Why America’s fired up about hemp

The once-maligned cannabis plant could herald an agricultural revolution, author Doug Fine tells Salon VIDEO

Topics: Video, Hemp, prohibition, marijuana, Cannabis, Agriculture, Farm Bill, Editor's Picks, ,

Why America's fired up about hempA volunteer walks through a hemp field at a farm in Springfield, Oct. 5, 2013. (Credit: AP/P. Solomon Banda)

Hemp: It’s not just for health food smoothies and hippie clothing. The unintended victim of the United States’ prohibition on cannabis — it got swept up in the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 and is now blacklisted by the DEA under the Controlled Substances Act — the plant is beginning to be seen by many as the solution to any number of the country’s problems, with implications ranging from energy to agriculture. Newly liberated (to an extent) by the recently passed Farm Bill, it could be the country’s next billion-dollar industry, journalist Doug Fine told Salon.

It’s one of the few areas on which Fine, who’s previously written books about marijuana legalization and an experiment in off-grid living, can find common ground with Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Hemp Bound: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Next Agricultural Revolution” is part manifesto, part documentation of the ways in which hemp is being put to use within the U.S. and around the world, and part how-to for would-be cultivators. Fine spoke with Salon about hemp’s former role in U.S. history, the declining stigma against all kinds of cannabis and the people leading the new hemp movement. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Just so everyone’s on the same page, I thought it would be good to start with a working definition of hemp. What are you talking about in the book, and what’s its relationship to marijuana?

Most of the world cultivates hemp today, and the general definition is any variety of the cannabis plant with less than .1 percent THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis, can be cultivated for industrial reasons. There is no other similarity between hemp, otherwise known as industrial cannabis, and the psychoactive varieties of the plant, other than the fact that their leaves are shaped similarly. Canada has a 15-year modern hemp industry worth a billion dollars a year, by the way, and growing. And there have been zero cases of confusion between hemp and psychoactive cannabis.



Also, a hemp crop would immediately ruin a psychoactive cannabis crop because for psychoactive cannabis, only females are cultivated, and they’re prima donnas — they’re lovingly manicured over their life cycle. If hemp pollen were to get into those female plants, it would destabilize the psychoactivity, it would dilute it. So that’s why for instance in California, which recently passed hemp cultivation registration, the regions where they’re allowing hemp are totally separate from the famous outdoor cannabis cultivating regions of the Emerald Triangle and the Redwood northern part of the state.

So the U.S. prohibition of industrial cannabis, then, is really all about this perceived connection it has with marijuana?

Yes. The 77 years of hemp prohibition were essentially caused by a typo. When cannabis was effectively criminalized in 1937, under the federal Marijuana Tax Act – another terrible policy which I’ve written about before — hemp was included. Very quickly, the federal government realized what a mistake that was. Already the drug war was shipping jobs offshore. In 1942, just a few years after hemp prohibition began, World War II was breaking out. And the Navy needed something like 40 tons of hemp rigging for each vessel.

And by the way, the cord in the parachute that saved George Bush Sr.’s life in World War II was made of hemp.

So we’d been getting the hemp from the Philippines. But the Japanese captured the Philippines. So in 1942, you can see this on Youtube, the Department of Agriculture made this propaganda film that sounds as though it were produced by your roommate with the lava lamp. It’s called “Hemp for Victory,” and it just sings all the true applications of hemp, it’s a song of praise to it. And it’s just proof of the ridiculousness of cannabis prohibition. This 77-year break that we tried to impose on humanity’s relationship with the plant obviously must come to an end. And when it comes to hemp, it’s really, really good for the economy and the planet that it’s coming to an end.

In your last book, “Too High to Fail,” you make a strong economic case for ending marijuana prohibition, which is still coming up against opposition. Is legalizing hemp any easier, or is stigma still an issue here, too?

Well, it’s even easier with hemp. In February, Congress passed and the president signed the Farm Bill, which included a provision that legalized hemp on the federal level. It’s only for university research to start, but that’s okay. Before they got their hugely growing and very profitable hemp industry going in 1998, the Canadians also did two years of research on the cultivars (which is what you call the strains when you’re talking about hemp — the varieties, essentially). So yeah, it’s a done deal with hemp.

But I should say also, in a Pew poll just last week, 75 percent of Americans said they believe all cannabis legalization is imminent, is inevitable. So despite all the drug war brainwashing, I don’t think that much stigma really remains on the psychoactive cannabis side. Everywhere I seem to go people are ready for it. And that includes places that are politically conservative like Kentucky, Florida and Texas.

The really interesting thing, so far as hemp is concerned, is that there seems to be a very strong Republican case for it. [Kentucky Senator] Mitch McConnell was a major backer of the provision for hemp cultivation.

Definitely. Kentucky was the traditional leader in a hemp industry that was hugely important to the American economy. The U.S. hemp crop was the pride of the world. Our cultivars were prized. They’re gone now. We have to rebuild them. And it wasn’t just Kentucky. Places like Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois — they all had big hemp industries. Today, North Dakota is one of the leaders in fighting to get hemp back — a very politically conservative state. It’s because they’re looking one inch over the border, and seeing farmers make $300 per acre, which is as much as ten times what they’re making for GMO wheat, corn and soy.

So it’s really a bottom-line thing. In “Hemp Bound,” I talk about the climate change mitigation that’s going to result when hemp is really adopted. But it wouldn’t be adopted on a large scale if it weren’t for the profit that farmers can make today from seed oil. That, in the end, is why Colorado is ahead of federal law. I was at a meeting in Boulder a few weeks ago, on the first day that the Colorado Agriculture Department started issuing permits to farmers for unlimited commercial cultivation of hemp. That’s more than federal law currently allows for, although there are some pending bills in Congress this year to allow federal law to catch up with Colorado. But there’s one very simple reason why Colorado is moving ahead, and that is profits to farmers and money in the tax base.

If the U.S. could re-grow its hemp industry, how much of an economic impact do you see it having, both immediately and maybe in the long term?

I see it having a massive economic impact. Predictions are free, of course. But first of all, let’s talk about on the ground today, in straight dollar figures, just on the hempseed oil. Canadian farmers have built an industry in 15 years that’s going to break a billion dollars this year in earnings. Just for this year. From the seed oil. So it’s already having a huge impact. Long-term, I believe that hemp is going to be a bigger economic boon worldwide than psychoactive cannabis, which is already one of the world’s leading cash crops. And my shorthand explanation for that is: Coors is big, but Exxon Mobil is bigger. And the hemp application that I write about in “Hemp Bound,” that I’m most excited about, and that I preach and pray for at every live event, especially when there’s going to be potential cultivators, processors and investors at the event, is the energy application.

In Europe today, entire communities in places like Austria and Germany are becoming energy independent and fossil fuel independent through a biomass combustion technique called gasification. It’s an anaerobic, high-heat process, and it’s being used on farm waste. You can get the gasification combustion units in the size of an outhouse. They’re affordable. The U.S. Army’s buying a lot of these units too. And farms are selling back to the grid, or in some places like Bellheim, Germany, they’re creating their own community-based grid and putting unemployed people to work running it. So they’re becoming independent of larger grids and becoming independent of petroleum.

I’m urging farmers to make this energy producing application part of their first-generation processing facilities for hemp in the U.S. I think of it as the upside of prohibition. We can now look around the world and see. The Canadians are making tons of money, $300 an acre profit. So if you’re growing 1,000 acres in the prairies of Manitoba or Alberta, that’s $300,000 profit per year. That’s good money. So seed oil. Then there’s fiber applications — we could start building carbon-negative homes using “hempcrete,” which is hemp fiber mixed with lime. And the third asset that really has me excited, as a father, about our climate future, is this fossil-free energy from hemp. If we’re growing these millions of acres in North Dakota, Colorado, Vermont, Kentucky, I think we can really have an impact on worldwide climate change.

How is hemp, used as fuel, different from other forms of biomass?

That’s a great question. So, hemp can be made into ethanol and biodiesel. In fact, in one part of “Hemp Bound,” I actually took a hemp-powered limo ride in this fun, safe limo. So that can be done. But today there aren’t cultivars that are grown specifically for that. I think the first applications we’re going to see for energy are going to be at the power plant rather than in the tank.

To give one example, there is a utility in Kentucky called Patriot Biofuels which is explicitly part of the effort to get hemp back into the soil in Kentucky. As you mentioned, Mitch McConnell, who’s a very conservative key senator, supports it. And what they want to do is plant on marginal soil that has been damaged by tobacco monoculture and/or coal mining. Because hemp has these really incredible phytoremediation, or soil-restoring qualities. It’s even been used to help clean up irradiated soil in Ukraine after the Chernobyl nuclear tragedy. It also has foot-long taproots, which really helps with aeration in the soil and creating that microclimate that soil needs for restorative soil health, and for drought-ravaged places like sub-Saharan Africa, it’s not a very thirsty crop. The first Colorado farmer that planted it last year, Ryan Loflin, said it requires about half the water he’d been using on wheat in previous years. Which means a lot, because his fellow Coloradons are dealing with the Dust Bowl out there, and if they can dryland crop hemp, that’s going to be a big deal. So what the Kentucky utilities want to do is grow this hemp, and use the biomass — through gasification, as we were discussing — to create fossil-fuel-free, carbon friendly energy.

And the second part of your question was how does it compare to other biomass. That’s a really good question. First of all, it produces so much more biomass per acre than corn or soy. So there’s so much available. But I’ve heard some European hemp consultants say that when combusted, it’s close, but it doesn’t necessarily have the total energy capacity producing per unit of some other farm waste. But you don’t produce any other crop in such high volume as you do hemp. And today, the Canadians are just burning it in the field, they’re not doing anything with it. So better to use it for energy, and the sheer volume of it makes it worthwhile as an energy crop.

You also argue that it’s a good alternative because it can disrupt this whole GMO monoculture — is that where that argument is coming from, that it would be something else we could be planting that would have more uses, as opposed to, say, corn?

Yeah. Last July 4th, I watched a fifth-generation Colorado farmer named Michael Bowman displacing a sick cornfield in the conservative part of Colorado with hemp. If it’s going to bring more profits, and be healthier for the soil, we may really see a complete about-face in the way that our food structure is going. And that’s the goal of a lot of hemp producers. John Roulac is a founder of the very profitable and fast-growing hempseed oil company Nutiva. Today he has to only deal with Canadian hemp, and he would really like to see domestic hemp. But his goal is to completely, like you said, reverse the trend of moving toward GMO and change the food structure, because it’s a healthier product; it’s actually more profitable for farmers to cultivate and for business people to invest in.

My own hope for the business model would be that we can not just localize and regionalize the energy grid as we were discussing earlier, but also the business model. I would love to see farmers in a region in the community, let’s say a section of Nebraska, or an area in Indiana (Indiana, by the way, and Tennessee are two more states that have recently legalized hemp). So a huge section of, let’s say Indiana, three counties or whatever, getting together and jointly investing in a processor that renders the seed oil, that renders fiber applications and that third energy component, so that the profits are staying in the region, the food is provided regionally, and the energy spurs an independent grid that frees us from utilities and fossil fuels.

Can you tell me a little bit more about the people you profile in the book: these early adopters of hemp? Were they mostly driven by idealism or by profits?

Another good question. I’d say it’s a combination of those. So I believe Ryan Loflin of Springfield, Colorado — there’ll be statues of him one day in Colorado because he did a very brave thing on his family’s muti-generational, very vast farm. He planted hemp when his family gets federal subsidies on alfalfa and these other kinds of crops. And he did it intentionally; he was trying to show his neighbors there is an alternative to the dust bowl that is out there. I mean really, it looks like “The Grapes of Wrath” out there in the soil. There is an alternative that will make farmers money and be good for the soil, and good for the earth, and for his kids — he has kids, too. It was brave because he could have been raided at any time, as this was before the Farm Bill passed. But also, he did another great thing which is, his point in planting those 50 acres last year was to rebuild seed stock. And there are a number of people in Colorado doing this, so that there will be seed. As I mentioned, there’s a germ problem, the great hemp genetics that we had here in the U.S. are gone. So there’s the bottom-line effort of wanting to make those big profits that Canadians make. Ryan says his father, who’s no liberal, supported his effort because they read the journals, they know what the Canadians are making on their crop.

That said, there is an activism component to hemp. There’s no question hemp is not just a plant and not just an industry, but also a movement. And the hemp brand is kind of healthy righteousness. Now, that may seem like neither here nor there, but it actually has great value. There’s a study that came out that said people’s enthusiasm about hemp, and about what hemp represents, is going to cause them to go out of their way to support it in the marketplace once American-grown hemp starts appearing in your food store, in your clothing store, in your automobile parts.

The analogy that I think of is baking soda that people use as an air freshener and the non-toxic cleaning of their kitchen and whatnot. The fact that there’s this orange box that’s inexpensive, and there’s nothing added to it, just this natural product: that’s key to the baking soda brand. We’re never going to see New Neon Super Anti-Bacterial Baking Soda because that’s off-brand. And that’s why the Canadians have banned genetically modified hemp, even though there is no genetically modified hemp. And the U.S. should do it too. The reason is that “Frankenhemp” is going turn consumers away. I have no problem with the “McHemp” sandwich at a fast-food joint. That’d be great. Just not genetically modified.

One other point on this hemp brand, and hemp being a movement: The people that have been involved in selling hemp have been really brave over the years. One of them is David Bronner, who runs Dr. Bronner’s, that multi-generational soap company that many people first discovered late at night at a party in a friend’s bathroom, with the prophetic prayers and things all over the label. He pulled one ingredient in his grandfather’s recipe, caramel coloring, took it out, and added hemp. And he sued the DEA in the ’90s to be allowed to import hemp. He only pays himself five times more than his lowest-paid employee. Puts olive oil in the soap that comes from orchards that are tended jointly by Israelis and Palestinians. Everything’s organic and fair-traded. Last year he chained himself in a cage in front of the White House with a hemp plant, demanding that American farmers be allowed to cultivate. Which, incidentally, a few months later they were. This is a $54 million, rapidly growing company. This isn’t a dude selling burritos at a Phish show. So that brand, that message of righteousness, is valuable. It actually has big bottom-dollar value. I read a couple university studies that talked about this. People are fired up about hemp, and they’re going help kickstart this industry.

So just one more question: What are the next steps that need to happen to make domestic cultivation viable in the U.S.?

Three things. First off, the U.S. needs to allow full commercial cultivation of hemp. Right now we have the university studies allowed. So what I hope people will do, what I urge people to do, is call their senators and congresspeople and support S359 on the Senate side and HR 525 on the House side, both of which will allow full commercial hemp cultivation. Which Colorado is doing anyway, but let’s get federal law on board. The second thing is, federal regulators must allow the importation of and interstate shipping of hemp seeds. Right now there’s a little bit of foot dragging going on about that. And ideally, the third thing is, for the first few years, encourage farmers via subsidies to cultivate hemp. Europe does this. We need to make our hemp crop competitive right from day one. To be honest, it doesn’t really need that, those subsidies, because it’s so profitable. But the fact that there are $300-per-acre profits by Canadian hemp today doesn’t guarantee that there will be such profits in the future. For that reason the federal government should make it very clear we want farmers to grow this crop. It’s good for the economy, it’s good for the soil, it’s good for national security, it makes us a healthier nation via the seed oil and it frees us from fossil fuels. That’s really what I’d like to see five years from now. Energy, seed oil and fibers all happening with hemp around the nation.

Lindsay Abrams

Lindsay Abrams is a staff writer at Salon, reporting on all things sustainable. Follow her on Twitter @readingirl, email labrams@salon.com.

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