SEATTLE – Residents of Washington, Oregon and Colorado won’t just be considering whether to let adults buy pot at state-sanctioned shops when they vote next month on legalizing and taxing marijuana.
They’ll be voting on whether to let farmers grow marijuana’s far less potent cousin – hemp – for clothing, food, biofuel and construction materials among other uses.
But don’t expect farmers to start growing it, at least not immediately. The passage of the measures would create the familiar clash with federal law, which prohibits growing the plant for industrial, recreational or medicinal purposes.
Farmers who say they have enough to worry about with drought and crop diseases don’t want to also be left wondering whether federal drug agents will come knocking.
“Farmers are already engaged in a high-risk endeavor,” said Roy Kaufmann, a spokesman for Oregon’s pot initiative. “That wariness of potentially facing federal action is just too much of a disincentive.”
The three ballot initiatives to regulate pot like alcohol have garnered much attention, in part for the hundreds of millions of dollars they could bring into state coffers and for the showdown it could set up with the federal government.
No state has made recreational pot legal, and these measures would be the first to set up state-sanctioned pot sales. The Justice Department could try to block them in court under the argument they frustrate federal antidrug law enforcement efforts.
Less well known is the effect the measures would have on hemp and the possibilities they create for another fight with the federal government.
Nine states – Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont and West Virginia – have passed laws allowing hemp cultivation or research, and supporters of the latest measures say they would be another shot across the federal government’s bow.
While medical marijuana patients and those who grow for recreational use have been willing to risk federal prosecution, a viable hemp crop would be much larger than many of those grow operations, putting farmers at risk of severe mandatory minimum sentences in federal court.
Hemp and marijuana are the same species, cannabis sativa, but are genetically distinct. Hemp has a negligible content of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high. It’s also grown differently, in tightly packed plots to maximize stalk height rather than widely spaced to maximize branching and flowering.
Marijuana growers generally don’t want their plants anywhere near hemp fields because cross-pollination would create less potent marijuana, so the notion of farmers hiding marijuana plants among their hemp crop isn’t much of a concern.
But Steve Freng, prevention treatment manager for the Northwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a federally funded antidrug effort, said having legalized hemp would nevertheless make marijuana enforcement trickier.
“What comes to mind immediately is how difficult it would be to regulate and oversee an industry like that,” he said.
Freng questioned whether there’s a serious market for hemp in the U.S.
For most of U.S. history, hemp was an important agricultural product used for rope, fabric and even the paper Thomas Jefferson used to draft the Declaration of Independence.
But competition arose, first from cotton and then from synthetic fibers in the early 20th century. Americans became more concerned about the availability of marijuana, and the federal government imposed severe restrictions on hemp.
At least 30 countries produce hemp commercially, and most of the hemp imported into the U.S. is grown in China, Canada and Europe.