Once famous for especially potent cannabis, Hawaii may soon be known for a variety that is weaker than ditchweed. In December, as part of an experiment sanctioned by the state legislature, University of Hawaii researchers began planting industrial hemp on a quarter-acre plot in Oahu.
Since it contains a negligible amount of THC, marijuana's main psychoactive ingredient, this crop isn't worth smoking. But it is useful in manufacturing a wide variety of products, including textiles, paper, cord, foods, beauty aids, and building materials. Although such products are legally available in this country, the plants from which they're made have to be grown elsewhere, because state and federal laws do not distinguish between industrial hemp and marijuana.
That's starting to change. Hawaii is the third state to endorse the experimental cultivation of hemp, following North Dakota and Minnesota. The Oahu project–backed by a $200,000 grant from Alterna, a company that uses hemp seeds in its hair care products–is the first to get started. The experiment is aimed at developing a hemp strain suited to Hawaii's climate.
The Drug Enforcement Administration has long insisted that legalizing hemp, which was banned in the late 1950s, would send a pro-drug message and make marijuana crops harder to detect. But the agency seems to be softening its position. It did not try to block the Hawaii experiment, though it did require special security measures, including a 12-foot-high fence and infrared surveillance.
With hemp legal in about 30 countries, including Canada, England, France, Germany, and Japan, the DEA's opposition is becoming increasingly untenable. "Once the DEA removes its restrictions," predicted University of Hawaii plant geneticist David West, the hemp project's director, "the vast economic and ecological benefits of this plant will make themselves known to American farmers."