American Hemp Farming Poised for Resurgence Despite US Prohibition

by | Oct 17, 2013

Washington Hemp

This month Ryan Loflin, along with a group of volunteers, completed on his Colorado farm the first public hemp harvest in the US since Colorado voters approved legalizing the farming and distribution of both marijuana and hemp last November. The Loflin farm harvest is one of several recent developments that suggest American hemp farming that has been suppressed by the US government for decades may soon enjoy a resurgence.

While the Colorado government says legal hemp farming is on hold until regulations are enacted, Loflin jumped the gun, growing his hemp the old fashioned way—without a government permit. As reported in the New York Times in August, Loflin ordered fertile hemp seeds through the mail from suppliers in countries in which the plant is legally grown. He then planted the seeds on his farm.

Despite the fact that hemp is legally included in products from building materials to cloths to food, the US government deems illegal the possession of fertile hemp seeds and the cultivation of hemp. The Times article relates that Loflin, who was upfront about his hemp farming plans and told the neighbors of his farm about his intentions, half-expected US Drug Enforcement Administration agents to race down the highway to his farm and burn his crops before harvest.

Loflin’s concern about DEA interference is warranted. Hemp is a variation of cannabis sativa L., as is marijuana. Though hemp is distinguished from marijuana by hemp’s tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content being so low that it is impossible to use hemp to alter one’s psychological state, the US government views hemp farming as prohibited under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act that defines all cannabis sativa L. as marijuana.

Other individuals who have dared to publicly grow hemp in the US during the national prohibition have faced punishment and the destruction of their plants. Mother Jones writer Leora Broydo relates the overpowering SWAT reaction of multiple federal agencies when some people attempted in the summer of 2000 to farm less than two acres of hemp in a South Dakota reservation in accord with the tribal government’s laws:

Alex White Plume called it his “field of dreams”: an acre and a half of plants so tall and strong they seemed to touch the sky; a crop representing hope for a new and self-sufficient life for his family, residents of the desperately impoverished Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

But on Aug. 24, 2000 at sunrise, just four days before White Plume and his neighbors planned to harvest their bounty, White Plume awoke to the sounds of helicopters. He looked out the window and saw a convoy of vehicles heading for his field.

He raced down to investigate, and was met by a slew of black-clad and heavily armed figures — 36 agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the US Marshal’s office.

When White Plume rolled down the window of his pick-up to ask what was going on, he says, one US marshal pointed a gun in his face. Meanwhile, the other agents chopped down each plant near the roots and hauled them away.

Twelve years later, David Bronner locked himself and a few hemp plants in a cage in front of the White House in Washington, DC. Bronner then proceeded to harvest the plants as well as process hemp oil from them in an effort to publicize the need to end the US prohibition on hemp farming—until police broke into his cage and took him away in handcuffs.

Bronner’s advocacy for American hemp farming is buttressed by his business experience as the CEO of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps. Bronner explains in an interview with KPBS television that his company spends yearly over $100,000 importing 20 tons of hemp seed oil from Canada. As Bronner says in a 2012 Reason interview, “We want to give our money to American farmers. And, in a recession, why are we continuing to hand it to Canadians?”

Other American business leaders are likely asking similar questions. Among other considerations, moving hemp farming closer to American production facilities can lower costs by significantly decreasing transportation distances compared to importing hemp from hemp producing countries such as Canada, China, and Hungary. Further, so long as hemp cannot be grown legally in the US, an American business may decide it makes the most economic sense to locate hemp-related production oversees near the legal hemp farms.

The threat of US government reactions including the standard drug war tactics of arrest imprisonment, crop destruction, and property confiscation has held back other individuals who have desired to publicly grow and harvest hemp in the US. For example, North Dakota farmers Wayne Hauge and David Monson jumped through all the hoops and paid all the fees of their state’s hemp regulations to obtain licenses in 2007 and 2008 to plant hemp only to have the DEA take no action on their applications for US government approval.

The DEA is incredibly stingy in granting farmers permission to grow hemp. The July 24 Congressional Research Service report Hemp as an Agricultural Commodity notes a now-expired DEA permit for a quarter-acre research plot in Hawaii between 1999 and 2003 but no current hemp growing permits. Looking to the period before the Hawaii permit, the DEA indicates in a March 12, 1998 press release that it had never permitted hemp farming.

Vote Hemp, in a hemp FAQ, lays out bluntly the predicament farmers considering growing hemp without DEA permission face:

So, what do I risk for planting hemp under state law without a DEA permit?

You are literally betting the farm if you can grow hemp under state law without a DEA permit, which they won’t give you one of anyway. Federal civil asset forfeiture is not something to mess with. Your assets are considered to be guilty until the property owner prove them innocent. If all of your liquid assets are subject to forfeiture and that’s what you need to prove your property is innocent, well, too bad. You had better get a good pro bono lawyer and pray a lot and you may have a slight chance of getting your property back. But, most likely you’re not. Oh, and they don’t have to file charges against you or prove that you are guilty of a crime to seize your property. For a little more on the subject please see 18 USC § 981 – Civil forfeiture. Also, there are federal mandatory minimum sentences for the number of marijuana plants grown. [For] 1,000 plants, which at oilseed densities of 10 – 12 plants per square foot is only 4 feet by 25 feet, a person “shall be sentenced to a term of imprisonment which may not be less than 10 years or more than life” according to 21 U.S.C. § 841.

Loflin and other farmers who decide to grow hemp, may find some comfort in a US Department of Justice’s August 29 memorandum. The memorandum, issued in light of the November popular votes in Colorado and Washington for marijuana legalization, provides guidance for US attorneys to exercise some restraint in exercising investigative and prosecutorial discretion in matters involving marijuana. Since growing hemp is considered by the US government to be the same as growing marijuana, the guidance provided in the new memorandum should apply to hemp farming as well. But, hemp farmers beware: similar DOJ memoranda regarding medical marijuana have not ended US government raids on medical marijuana businesses.

Potential hemp farmers may also suspect the US government lacks the capacity to crack down on wide-spread violations of hemp restrictions without the assistance of state and local police and prosecutors. This has been among the greatest protections for people involved in the medical marijuana industry. No matter how much the US government may want to throw them all in prison, it does not allocate sufficient resources to make it happen.

For real security from US government harassment, hemp farmers need a change in US laws. Rep. Thomas Massie’s H.R.525 and Sen. Ron Wyden’s S.359 are similar bills, both titled the Industrial Hemp Farming Act, that would eliminate the US government prohibition on hemp farming by excluding hemp from the Controlled Substances Act definition of marijuana. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s H.R.1523, the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act, would restrict US government prohibition on hemp farming in certain states by providing that provisions of the Controlled Substances Act related to marijuana would not apply to people acting in compliance with state laws.

Public opinion and the movement of state governments to adopt more accommodating hemp and marijuana laws are making the legalization of hemp and marijuana farming less taboo subjects in the US Congress. In years past, easing US government marijuana restrictions was debated on the House floor during consideration of the recurring amendment to the Department of Justice appropriations bill that called for respecting state medical marijuana laws. The amendment, though, never received a majority vote. This year a majority of the House did vote for a narrower-focused amendment to limit the marijuana prohibition under the Controlled Substances Act. This hemp provision, which was included in a House-passed farm bill, would end the US government prohibition on colleges and universities growing hemp for research purposes in compliance with state laws. A final version of the farm bill, though, has not been approved by both the House and Senate.

A September Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled Conflicts between State and Federal Marijuana Laws further illustrates that Congress is taking notice of the shifting nature of marijuana policy in the US. A similar hearing of the Government Operations Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee titled Examining the Federal Response to Marijuana Legislation that was scheduled for October 2 was postponed along with many other committee hearings during the “government shutdown.” Supposing the House subcommittee hearing is rescheduled, it should provide an interesting discussion. Three of the eight subcommittee members are Industrial Hemp Farming Act sponsor Rep. Thomas Massie and cosponsors Reps. Justin Amash and Mark Pocan. Amash and Pocan are also cosponsors of the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act.

California is the latest state to adopt legislation favorable to hemp farming, with Governor Jerry Brown approving SB 566 on September 27. The Vote Hemp website provides a good starting place for researching information on the many state hemp bills and laws.

Burgeoning hemp farming promises to return to America a valued crop in US history. Indeed, the promotors of the Virginia Company’s Jamestown settlement, encouraged the production of hemp.

In the next century, hemp was a common crop in American farms, including those of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Thomas Paine even pointed to the abundance of hemp in the American colonies in his Common Sense exhortation for the colonists to stand up to the British government. Paine wrote, “In almost every article of defence we abound. Hemp flourishes even to rankness so that we need not want cordage.”

Over 150 years later, the US government would similarly praises hemp as an important wartime crop, including through the film Hemp for Victory that encouraged “patriotic farmers” to grow more hemp.

Yet, the US government, pointing to the Controlled Substances Act, now tells Americans they cannot grow this crop. Even if it appears inevitable that the US will join the many other nations that allow farmers to grow hemp, as we see in the case of medical marijuana, the US government is capable of inflicting much pain as it is pushed toward an accommodative policy.

As the hemp farming resurgence effort unfolds, look for other farmers to follow Loflin’s lead, challenging US drug war policy and exercising their right to farm. In doing so, they will be taking part in an activity as American as apple pie—with some hemp seeds in the crust, of course.

Flickr/V. H. Hammer

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  • Adam Dick

    Adam worked from 2003 through 2013 as a legislative aide for Rep. Ron Paul. Previously, he was a member of the Wisconsin State Board of Elections, a co-manager of Ed Thompson's 2002 Wisconsin governor campaign, and a lawyer in New York and Connecticut.

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