The 2018 Farm Bill just passed by both the Senate and House of Representatives takes hemp off the list of controlled substances and legalizes its cultivation as an agricultural commodity.
Hemp has been grown for fiber for centuries. Colonial Virginia required its cultivation in 1691 and it became an American staple until the 20th century. By the 1930s it had been lumped together with marijuana and made illegal by most states — some say at the bidding of cotton interests.
During World War II the federal government encouraged farmers to grow hemp to replace jute and other fibers from Japanese-held areas in the Pacific necessary for the manufacture of rope. The plant proved so prolific that farmers in the Midwest still struggle to stamp it out of ditches and fence rows more than 70 years later.
After serving its hitch, hemp again fell out of favor. Since the 1970s it’s been placed on the list of controlled substances, illegal to cultivate or sell in its raw forms.
But as we’ve said many times, hemp is as much like marijuana as a poppy seed muffin is like heroin. Although hemp and marijuana are of the same species, hemp lacks a significant amount of active tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive compound that produces pot’s high.
All the while preventing its cultivation here, the federal government allowed the importation of goods — clothing, foodstuffs, cosmetics and essential oils — made abroad from hemp. A commercial market clearly exists for the crop.
The last farm bill allowed states to establish some experimental cultivation programs the skirted around the narcotics laws.
It’s not clear to us that hemp will be the big crop its promoters envision. It takes a lot of water, which is in ever shorter supply in this part of the country. Because it’s relatively easy to grow, the sudden boom in production could easily produce a bust at market.
But that’s the nature of farming. At least hemp growers will be free to succeed or fail outside the yoke of severe government regulation.
Well, federal regulation anyway.
Would-be hemp growers in the Northwest are finding themselves at odds with marijuana producers.
Pot growers worry that their high-THC plants will be contaminated through cross-pollination with low-THC by large-scale hemp production.
When both crops were illegal no one gave this serious consideration. But in recent years both Oregon and Washington, with a wink and a nod from the feds, have made marijuana cultivation and sales legal under state law. All this is heavily regulated, and heavily taxed.
And that’s the rub for hemp producers. With millions of dollars in tax money coming in, the states are neck deep in a narcotics trade that is illegal under federal law. The tax produced by legal hemp will be negligible.
The states and their partners are unlikely to put their interests at risk, so hemp growers could easily face stiff regulation under a state regime.
Such is the beauty of our federalist system of government.