Industrial hemp has been around for millennia. As an agricultural commodity, its value around the globe is well known. Its potential as a renewable, alternative resource is nearly limitless with far-reaching applications including bioplastics, textiles, biofuels, food, batteries, medicine, and beyond. Industrial hemp offers optimism to farmers and a beacon of hope to a world that desperately needs to transition away from a reliance on petrochemicals toward a plant-based economy.
In 1938, long before this modern wave of legality, study, and acceptance of hemp began spreading across the planet, Popular Mechanics wrote about its economic potential, deeming it the “billion-dollar crop.” The article was 80 years ahead of the curve.
However, the hemp plant — defined as a cannabis plant with less than 0.3 percent delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol ( THC) by dry weight — was prohibited in the 1930s, despite being a major cash crop in the US and the world. It was banned because of its association with its “illicit cousin,” marijuana.
The entire cannabis plant was effectively outlawed for cultivation and production in the United States under the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 (with limited war time exceptions in the 1940s – “Hemp for Victory” campaign). This was further reinforced when scheduled as a controlled substance under the 1970s enactment of the Controlled Substances Act. It remained there for decades.
In 1974, Jack Frazier published Marijuana Farmers, followed in 1985 by Jack Herer’s famous The Emperor Wears No Clothes. Both Jacks had a similar vision for the creation of a “hemp industry” – a blend of hemp’s historical uses, its potential to address social issues, and notions of sustainability and environmentalism. Forty-five years later, these themes are more prominent than ever.
After decades of activism fueled by the awareness disseminated through these respective publications, “industrial hemp” was legalized and defined separately from marijuana for the first time under federal law, with the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill. Then President Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill, which further promoted hemp as an agricultural mainstay. These pieces of legislation, driven primarily by Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, created the so-called “hemp industry” in the United States. Kentucky and Colorado were ground-zero for the building of this industry, due to the Bluegrass State’s rich history with hemp farming and Colorado’s progressive cannabis policy.
Yet I question whether Jack Frazier or Jack Herer would approve of these measures and the current status of the commercial activity surrounding hemp. While that’s a topic for another day, I wonder if we truly have a “hemp industry” in the U.S.
The notion of a hemp industry has shaped recent legislative activities, state and federal policies, and helped foster a global marketplace around the plant, its derivatives, and materials. But does hemp really constitute an industry or is it just another agricultural commodity? Put another way, is there a corn industry? A wheat industry? Or just an agriculture industry consisting of corn, wheat, soy, etc.?
Have we gone about this wrong by attempting to define hemp as its own industry, bringing with it specialized and restrictive hemp-specific regulations? We’re working vigorously to create hemp laws and regulations, but is this really the right approach? Wouldn’t it be more advantageous to treat hemp as just another agricultural crop that falls within the existing U.S. agricultural industry? Wouldn’t this truly open up mainstream agriculture to the grand possibilities of the industrial hemp plant.
The “hemp industry” wants the same standards and restrictions applicable to other cash crops. Other crops besides hemp produce botanical extracts, grain, fibers, etc. It is important to understand that we are not reinventing the wheel and existing standards could apply to industrial hemp, so why do we need a hemp-specific framework?
I see this most obviously with extracts and cannabinoids and the rise of the “CBD industry.” Isn’t CBD simply part of an ingredient industry with multiple levels — pharma grade, food grade, and supplement ingredients — which already has existing safety, efficacy, and consumer protection standards in place? Aren’t there already existing FDA (and equivalent standards) for the production of agriculture extracts, consumables, etc.?
Let me be clear. The stigma and confusion associated with this plant require detailed attention and a unique approach from a market and public policy standpoint. But the question is how much attention. Farmers are farmers — do we really need to specifically classify them as hemp farmers? Extraction processors are processors. Natural products (‘nutraceuticals’) are natural products industry producers; and the list goes on and on down the supply chain.
It might serve everyone’s interest to attach themselves to pre-existing trade organizations rather than separating themselves from established, standardized industries. For example, a hemp farmer might be better suited attaching himself to a strong farmers trade organization that understands hemp. A cannabinoid ingredient supplier might better attach herself to a natural products or ingredients trade alliance which recognizes the viability of hemp. Do we really need organizations that promote so-called hemp product standards? Or do these standards already exist in more broadly applicable food, supplement, or related regulatory frameworks. Change happens more slowly when faced with the creation of new pathways, regulations, and “industries.” Joining with existing ones provides a far better chance of advancing quickly, as with Uber, AirBNB, etc.
Maybe the stigma and fear of hemp’s relationship to marijuana requires it to be treated differently. But how much differently. And is this differential treatment holding back the great possibilities that come from hemp, or is it advancing these interests. Do we really need to reinvent the wheel – the “hemp wheel?” All of this remains to be seen. One thing is for sure: you can’t go back and you can’t stand still. In the past few years, great progress has been made and we don’t want to see that stymied, disrupted or derailed. We all have a part to play in ensuring that doesn’t happen because this plant has so much to offer.