California Seeks to Clear Hemp of a Bad Name
By PATRICIA LEIGH BROWN
Published: August 28, 2006
STRATFORD, Calif. — Charles Meyer’s politics are as steady and unswerving as
the rows of pima cotton on his Central Valley farm. With his work-shirt blue
eyes and flinty Clint Eastwood demeanor, he is staunchly in favor of the war
in Iraq, against gun control and believes people unwilling to recite the
Pledge of Allegiance should be kicked out of America, and fast.
But what gets him excited is the crop he sees as a potential windfall for
California farmers: industrial hemp, or Cannabis sativa. The rapidly growing
plant with a seemingly infinite variety of uses is against federal law to
grow because of its association with its evil twin, marijuana.
“Industrial hemp is a wholesome product,” said Mr. Meyer, 65, who says he
has never worn tie-dye and professes a deep disdain for “dope.”
“The fact we’re not growing it is asinine,” Mr. Meyer said.
Things could change if a measure passed by legislators in Sacramento and now
on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk becomes law. [The bill reached Mr.
Schwarzenegger last week; he has 30 days to sign or veto it.]
Seven states have passed bills supporting the farming of industrial hemp;
their strategy has been to try to get permission from the Drug Enforcement
Administration to proceed.
But California is the first state that would directly challenge the federal
ban, arguing that it does not need a D.E.A. permit, echoing the state’s
longstanding fight with the federal authorities over its legalization of
medicinal marijuana. The hemp bill would require farmers who grow it to
undergo crop testing to ensure their variety of cannabis is
nonhallucinogenic; its authors say it has been carefully worded to avoid
conflicting with the federal Controlled Substances Act.
But those efforts have not satisfied federal and state drug enforcement
authorities, who argue that fields of industrial hemp would only serve as
hiding places for illicit cannabis. The California Narcotic Officers
Association opposes the bill, and a spokesman for the Office of National
Drug Control Policy in Washington said the measure was unworkable.
Mr. Schwarzenegger, a Republican running for re-election, has been mum on
his intentions, with the political calculus of hemp in California difficult
to decipher. The bill was the handiwork of two very different lawmakers,
Assemblyman Mark Leno, a San Francisco Democrat best known for attempting to
legalize same-sex marriage, and Assemblyman Charles S. DeVore, an Orange
County Republican who worked in the Pentagon as a Reagan-era political
Their bipartisan communion underscores a deeper shift in hemp culture that
has evolved in recent years, from ragtag hempsters whose love of plants with
seven leaves ran mostly to marijuana, to today’s savvy coalition of organic
farmers and health-food entrepreneurs working to distance themselves from
Hundreds of hemp products, including energy bars and cold-pressed hemp oil,
are made in California, giving the banned plant a capitalist aura. But
manufacturers must import the raw material, mostly from Canada, where hemp
cultivation was legalized in 1998.
The new hemp entrepreneurs regard it as a sustainable crop, said John Roulac,
47, a former campaigner against clear-cutting and a backyard composter
before founding Nutiva, a growing California hemp-foods company. “They want
to lump together all things cannabis,” said David Bronner, 33, whose
family’s squeeze-bottle Dr. Bronners Magic Soaps, based in Escondido,
Calif., are made with hemp oil. “You don’t associate a poppy seed bagel with
The differences between hemp and its mind-altering cousin, however, can be
horticulturally challenging to grasp. The main one is that the epidermal
glands of marijuana secrete a resin of euphoria-inducing delta-9
tetrahydrocannabinol, or T.H.C., a substance all but lacking in industrial
Ernest Small, a Canadian researcher who co-wrote a major hemp study in 2002
for Purdue University, compared the genetic differences to those that
separate racehorses from plow horses. Evolution, Mr. Small said, has almost
completely bred T.H.C. out of industrial hemp, which by law must have a
concentration of no more than three-tenths of 1 percent.
To its supporters, industrial hemp is utopia in a crop. Prized not only for
its healthful seeds and oils, rich in omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, but also
its fast, bamboo-like growth that shades out weeds, without pesticides.
“Simply put, you create a jungle in one year,” said John LaBoyteaux, who
testified in Sacramento on behalf of the California Certified Organic
Farmers association. “There’s a growing market out there, and we can’t tap
The bill before Governor Schwarzenegger is the latest installment in a hemp
debate that reached its height in 2004, when the Ninth Circuit Court of
Appeals said that federal antidrug laws did not apply to the manufacturing
or consumption of industrial hemp. The court ruled that decades earlier,
Congress had exempted from marijuana-control laws the stalks, fibers, oils
and seeds of industrial hemp, and that the government had no right to ban
That opened the floodgates for Patagonia hemp jeans and the Merry Hempsters
Zit Zapper (with hemp oil).
Patrick D. Goggin, a lawyer for the Hemp Industries Association and Vote
Hemp, said there would probably be legal snarls to work out with the
California legislation, assuming it is enacted, so that farmers would not be
placing their property in jeopardy if they chose to grow industrial hemp.
But if the federal government clamps down, Mr. Goggin said, “we’re prepared
to raise the issue in court.”
“Were trying to get an arcane vision of the law contemporized,” he added.
Rogene Waite, a spokeswoman for the Drug Enforcement Administration, said
the agency would not speculate about pending legislation.
The bill’s adherents point to hemp’s hallowed niche in American history.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson cultivated hemp (neither effort was
profitable). Colonists’ boats sailed the Atlantic with hempen sails. Old
Ironsides carried 60 tons of hempen sail and rope. The word “canvas,” in
fact, is derived from cannabis, a high-tensile fiber naturally resistant to
Hemp flourished as an American crop from the end of the Civil War until the
1937 Marihuana Tax Act ended production. During World War II, when Japan
seized the Philippines and cut off supplies of Manila hemp, the crop got a
brief reprieve in the United States, where farmers were encouraged to grow
“Hemp for Victory,” for boots, parachute cording and the like. But contrary
to lore, most such hemp was never harvested.
Today, China controls about 40 percent of the world’s hemp fiber, and its
ability to flood the market “could result in price fluctuations the American
farmer would have to weather,” said Valerie Vantreese, an agricultural
economist in Lexington, Ky. (Kentucky was once the leading hemp-producing
Hemp is grown legally in about 30 countries, including many in the European
Union, where it is mixed with lime to make plaster and as a “biocomposite”
in the interior panels of Mercedes-Benzes.
In the United States, the chief argument against hemp has been made by
drug-control officials, who are concerned that vast acreages could be used
to conceal clandestine marijuana, which they say would be impossible to
“California is a great climate to grow pot in, and no one from law
enforcement is going through the fields to do a chemical analysis of
different plants,” said Thomas A. Riley, a spokesman for the Office of
National Drug Control Policy in Washington.
To some people intimate with the nuances of marijuana, however, the idea of
hiding marijuana in a hemp field, where the plants would cross-pollinate,
“It would be the end of outdoors marijuana,” said Jack Heber, 67, a
marijuana historian and author who runs a group called Help End Marijuana
Prohibition, or HEMP. “If it gets mixed with that crop, it’s a disaster.”
In North Dakota, the state agricultural commissioner, Roger Johnson, has
proposed allowing hemp farming, and has been working with federal drug
regulators on stringent regulations that would include fingerprinting
farmers and requiring G.P.S. coordinates of hemp fields.
“We’ve done our level best to convince them we’re not a bunch of wackos,”
Mr. Johnson said.
Fifteen years ago, he noted, there was little market for canola, which is
now a major crop produced for its cooking oil. He sees hemp in a similar
vein and dismisses the fears that it would lead to criminality.
“It would take a joint the size of a telephone pole to have an impact,” he
But up north in Garberville, the Central Valley of marijuana, the lines
between hemp and marijuana are often a hazy blur, as they are at a store
called the Hemp Connection, where hemp hats and yoga clothing are sold
alongside manuals on pot botany and Stoneware baking pans (“makes six groovy
brownies per pan”).
The proprietor, Marie Mills, who said she once crafted paper from marijuana
stalks, remains committed to cannabis in all its guises.
“We want to educate people and take away the stigma,” Ms. Mills said. “We
want hemp without harassment.”