California legalizes industrial hemp, setting the stage for hemp production should it become legal on the federal level
Hemp advocate Richard Dash, owner of the Dash Hemp Santa Cruz retail store, is quick to point out the irony in the federal government's longstanding ban on the cultivation of industrialized hemp.
The DEA, he explains, associates hemp directly with marijuana despite its non-psychoactive properties, while the sale of bagels with poppy seeds—the base source of opium—is perfectly legal.
“You're more likely to fail a drug test eating poppy seed bagels than by eating hemp seeds, which are delicious on mashed potatoes, salads, cereals and everything, really,” says Dash, who also sits on the board of directors for the Hemp Industries Association (HIA). “So why not close down Einstein [Bros] Bagels?”
While the federal government continues to hold the cultivation of hemp to a criminal standard, 10 states, including Oregon, Vermont and West Virginia, have passed their own legislation making it legal. This will help farmers prepare for hemp licensing and authorize universities to grow the plant for research.
On Friday, Sept. 27, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 566—the California Industrial Hemp Farming Act, which was authored by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco).
“With the signing of this bill, California is poised to grow industrial hemp when the federal government gives states the green light,” Leno said in a Sept. 27 press statement.
The law primes the state's farmers to cultivate industrial hemp for the sale of seed, oil and fiber to manufacturers and businesses that currently rely entirely on international imports from countries like Canada, China, and nations in Europe.
The plants can be made into thousands of products, including wax, resin, rope, cloth, construction materials, printing paper, and biofuel.
In defiance of the federal ban, one farmer in Colorado, where marijuana was legalized last year, planted 55 acres of hemp last spring. He harvested his crop on Sept. 23.
Steve Levine, who is CFO for the HIA and on the board of directors, says advocates anticipate that, in light of some states' legalization of medical marijuana, the federal government will soon declassify hemp as a Schedule 1 drug.
“This [bill] is a small step, but it is a victory and it is going in the right direction,” Levine says.
He hopes California will be growing hemp by next spring.
If farmers chose to plant the crop prior to federal legalization, they run the risk of having federal agents come in, destroy their harvest and take their land, Levine says.
Normally, cannabis cultivated for industrialized hemp has less than 1 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content. By contrast, the average THC content in marijuana reached 10 percent in 2009, according to the National Institutes of Health.
“There's not enough THC in [hemp] to do anything except give you a headache if you smoke it," Levine says.
Hemp is the only crop that's illegal to grow at the federal level, yet legal for Americans to import from the more than 30 nations that export it, according to Leno's press release.
Dash says hemp, which can grow in a wide range of climates, would be a very viable crop for Central California.
He says farmers, who are constantly negotiating their irrigation expenses, would likely be drawn to industrialized hemp, which requires less water and fewer agricultural inputs than most other crops, and has deep tap roots that leave the soil in good condition for the next crop cycle.
“Most farm bureaus are interested in the crop, but they're not likely going to risk it [with the federal government],” says Levine. “[When they can] agricultural groups will jump on board.”
MaryLou Nicoletti, the Santa Cruz County Agricultural Commissioner, says that she is not aware of any significant interest by local farmers to grow hemp, but also that the discussion hasn't been on the table due to its illegality.
“It hasn't been a legally viable option up until this point,” she says. “[But] our climate is certainly suitable for hemp's cousin, marijuana, so I don't see why it wouldn't be suitable for industrial hemp.”
If water and other production costs were significantly lower and the value of the product was more than the fruits and vegetables many farmers are already cultivating, then the hemp option would definitely be on the table, she says.
“Water costs are always an issue,” Nicoletti says.
The DEA outlaws hemp because of its zero tolerance policy toward marijuana. One reason they give is concern that hemp farmers could easily disguise cannabis cultivated for marijuana in their fields.
However, there’s a problem with this logic, says Dash: marijuana and hemp cannot be grown in close proximity to one another. The cross pollination between the two—a non-drug strain and drug strain—decreases the potency of the THC.
“Is there a market for lousy pot in California?” Dash asks rhetorically. “No.”
He says marijuana farmers do not support industrialized hemp cultivation because they would all have to move indoors if a hemp field appears nearby.
“It dilutes what they're doing,” he says.
The pollen from a hemp cultivation site can travel anywhere from five to 20 miles, says Bryce Berryessa, who is on the board of directors for the Association for Standardized Cannabis (ASC) and owns a consulting company called Sustainable Agricultural Services.
“Any cannabis [marijuana] farm in close proximity to a hemp farm—there definitely could be a lot of issues,” he says.
However, Berryessa notes that, locally, outdoor marijuana grows are most suitable in the Santa Cruz Mountains, while a hemp farm would make the most sense on lower land such as Watsonville, Modesto or Fresno.
Anndrea Hermann, owner of The Ridge International Cannabis Consulting and president of the HIA, calls this conflict “the natural cannabis cultural clash.”
Hermann, who was born in Missouri but holds dual citizenship in Canada, where she lives, says the marijuana-hemp proximity issue is a real problem in Canada, where there are about 50,000 acres of hemp growing.
Hermann says that between January and July this year, Canada exported $22.3 million in hemp goods to the United States, which almost accounts for Canada's entire market. Their remaining exports to all other countries totaled less than $800,000.
Levine says the U.S. retail market for hemp is about $500 million annually, with organic foods and body care goods making up about 50 percent. However, he says, the market has grown rapidly in recent years, primarily in California.
Dash speculates that the majority of domestic industrialized hemp production would go into construction.
Levine says federal legalization of industrialized hemp cultivation would be great news for the economy.
“To make the natural analogy,” he says, “once it's legal, it'll be like a seed that can grow. It has the freedom to be watered with money, venture capitalism; banks will want to get in; people will want to make investments. We'll need processing plants; companies will want to borrow money to open up retail stores and manufacturing operations. It'll change the whole climate.”
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