During World War II, Janesville and other communities across southern Wisconsin petitioned the U.S government to build a lucrative crop processing plant near their cities.
The crop would be used primarily to build rope for the war effort, and a factory could provide an economic boom to a small or midsize town. Southern Wisconsin, with its fertile silt loam soil and proximity to Chicago shipping yards, was the perfect place to build.
The crop so desired? Hemp.
Now, an advocacy group called Hempstead Project Heart and two state legislators are trying to legalize hemp production in Wisconsin, decades after it was outlawed. Hemp production could happen statewide, but the soil here makes southern Wisconsin a target area.
Hempstead Project Heart recently held a demonstration in Green County where they used hempcrete—a form of concrete using hemp—to build a wall and show off sustainable construction methods. Hempcrete walls could be used for insulation and add a new market for area farmers, said Marc Grignon, Hempstead’s campaign manager.
Demonstrations and other informational events are essential to spreading awareness about hemp’s uses. But the bigger obstacle is explaining that hemp isn’t a psychoactive drug like its cousin, marijuana, Grignon said.
“That’s why there’s so much controversy around it. The leaves look like marijuana,” he said. “But the difference between marijuana and hemp is you’re growing hemp for seeds and fiber, and marijuana you’re growing for buds.”
People have asked Grignon if they can smoke hemp. They can, but it would just give them a headache, he said.
Hemp has less than 1 percent of THC, the main psychoactive part of the cannabis plant. Marijuana can contain more than 10 percent of THC, Grignon said.
He compared hemp and marijuana to bell peppers and jalapenos. Same family, different characteristics.
Grignon has worked with Ron Paris to spread the message about hemp. Paris lives in northeastern Green County and described himself as an “interested hemp guy.”
Paris has studied hemp for the past year-and-a-half, and he’s been amazed at how many products it can be used to make. Henry Ford made a car prototype from hemp in 1941, Paris said.
Hemp has plastic and fiber components. The plastic side can be used for hempcrete insulation or furniture.
The fiber can make canvas, fabric and other paper products, Paris said.
While the paper industry now uses more recycled resources, hemp grows much faster than the trees normally used to make paper, he said.
Two state legislators, Democrat Dave Considine of Baraboo and Republican Jesse Kremer of Kewaskum, are circulating bills that would regulate industrial hemp in the state. If one or both are passed, Wisconsin would join more than 30 other states that have legalized hemp for industrial, commercial or research purposes.
Wisconsin used to be a leader in hemp growth. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 taxed cannabis products, including hemp, but Wisconsin had an exemption and grew the crop for World War II needs, Grignon said.
Even if hemp is legalized, it would take time to establish an infrastructure of processing plants and side industries, Paris said.
But Grignon believes the biggest challenge is to disassociate hemp from marijuana and change skeptics’ viewpoints.
People generally don’t debate him when he discusses hemp’s history or its economic benefits. He lets people touch hemp products so they can become familiar with the plant, he said.
He shows them hemp briefcases, hemp pens and hemp bricks to start the conversation. Depending on market demands, hemp could become a multimillion dollar industry, though Grignon did not give a specific financial projection.
“When it comes to demystifying hemp, it comes down to a show-me approach. It’s not a tell-me approach,” he said. “What can you show me to say hemp is not a drug and we can use it for industry?”