What crop can be grown without pesticides and has over 25,000 uses — from textiles, cosmetics, paper and food to medicine, biofuel and smoothies?

If you said hemp, you got it. My wife, Carol, knows the excellent nutritional value of hemp seeds and luckily for me, has been putting them in my smoothies for years!

Not to be confused with marijuana, hemp contains less than 0.3 percent of the psychoactive component THC, while marijuana contains between 5 and 20 percent. In other words, you can’t get high from hemp!

That said, what you’re about to read may just blow your mind. Did you know that hemp is one of the oldest plants ever cultivated? Twelve thousand years ago, the Chinese cultivated hemp to make shoes, clothes, rope and paper.

Marijuana flower

Marijuana plants like this one develop “buds,” unlike industrial hemp.

Clif Otto

Until the 1820’s, 80 percent of all textiles were made from hemp. The Declaration of Independence was written on paper made from hemp. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were hemp farmers. Betsy Ross sewed the American Flag out of hemp fabric. In fact, refusing to grow hemp during Colonial times could land a person in prison.

For thousands of years, 90 percent of all ships’ sails and rope were made from hemp. Henry Ford’s original cars had hemp fenders. He took a sledgehammer to one and couldn’t make a dent.

Unfortunately, due to a smear campaign to confuse hemp with marijuana — remember the film ‘Reefer Madness’? — the hemp industry basically died when the Marijuana Tax Act went into effect.

Hemp was found to be 10 times stronger than steel and able to produce four times more paper than trees. So, if hemp was so prolific and profitable, why did it become illegal to grow it?

Except for a brief period during World War II, when a U.S. Department of Agriculture film entitled, “Hemp For Victory,” extolled the virtues of hemp and called for hundreds of thousands of acres to be planted for the war effort, the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937 effectively prohibited the growing of hemp. The law passed so quietly and unexpectedly that just two months later, Popular Mechanics magazine was predicting that hemp would be the number one crop in America.

Unfortunately, due to a smear campaign to confuse hemp with marijuana — remember the film ‘Reefer Madness’? — the hemp industry basically died when the Marijuana Tax Act went into effect.

Fast-forward to 1970. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency no longer recognized hemp as being distinct from marijuana. Strict regulations on the cultivation of industrial hemp, as well as marijuana, were put in place with the DEA’s “Controlled Substances Act,” which essentially killed any hope of resurrecting the miracle crop.

Fortunately, this began to change on Feb. 7 when the 2014 Farm Bill removed ‘hemp grown for research purposes’ from the “Controlled Substances Act.”

Soon after, the Legislature passed a version of a bill I introduced, SB 2175, which became Act 56. This law authorized the UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, known as CTAHR, to establish a two-year hemp remediation and biofuel research project.

Interestingly, most people don’t realize this isn’t the first time hemp has been grown for research purposes in Hawaii. In 1999, Act 305 established a hemp research project that was conducted under a U.S. DEA permit until 2003. The project was on a quarter of acre of land in Wahiawa and was financed by a private company. The study concluded that the Asian variety of hemp seeds, especially those from China, were more adaptive to our climate. So, we already have the results of that research to guide us in going forward with the new study. Of course, I’d like to see us go one step more by allowing full-scale industrial hemp.

I know there are some who fear that growing hemp is the same as growing marijuana, and allowing hemp to be grown in the U.S. would only create more problems for law enforcement – those “busted” for growing pot could simply claim that they were really growing hemp, forcing officers to test for THC content. Currently, the test kits can’t measure the percentage of THC, only that it’s there. So, they argue, how could we prove whether it is hemp or not?

But industrial hemp is clearly not marijuana. Experts tell us, the two plants look completely different in the field. Industrial hemp grows thin and tall with few branches or leaves except at the top, while marijuana is more bush-like, with lots of branches and distinguishable leaves that often contain ‘buds’ among the flowering plants.

Some worry that industrial hemp fields would be used to hide marijuana plants. But not only do they look different from each other, they are harvested at different times. Plus, any potential cross-pollination between the two would greatly reduce the potency of the TCH in marijuana — and no pot farmer would want that!

Others fear police just wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the two. Yet over 30 nations currently grow and process industrial hemp and there’s no problem with police being able to tell the difference between hemp and marijuana.

Misplaced fears of U.S. law enforcement are actually preventing us from reaping huge benefits of this eco-friendly crop. In Canada for example, hemp growers made $250 per acre in 2013, compared to only $71 per acre for soy, a major crop in the U.S.

Hemp also has an amazing ability to reduce soil and water contamination; it was used to help detoxify the ground around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine and to clean up environmental damage caused by the Fukushima meltdown in Japan. We should be using hemp to clean up contamination left over from the pineapple and sugarcane industries, and other pesticide-ravaged land in our Hawaii nei.

University of Hawaii Professor Dr. Harry Ako is working on the current hemp research project made possible by Act 56. He has identified a parcel of land at the UH extension site in Waimanalo as a test site, and has applied with the DEA to import hemp seeds. Renewable and fast-growing, hemp could also be used as feedstock for production of biodiesel, lessoning our dependence on fossil fuels.

Just imagine a local cottage industry selling Hawaiian Hemp Seeds, Honolulu Hemp Shampoo, or Hawaii Island Hemp Oil. How cool would that be?

Colorado, Kentucky and Vermont have already planted hemp crops to conduct pilot programs, after registering with their state Department of Agriculture. I can’t wait for the CTAHR study to finish, so we can join the other nine states — California, Colorado, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont and West Virginia — that have laws promoting the growth and marketing of industrial hemp.

Clearly, the environmental and economic potential for Hawaii is huge. Cultivating industrial hemp not only has the potential to help clean up our agricultural lands, but it could ultimately keep us from spending millions of dollars importing products made from hemp.

Annual retail sales for U.S. hemp products are estimated at over $581 million. That’s money leaving our pockets for no good reason. It just doesn’t make any sense.

I’m hopeful this project will prove successful and the people of our islands will soon be growing hemp for commercial purposes. Just imagine a local cottage industry selling Hawaiian Hemp Seeds, Honolulu Hemp Shampoo, or Hawaii Island Hemp Oil. How cool would that be?

Have you heard of ‘hempcrete’? It’s been used in construction materials in Europe for over 20 years and could serve as a niche market here in Hawaii for people with chemical sensitivities. Hemp is non-toxic, doesn’t mold, out-gas or have strong odors. Building with hempcrete is less expensive, and termites don’t like it! It’s also more energy-efficient, cutting back the need for air conditioners. As I write, a hempcrete home is being built in Maui.

For the 2015 upcoming legislative session, I’m working with “Vote Hemp,” the Hawaii Farmer’s Union United, Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Russell Ruderman, and others on another bill to continue moving us forward on hemp. This legislation would expand Act 56 by authorizing registered growers of industrial hemp under the Farm Bill for research purposes and pilot programs, including the marketing of this miracle crop.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the many benefits of this amazing plant, I highly recommend watching a short and entertaining documentary called, “Bringing it Home.” As we head into the 2015 session on Jan. 21, I encourage you to contact your state senator and State House representative to let them know you support hemp.

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