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article imageOp-Ed: Cannabis is cool, hemp is hot, but Obama isn’t on board

By Rob Lafferty     Feb 10, 2014 in Politics
Half the states in the country now allow the production and distribution of cannabis for medicinal use, or they have laws waiting to take effect that will allow it.
Many states are likely to transition to full legalization of cannabis rather quickly, after they see the tax revenues flowing from retail cannabis stores into government coffers in Colorado and Washington. Others will follow after they see how criminal justice systems in those first states benefit from the collapse of the black market for dealers and users.
That’s all good, but it’s neither the first or second most important benefit we’ll get from the end of the Second Prohibition. First and foremost, the return of hemp as a legal crop and agricultural commodity that any American farmer can grow will be easy once the taboo on cannabis has been lifted. It’s hemp, not cannabis, that can provide an infusion of new energy across almost all levels of the American economy.
According to NORMAL, both houses of Congress have approved an amendment in the federal Farm Bill loosening federal restrictions on the cultivation of industrial hemp. President Obama is expected to sign the legislation imminently.
It’s the first real effort on the part of the Obama administration to put an end to the cannabis hypocrisy that has run wild for 70 years in America. There’s no official change in the federal policy of prosecuting users for either medicinal or recreational purposes, escept for a vague promise from Attorney General Eric Holder to ignore some violations of federal law.
Many plants and herbs have medicinal value but very few require a doctor’s approval and a government permit to use them in their natural state. Other plants that have commercial value despite their dangerous side effects can be processed, distilled and fermented while being regulated, taxed and licensed. Medical cannabis programs are half-measures between freedom and prohibition that demean everyone involved with them.
Similar to programs in other states, the badly-named Oregon Medical Marijuana Program has been a farce from its inception. Aside from giving a few users and growers some legal cover to do what they were already doing, it hasn’t really helped people who use cannabis as medicine. The OMMP doesn’t even use the scientific name for the plant it claims to regulate, relying instead on the common use of a Mexican slang term to identify the plant.
All of that would have nothing to do with hemp, except that hemp looks a lot like a really tall cannabis plant – or at least what cannabis used to look like in the days before hydroponics, cloning and grow lights. That similarity in appearance led to hemp farming first being banned in America in 1937; that ban was lifted during WWII before being imposed again in 1945 and 1970.
It was pointless prohibition then, and it became more foolish as years passed and the cannabis trade became so distinct that no self-respecting DEA agent would have looked at a field of hemp and seen cannabis growing. It also became a severe case of government restraint of trade by preventing farmers from growing a useful, harmless and profitable crop for no legitimate reason at all – exactly the kind of government interference that many Americans consider unconstitutional.
Technically it’s not illegal to grow hemp in the U.S. You need a special permit from the DEA, but there’s never been any reason to bother applying because you simply aren’t going to get one. That’s all about to change, and soon.
The manufacture of hemp-based products is exactly the kind of industry this country desperately needs. The number of jobs created in the first year of a revived hemp industry might be relatively small, perhaps 50,000 nationwide. But that number would increase every year as more products are developed and enter the market.
The Hemp Industry Association estimates current annual retail sales of hemp products at $200 million, but none of the raw fiber used to make those products is grown in the US. Advocates see a $400 million industry in hemp farming rising in just a few years, once legal constraints are removed.
Agricultural economist Will Snell at the University of Kentucky believes there is a place for hemp in the farm landscape, but it might not be as large as some hope.
"If there's a market, it's a small market, but it's growing and it's an opportunity for our farmers," Snell said in an interview with the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Snell and colleague Leigh Maynard recently authored a study that did show a high potential for hemp as a seed crop.
"Some of our top-end scenarios for hemp did indicate $200 to $400 net return per acre, which is nothing to sneeze at," Snell said.
"It can only help," Maynard added. "The farmers aren't going to dive in without some assurance that it will be economically viable. ... (Hemp) could give them one more opportunity to earn income."
"I'm very optimistic of industry hemp," Agriculture Commissioner James Comer told the Herald-Leader, who believes the crop would provide immediate benefits to Kentucky’s economy. "It's very difficult to do an economic impact study of an industry that doesn't exist."
Comer said he has met with "…executives of a Toyota supplier in Central Kentucky, and they are very interested in doing exactly what Mercedes and BMW are doing, and that's using hemp fiber for the dash and door panels and gear panels. If that happens, you can throw that study out. We're the fourth-biggest automotive state, we're a player in the automotive industry, and the hemp would work perfectly with that."
The federal government has granted $277 billion in farm subsidies since 1995. Tobacco growers have received $1.3 billion during that time in direct subsidies for a crop that produces a highly toxic and addictive substance. Congress justifies those kinds of agricultural supports because the industry provides jobs.
Hemp farmers won’t need subsidies to turn a profit. They just need Congress and the White House to get out of the way and let the consumer market determine what role hemp can play in a 21st Century economy.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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