Hemp: The Other Cannabis


California may be on the verge of legalizing hemp, marijuana's nonpsychoactive cousin. With bipartisan support, the state legislature has passed a bill allowing farmers to grow the crop, which is raised for its fiber (used in clothing and car door panels, among other things) and seeds (used in a wide variety of food products and toiletries). Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's signature is all it will take to give would-be hemp farmers the green light. Unlike other states that have passed pro-hemp bills, California does not plan to seek permission from the DEA; supporters of the bill say federal clearance is legally unnecessary. Their position is bolstered not only by the Constitution but by a 2003 decision in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that the federal marijuana ban does not cover nonpsychoactive portions of the cannabis plant.

That decision grew out of the DEA's legally untenable, self-contradictory effort to ban edible hemp products, a crusade that seemed to be motivated chiefly by the DEA's (not entirely unfounded) belief that producers and consumers of hemp products are sympathetic to marijuana legalization. The agency's official concern was not the industry's political symbolism but the possibility that consumption of hemp products could interfere with drug tests by producing false positives, a concern that is easily addressed by keeping the traces of THC in hemp salad dressing and hemp seed granola below a certain level. In the case of hemp farming, the DEA claims to worry that fields of hemp could be used to conceal marijuana. Jack Herer, author of the pro-hemp classic The Emperor Wears No Clothes (and known, a bit confusingly, as "the Hemperor"), counters that planting marijuana with hemp would make no sense, because cross-pollination would ruin the pot.

California would be the only state to permit hemp cultivation, but internationally it would hardly be an oddball. A 2005 report from the Congressional Research Service noted that "the United States is the only developed nation in which industrial hemp is not an established crop."