A bill moving through the Indiana legislature could allow southern Hoosier farmers to grow a new crop: industrial hemp.
Like the baby with the bath water, hemp, and its much more popular cousin marijuana, were made illegal in the 1930’s. More on that in a bit.
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% tetrarahydro-cannabinol (THC) concentration. THC is the chemical that provides the drug effect of marijuana where its concentration levels generally range between 5% and 20%, although higher concentrations occasionally occur.
To say another way, hemp is near beer to marijuana’s moonshine.
Perhaps it might be easier to view the differences between hemp and marijuana like we view sweet corn and field corn. Both of the corns are in the same biological family but eating the former is more tasty than the latter even though young immature field corn can be substituted on the dinner plate. It just lacks the sugar content and is a bit more al dente.
Industrial hemp is a fiber-producing agricultural crop that is grown in more than 30 countries throughout the world.
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 unfertilized flower clusters where THC is accumulated.
Marijuana is not self-pollinating. There are male and female marijuana plants. Pot growers will pull up and discard the male plants. The remaining females are longing for love and male companionship and as a result, their unrequited flower buds attain a higher level of THC.
Hemp and marijuana will cross pollinate but when they do, the marijuana’s THC is dramatically reduced. And that is not what the grower or the smoker are seeking.
The fact that the plants can cross pollinate could make the illegal marijuana growers some of the more vocal opponents of legalizing hemp because it would decrease the buzz of their buds. Just because someone opposes its legalization doesn’t necessarily mean they are looking out for the community’s morality or your children’s interests.
And from a marijuana control perspective, what better way than to let nature take its pollinating course.
Up until 1937 hemp was used for rope, sail and tent canvas, writing paper, clothing and other fiber. Hemp seeds can be crushed into an oil which is used for cosmetics and some medicinal applications.
For a historic perspective, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp. Jefferson used hemp paper for the first several drafts of the Declaration of Independence.
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 was and continues to be 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 to protect the morality of the America public was being pushed by crusading elected officials and religious leaders.
But there may have also been more personally profitable motives.
Newspaper magnate William Randolph Heart supported making hemp illegal for his own financial purposes. At that time, the Hearst empire included large tracts of forest that provided wood pulp for the newsprint used by his and other newspapers. 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 and make his forestland less valuable, Hearst editorialized for making marijuana and hemp illegal.
The eventual decriminalization of industrial hemp at the federal level appears to be inevitable. Kentucky has already put into the bluegrass state’s laws the right to raise hemp should federal laws prohibiting it be eased.
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.
An informed farm lobbyist, Bob Kraft a former leader with the Indiana Farm Bureau, is supporting the legalization of hemp as a new, alternative crop for Hoosier farmers. Some of his thoughts are included in this column.