It's time for a victory for hemp
March 28, 2007 - The Assembly Public Safety Committee held hearings Tuesday on AB684, the industrial hemp bill sponsored principally by San Francisco Democrat Mark Leno and Irvine Republican Chuck DeVore. A similar bill, allowing California farmers to grow industrial hemp for food, fiber, cosmetics and other products, passed the Legislature last year but was vetoed by Gov. Schwarzenegger.
The Legislature would do well not to be discouraged by this history and pass AB684 overwhelmingly. Gov. Schwarzenegger, once he understands that some of his stated reasons for vetoing it last year are off-base, would benefit all Californians by signing it.
The complication, of course, is that hemp and marijuana are the same species of plant, cannabis sativa. However, there are many varieties of the plant. The varieties suitable for industrial hemp are distinguished primarily by the fact that they contain 0.3 percent THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana buds and flowers. When cannabis is grown for smoking, it typically contains 3 percent to as much as 15 percent THC.
Hemp has been grown as an agricultural product with a variety of uses for thousands of years throughout the world. The fibers in the stalk are the strongest natural fibers known and have been used to make rope, paper and cloth (the word “canvas” is derived from cannabis, and almost all the sails and ropes on the sailing ships of the 1800s were made from hemp).
Hemp seeds contain a beneficial balance of essential fatty acids and are used in products like energy bars, granola, breakfast cereals, veggie burgers, salad dressing and other food products. Hempseed oil is also the basis for numerous cosmetic products, including soaps, lotions, lip balms and shampoos.
The market for hemp-based products has grown steadily since 1990, when it was something of a boutique market, to about $270 million in 2005, increasing at about $26 million annually, according to the Hemp Industries Association. More than 75 percent of the sales of hemp-based products are made by California companies.
Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, based in Escondido, is the No. 1 producer of natural soap in the world, according to the company. Over the last five years, the company spent $800,000 importing hemp oil from Canada. It would rather give that business to California farmers. Nutiva, an organic food company in Sebastopol, believes it could save $100,000 a year if it could buy from California farmers.
All these companies have to import their hemp from foreign countries. Hemp is grown legally in 30 countries, including Canada, Germany, France, Russia, China and Hungary. North Dakota now has regulations in place that will likely make it the first state to grow hemp legally, and 15 states have passed pro-hemp legislation or resolutions.
With a more favorable climate and thousands of acres of irrigated farmland, California would be foolish not to permit this crop.
A few fallacies make some reluctant to permit legal hemp cultivation. It is argued that hemp fields could be used to hide illegal marijuana cultivation or that law enforcement people will have a hard time distinguishing legal hemp fields from illicit marijuana plantations.
But hemp grown for fiber and seeds is planted thickly and close together - as many as 200 plants per square yard - and grows to 16 feet high. Marijuana grown for psychoactive properties is planted farther apart and cultivated to be bushy to maximize the number of flowers. Marijuana cultivators uproot all male plants because pollination ends the growth of buds and flowers. Planting marijuana in the middle of a hemp field would render it almost valueless.
As affirmed in 2004 by the 9th Circuit and not appealed, federal law does not forbid cultivation of industrial hemp. States are free to allow it. AB684 requires hemp growers to get a lab test report from a DEA-approved company, documenting that the THC content is 0.3 percent or less, before marketing their crop. And the flowers, even with almost no THC content, would not be allowed to leave the fields.
AB684 has significant safeguards to ensure that hemp cultivation is not a cover for illicit marijuana cultivation. It would provide an important revenue stream and other benefits to California farmers. The Legislature should pass it and the governor should sign it.