As marijuana becomes more mainstream and stigmas associated with its use fade, barriers to growing hemp are also likely to fall away.
From an agricultural standpoint, Wisconsin has ideal conditions for hemp cultivation, and lawmakers should position the state to take advantage of this once-scorned crop as hemp’s legal standing improves. Some state legislators already recognize hemp’s potential and have proposed a bill to regulate its production. While the bill has little hope of passing in the near term, now is the time to begin talking about hemp’s attributes and dispel myths about it.
Product demonstrations, such as the one arranged by the Hempstead Project Heart in Green County last weekend, will help build momentum and set the stage for a hemp revival.
The industrial uses for hemp are well known, and the federal government itself recognized them during World War II (and even produced a film, “Hemp for Victory,” in 1942), turning to Wisconsin to supply a majority of the hemp used to make rope for the Navy.
From an industrial standpoint, hemp is stunningly versatile. Its seeds or fibers can be used to make everything from diapers to denim, varnishes to putty, salad dressing to birdseed, soap to cosmetics, fiberboard to home insulation.
Hempcrete was the product shown in Green County last weekend. It’s less brittle than concrete and has a high insulation value while being fire resistant.
Despite hemp’s many legitimate uses, its death knell came in 1970 when Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, placing marijuana and hemp in the same drug category. As recently as 2013, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency circulated a memo to lawmakers arguing the two plants are indistinguishable and that hemp’s cultivation would harm marijuana enforcement efforts.
While identical as a species, hemp and marijuana are completely different in terms of their potency as a drug. Smoking hemp in place of marijuana would be like eating feed corn as an alternative to sweet corn—yuck.
People don’t get high smoking hemp, though they can get a headache. There’s only a tiny fraction of THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana, in hemp, though the DEA worries marijuana could be grown within a field of hemp. While it’s true the two crops could be intermingled, cross-pollination would diminish the marijuana’s THC levels, mitigating any financial incentive to introduce marijuana into a hemp field. (Ironically, some marijuana growers oppose hemp production because of the cross-pollination risks.)
Furthermore, the marijuana legalization trend will likely increase the supply of high-quality, legal strains of marijuana, making irrelevant the DEA’s reasons for opposing hemp production.
While the federal government generally prohibits hemp production, the 2014 farm bill created an opening for states to regulate hemp production. An Assembly bill introduced this year by Democrat Dave Considine of Baraboo and Republican Jesse Kremer of Kewaskum would allow farmers to obtain licenses from the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to grow hemp with THC levels not to exceed 0.3 percent. Applicants would undergo background checks, and growers would use industrial hemp seeds certified by the state.
The only thing preventing Wisconsin farmers from pursuing hemp production is the government’s failed war on drugs—though hemp isn’t a drug. It just looks like one.
Legislators and voters alike need to move beyond irrational fears about hemp’s appearance and start thinking more about the potential economic benefits.