Drug War's Mission Creep Hurts Farmers

The nation's drug warriors fret that hemp cultivation would make pot prohibition harder.


Every war produces collateral damage, including America's war on drugs – whose manifold victims include any number of farmers in Virginia. Jim Politis has a plan to help them. But first, he will have to get it past Congress.

Politis is a retired businessman who now sits on the Board of Supervisors in Montgomery County, home to Virginia Tech. He wants Washington to let farmers grow industrial hemp. That should be an easy sell. Once upon a time, hemp cultivation was not only permitted, but required: An act of Virginia's General Assembly in 1623 mandated hemp-growing. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew hemp. It remained a popular source of fiber for rope, clothing, and many other products until the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which pretty much killed off domestic hemp production.

The industry enjoyed a revival during WWII, when Japanese forces cut off the hemp supply from the Philippines. Washington even produced a "Hemp for Victory" propaganda film. Then the war ended, and the lid slammed shut again.

Politis says industrial hemp would make a great substitute for tobacco, whose production in Virginia has fallen by half. The number of tobacco farmers in the state has plunged from more than 6,000 a decade and a half ago to fewer than 900 today. Developing an agricultural hemp industry here "would take five minutes," Politis recently told The Roanoke Times.

Besides, you already can buy many hemp-based products, from shampoo to fabric, that are made in China and other countries where hemp is legal. Letting American farmers grow hemp and American companies turn it into consumer goods would help bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S., Politis told the newspaper.

So why not do it? One word: pot.

Industrial hemp and illegal marijuana are essentially the same plant, though they are grown differently and have different levels of THC, the chemical that gives wacky tabacky its psychoactive kick. Marijuana concentrations of THC are four to 400 times higher than hemp's THC concentrations. Theoretically, you can still get high from smoking hemp. And theoretically, you can make a diamond from a lump of coal. Just squeeze real tight.

Still, the nation's drug warriors fret that hemp cultivation would make pot prohibition harder, because the plants look alike. So Cheech and Chong wannabes everywhere would just tell any curious cops that they're in the rope-making business. Suddenly marijuana would be cheap, potent, and readily available. Granted, marijuana is already cheap, potent, and readily available. But why let facts get in the way?

The irony of the hemp ban is that it criminalizes one product in order to aid the prohibition of a second product that many Americans don't want prohibited in the first place. An October poll by Gallup reported that 51 percent of Americans favor fully legalizing marijuana, which already is legal for medical purposes in California and 15 other states. 

That doesn't sway elected officials such as Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a 10-term Republican who serves on the Agriculture committee. He doesn't think much of hemp's economic potential and says the "threat to the government's ability to prevent the cultivation of hemp for illegal use far outweighs the economic benefits" of legalizing it for industrial uses. A lot of his colleagues agree. A bill sponsored by libertiarian Republican Ron Paul to permit industrial hemp farming has never gotten so much as a committee hearing.

This latest example of the drug war's mission creep sounds painfully familiar. Just look at methamphetamine. Because it can be made using over-the-counter cold and allergy remedies that contain pseudoephedrine, authorities across the country have taken to controlling the sale of those products as well. Virginia is considering just such a proposal now. 

Victims of that crackdown include Sally Harpold, an Indiana grandmother who was busted because she bought a box of Zyrtec for her husband and a box of Mucinex for her daughter. Then there is Bob Wallace, a retired, 88-year-old metallurgist in Sarasota who started a business making iodine crystals for water purification – until the DEA basically shut him down. Apparently, iodine can be used to make meth too. A DEA spokesman said that "If Mr. Wallace is no longer in business he has perhaps become part of [the] collateral damage" from the nation's meth epidemic. 

The war on drugs has produced untold other damage as well: property seized from innocent people through civil asset forfeiture, 2 million arrests per year, $15 billion annually in federal expenditures, and God knows how much at the state and local level. The result? A 9-percent jump in drug use from 2008 to 2009 alone.  Custer had better results at Little Big Horn.

According to Goodlatte and many of his colleagues, though, keeping farmers from growing hemp will help sustain these spectacular results. With logic that sound, how could they possibly lose?