Kentucky won a lawsuit on Friday against the federal government for the right to plant a shipment of hemp seeds that had been impounded. The case underscores what appears to be a comeback for the controversial plant, which, despite having much lower THC levels than marijuana, has been classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency as a Schedule I drug on par with heroin.
Federal legislation outlawed hemp as part of a war on marijuana in 1937. But this year’s Farm Bill, passed on Feb. 4, contains a provision that allows colleges and state agencies to grow and conduct research on the plant in states that allow it.
Growing hemp under these circumstances is now legal in Kentucky, along with 15 other states that have removed barriers to hemp production.
Though industrial hemp and marijuana come from the same plant, Cannabis sativa, hemp seeds are bred to produce plants with 0.3 to 1.5 percent THC, whereas marijuana has 5 to 15 percent. THC, the ingredient in marijuana that gets people high, is far too low in hemp to have the same effect.
Hemp proponents said the plant can be an environementally friendly source of paper, textiles, oils and biodegradeable plastics.
Long before Kentucky’s spat with the DEA to release its shipment of hemp seeds, the state led the U.S. in hemp production — with a mid–19th century peak of 40,000 tons per year.
In fact, before the U.S. was even a country, its first big cash crop was hemp. Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper.
Hemp was briefly freed for use during World War II — growing the plant was considered a patriotic duty as part of the government’s Hemp for Victory campaign — when foreign sources of textiles, ropes and fibers came under enemy occupation and the U.S. needed to grow its own. A hemp-rigged parachute saved George H.W. Bush’s life while he served in the armed forces. But when war subsided in Europe, the U.S. found new sources, and hemp was phased out.
The plant’s disenfranchisement began in the early 20th century, when powerful petrochemical and pulp-paper industries realized they stood to lose billions if hemp’s potential was fully realized.
Here’s some interesting facts about hemp.
On an annual basis, 1 acre of hemp will produce as much fiber as 2 to 3 acres of cotton. Hemp fiber is stronger and softer than cotton, lasts twice as long as cotton, and will not mildew.
Cotton grows only in moderate climates and requires more water than hemp; but hemp is frost tolerant, requires only moderate amounts of water, and grows in all 50 states. Cotton requires large quantities of pesticides and herbicides–50% of the world’s pesticides/herbicides are used in the production of cotton. Hemp requires no pesticides, no herbicides, and only moderate amounts of fertilizer.
On an annual basis, 1 acre of hemp will produce as much paper as 2 to 4 acres of trees. From tissue paper to cardboard, all types of paper products can be produced from hemp.
The quality of hemp paper is superior to tree-based paper. Hemp paper will last hundreds of years without degrading, can be recycled many more times than tree-based paper, and requires less toxic chemicals in the manufacturing process than does paper made from trees.
Hemp can be used to produce fiberboard that is stronger and lighter than wood. Substituting hemp fiberboard for timber would further reduce the need to cut down our forests.
Hemp can be used to produce strong, durable and environmentally-friendly plastic substitutes. Thousands of products made from petroleum-based plastics can be produced from hemp-based composites.
As the legalization of marijuana has started to pick up steam in states across the nation, perhaps the legalization of industrial hemp – which clearly has many uses – may not be far behind.