective in seizure management for victims of Dravet Syndrome, a form of juvenile epilepsy. The committee also heard testimony from Gregg Baumbaugh, CEO of FlexForm Technologies, an Elkhart manufacturer of natural fiber composites used for auto parts, who told the committee that it is not against the law to use hemp as a raw material in the United States, it is only against the law to grow it. Accordingly, his company spends about $1 million a year on foreign sourced hemp.
Legislation dealing with hemp dates to the earliest days of European colonization of North America. In the first decades of the 1600s, Jamestown, Virginia, Massachusetts and Connecticut all had laws on their books requiring farmers in those colonies to dedicate part of their land to growing hemp. In the 1700s many of the colonies actually granted a subsidy or bounty to encourage the cultivation of hemp and the domestic manufacture of canvas and cordage.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp. Jefferson used hemp paper for the first several drafts of the Declaration of Independence, although the signed document is on parchment.
Given the many uses of hemp and the fact that it does not contain a significant quantity of the psychoactive THC, one wonders why its production is prohibited in the United States. It is apparently the result of a combination of factors which converged in the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. At that time, the outlawing of substances was considered to be the exclusive prerogative of the states because it was not a right reserved to Congress.
The primary forces behind the marijuana tax were Harry J. Anslinger, head of the Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and publisher William Randolph Hearst. When the ambitious Anslinger took over the new agency in 1930 he realized that he needed to address more than opiates and cocaine to interest the public in him and his agency. He eventually targeted the more widely used marijuana, using race, violence and sex as the basis of his attack against marijuana.
Hearst knew a headline grabber when he saw one and immediately picked up on Anslinger’s crusade and addressed his own interests in the process. At that time, the Hearst empire included large tracts of forest that provided wood pulp for the newsprint used by his papers. Hemp has the advantage of growing faster and producing more paper per acre than trees. Fearing hemp-based paper could give his competitors an advantage, Hearst intentionally muddled the distinction between marijuana and industrial hemp. The sensationalism created by Anslinger and Hearst eventually led to the passage of the tax act.
Since then, the legal production of any cannabis plant – including industrial hemp – in the United States requires a license from the Bureau of Narcotics and its successors, including the current Drug Enforcement Agency[RK1] . Except for a few years during World War II, when hemp was needed for the production of rope for the military, there have been virtually no production licenses granted.
The attitude of the federal government about hemp appears to be changing. While the bureaucrats at the DEA have not softened their position, Congress has opened the possibility of legalizing the production of industrial hemp. There have been several bills to that end introduced in Congress and the recently signed farm bill contains a provision specifically allowing it to be grown by research universities and state departments of agriculture.
The eventual decriminalization of industrial hemp at the federal level appears to be inevitable. The question facing the Indiana legislature is whether Indiana should be positioning its farmers to take advantage of a new opportunity when it becomes available, or should we continue to ban the production of a beneficial and potentially profitable crop because of out-of-date misconceptions and prejudices. v
Kraft was head of public affairs for the Indiana Farm Bureau until he retired last October.