On Feb. 22, California Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, filed legislation (Assembly Bill 1147) that would legalize and regulate cultivation of industrial hemp. The California legislature passed a similar measure in 2002, only to have it vetoed by then Gov. Gray Davis. Leno's bill is one of more than 50 seeking to reintroduce industrial hemp a strain of marijuana containing only trace amounts of THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in pot that have been filed since the mid-1990s.
Cultivation of industrial hemp was legal until the 1970s in fact, production was encouraged during World War II when changes to the Controlled Substances Act made continued production untenable. According to a report released last month (titled "Hemp as an Agricultural Commodity") by the Congressional Research Service (an arm of the Library of Congress), the U.S. is the only "developed" nation in which industrial hemp is not already an "established crop." The CRS reported to Congress that more than 30 countries currently grow industrial hemp for commercial production of fiber, seed, and oil, which in turn are made into a variety of consumer products, from carpet and auto parts, to cosmetics and food. Hemp proponents argue that the crop is good for the environment among other benefits, it rejuvenates soil and grows readily without the use of herbicides. Predictably, the crop's main opponent is the Drug Enforcement Administration, which argues that authorizing industrial hemp farming would increase the likelihood of "covert production" of the narcotic form of the drug, which would in turn hinder (ahem) the war on drugs. Industrial hemp production is not illegal per se, the report notes, but is regulated by the DEA, which is tasked with reviewing individual requests to grow the crop and with granting or denying, or ignoring the permits necessary to do so. Indeed, the DEA has only ever granted one permit, to growers in Hawaii, which has expired, and has yet to rule on a 1999 permit request filed by a North Dakota researcher.
Nonetheless, over the last decade there has been a renewed interest in growing the crop, the CRS reports. Since the mid-Nineties, 14 states have passed laws calling for scientific, economic, or environmental studies of the crop, and several have legalized hemp farming despite the virtual ban, which hinges on the overbroad definition of marijuana under the CSA to keep production at bay. "The statute retains control over all varieties of the Cannabis plant by virtue of including [all strains] under the term 'marijuana' and making no distinction between the low- and high-THC varieties," reads the report. As such, all hemp products sold in the U.S. from clothing to paper to food items must be imported. Although U.S. Department of Agriculture data on importation is sparse, the CRS reports that in 2003, the U.S. imported at least $7 million in hemp products. For more on industrial hemp, see www.votehemp.com.