Earlier this month, buried deep inside the bloated Farm Bill that passed the House thanks to GOP leadership, was a tiny seed of good news. Many seeds, in fact.
The Farm Bill amendment to which I refer, co-sponsored by Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), “is meant to ensure that colleges and universities are able to grow and cultivate industrial hemp for research purposes in states where industrial hemp cultivation is already legal.”
The House vote in favor of the hemp amendment was the first time Congress had voted on a hemp bill—nevermind actually passed one—in more than 50 years. The Senate failed to put a similar amendment to a vote this year.
The House vote came after Rep. Polis was granted permission earlier this month to fly a U.S. flag made of (imported) hemp over the U.S. Capitol on Independence Day.
“If this amendment were to survive the Farm Bill conference committee an[d] the bill is signed by President Obama it would allow colleges and universities to grow hemp in states where industrial hemp farming is already legal," said Tom Murphy, national outreach coordinator with Vote Hemp, the leading hemp advocacy group in the nation, in an email to me earlier this week.
Why are these sorts of amendments even necessary? Currently regulations consider hemp to be a drug. The DEA bars farmers from growing hemp without a permit. Not surprisingly, the DEA doesn’t issue such permits.
Despite the ban, sales of hemp foods and other products in this country continue to blossom.
According to a 2013 report by Rep. Polis and his House colleague Rep. Blumenauer, there's a tremendous market for hemp food products that remains untapped.
"Total sales of food and body-care products exceeded $43 million in 2011," the report states, "and advocacy groups estimate that the total retail market for hemp products in the US is valued at over $400 million dollars."
But since U.S. farmers can’t grow hemp, the hemp used in food and other products sold in this country comes from Canada, Europe, and China.
Foreign trade is great, but not when it comes largely as a result of a U.S. ban.
An increasing number of state legislatures seem to agree. Even before the present economic downturn, states began to pass laws seeking ways to skirt the federal ban.
"Nine states (Colorado, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia) have defined industrial hemp as distinct and removed barriers to its production," says Murphy.
Montana, which permitted hemp to be grown in 2001, only issued its first permit in 2009.
In Vermont, at least one farmer in the state has announced plans to test the state’s new hemp law against the federal ban during next growing season.
Murphy doesn’t know any farmers who are presently violating the ban.
"None,” he says when asked how many farmers are engaged in civil disobedience around the hemp issue, “though we have read that there is an activist in Colorado who is growing what is claimed to be hemp without a state permit."
And other states seem poised to join the nine that have moved to lift hemp restrictions.
California is one of those states. But amidst optimism there’s room for caution. The state’s been down that path before. According to NORML, California passed a similar hemp law in 1999 that’s effectively lain dormant thanks to state inaction. And a state legislative effort to legalize hemp in 2011 ran into the roadblock of Gov. Jerry Brown’s veto pen.
Murphy says Vote Hemp is optimistic about the future of what Canada’s government calls “the world's premier renewable resource.”
"Yes, with the passage of the Polis hemp amendment to the House version of the Farm Bill by a vote of 225 to 200, as well as the passage of Amendment 64 in Colorado and Initiative 502 in Washington state,” says Murphy, “we at Vote Hemp are now more optimistic about the renewal of hemp farming and processing in the U.S. since our formation thirteen years ago."