Officials at the Oregon Department of Agriculture have asked the U.S. attorney for Oregon to clarify statements she made on whether hemp could be grown legally in the state. The department is considering whether to issue regulations on growing hemp in light of those comments.
The U.S. Department of Justice, which oversees U.S. attorneys, has decided to allow the cultivation of marijuana in Washington state and Colorado, which have legalized it. That is in spite of the fact that federal law makes it illegal to grow either hemp or marijuana anywhere in the U.S.
Because of the confusion, we have advice for farmers thinking about growing hemp or marijuana: Watch out.
As it now stands, these decisions can be unmade as quickly as they were made. According to the U.S. Constitution, only Congress has the ability to write federal law. Until Congress changes the law on hemp and marijuana, farmers and others itching to grow the crops would be prudent to sit tight.
There’s another reason to put any hemp-growing decision on hold. The Obama administration will reach the end of its second term in three years. After that, a new president and administration will take office. The next attorney general could take a hard-line stance on hemp and marijuana and leave farmers in a lurch. Any investments in the cultivation of the crop could be at risk.
As a crop, hemp is OK, but proponents oversell its attributes. They make it sound like the Next Big Thing in agriculture. Hardly. Hemp is a utilitarian fiber used in low-tech industries such as rope-making and clothing. It is also gluten-free and its seeds can be used for a variety of food purposes.
The Washington Legislature last winter toyed with ordering Washington State University researchers to look into how and where hemp could be grown.
One only has to look north for the answer. Hemp is grown legally in Canada, where it is a minor crop.
Considering that no farm groups are clamoring for the chance to grow hemp, we have to wonder why non-agricultural groups are so excited about it.
In our opinion, hemp’s main attraction is as a foot in the door for growing illegal marijuana. The greatest value of hemp is that it could be used as a “cover crop” for growing illegal marijuana in Oregon. Because the plant is nearly identical to marijuana — except for the amount of the ingredient that gets smokers high — hemp can be an effective camouflage for marijuana. That would make enforcement of any hemp regulations exceedingly difficult.
Our other concern is that anything even remotely promoting the cultivation of crops that are illegal under federal law is looking for trouble.
Taken all together, hemp appears to offer very little upside potential for farmers and a lot of downside.