Hawaii’s long, complex and difficult relationship with Big Sugar is finally coming to an end — a matter of good riddance for some, of nostalgia and loss for others, but of change for us all.

Once Hawaii’s biggest industry, sugar cane growing and sugar production have been on the decline in Hawaii for decades, and it didn’t take a genius to see that the end was drawing near. Still, last week’s announcement by Alexander & Baldwin that it would shut down its 36,000-acre Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar operation on Maui later this year caught many by surprise.

But to see what might replace sugar requires vision and new ideas. And Hawaii has found a particularly compelling vision in perhaps the most unlikely of persons: Cynthia Thielen, an 82-year-old Republican member of the state House of Representatives and a passionate evangelist for hemp.

A state representative since 1990, Thielen has been an advocate for the often misunderstood cousin of marijuana for two decades. Worried back then about what might replace Hawaii’s dwindling sugar industry, Thielen remembers being challenged by her son, Peter, to consider commercial hemp production — an idea she initially dismissed.

Right, Representative Cynthia Thielen assists UH staff in the first harvest of Hawaii's Industrial Hemp Field at the University of Hawaii, Waimanalo Research Station. 23 july 2015 photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Rep. Cynthia Thielen takes part in the first harvest of industrial hemp at the University of Hawaii’s research plot in Waimanalo last summer. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

“My immediate reaction was to say, ‘Well, we can’t, because it’s a drug,’” she recalls. “He said, ‘Mom, go do some research and learn about it.’”

And so she did. Hemp, in fact, is not a drug, and commercial hemp farming and hemp production go back thousands of years. Its history in America stretches back to colonial days and includes not only founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who famously were among many who farmed hemp, but Betsy Ross, who used hemp fibers to make the original American flag.

For generations, it was such an agricultural mainstay that “it was inconceivable that people wouldn’t grow hemp as part of their crops,” says Thielen.

But time passed, and hemp’s close relationship to marijuana — demonized through its association with counter culture and propaganda like the campy 1936 cult classic, “Reefer Madness” — made it suspect. The last legal crop was harvested in 1957, and federal authorities eventually outlawed it entirely in 1970 through the federal Controlled Substances Act. This, despite the fact that hemp cannot deliver a high.

That fact deserves repeating: No matter how much hemp one might smoke or ingest, it cannot get anyone high — it’s simply not psychoactive, in scientific parlance. It not only contains insignificant amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical that delivers marijuana’s high, but it has another chemical that actually blocks the effect of THC. As a potential drug, hemp is not only a buzz kill, it’s a non-starter.

New Acceptability For Cannabis In Both Forms

As attitudes around the country have begun to change on marijuana, reconsideration of hemp as a commodity crop has taken root. The Agricultural Act of 2014 permitted research and commercial production on hemp in states that cared to undertake such work.

And why not? The plant has more than 25,000 uses, Thielen says — and potentially many more as yet undiscovered.

Some could address longstanding challenges that Hawaii has been unable to solve. For instance, cattle ranching is cost prohibitive in our state because of the exorbitant price of feed. Hemp is a fast-growing potential feed source — sub-tropical varieties appropriate to Hawaii’s climate can reach heights of 12 feet in 15 weeks — that could make the ranching business more viable and enhance Hawaii’s food self-sufficiency.

It could serve a similar purpose as chicken feed, and chickens that eat hemp feed lay eggs higher in health-promoting Omega 3 fatty acid, Thielen says.

Hawaii State Representative Cynthia Thielen makes a point during press conference held at UH Law on Environmental Court. 26 june 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Thielen speaking last summer at the University of Hawaii. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But her favorite potential use is hempcrete — a hemp-based building material that would be very attractive for construction in Hawaii. Termite-proof and environmentally friendly, it can be used as an alternative to drywall. Locally produced hempcrete could reduce one of the many costs that add up to hyper-expensive home construction in Hawaii.

Under the Agricultural Act of 2014, Hawaii permitted a hemp research project through the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agricultural and Human Resources. Concluded recently, the project’s report to the 2016 Legislature was issued last month and validates the ideas being promoted by Thielen and others, saying in part, “the future is promising for this crop in our islands.”

According to the study, subtropical hemp varieties could yield three crops a year and produce sufficient fiber, stalks, leaves and seed to support a range of potential industries.

And here’s where the demise of sugar looms potentially significant: For hemp to replace sugar as the crop being grown on the 36,000 acres currently used by HC&S for sugar cane in Maui would require only that the state transfer the license for the Waimanalo project to HC&S, according to Thielen.

“The state had to have a law authorizing (the Waimanalo project), and we passed that in 2015,” said Thielen, a co-sponsor of that legislation. “The state law says you can have one site. So that’s pau. The project is available to be able to move to Maui at HC&S.”

She points to Kentucky as a model, a state that is using a similar approach to allow commercial hemp farming. The state has 20 thriving hemp farming operations, Thielen said.

State Department of Agriculture Chair Scott Enright confirmed Friday that the state is planning to transfer the license. He supports Thielen’s position — he made available funding to support the UH research — and sees this as part of a larger opportunity to diversify agriculture in Hawaii.

That being said, he points to other challenges that hemp must overcome for commercial production to become a reality. Hemp isn’t a legal crop yet in Hawaii, though Thielen points to the federal law as permitting commercial production, so HC&S legal counsel is “investigating any potential liability inherent in that,” said Enright.

HC&S last week indicated it is ready to move ahead with hemp trials and potentially cultivation if its legal analysis supports it.

Legislation to clear up any ambiguities and allow industrial hemp production on a larger scale passed the state Senate last year, but died in the House Committee on Agriculture, where Chair Clift Tsuji refused to schedule it for a hearing. Whether similar legislation might pass this session could well come down to whether Senate Water, Land & Agriculture Chair Mike Gabbard, a hemp proponent, and Tsuji can reach an agreement that would allow the matter to move forward in the House, said Enright and others.

Enright said hemp would also face the same built-in challenges that killed off sugar and to a large extent pineapple as big commodity crops: They can be grown more cheaply elsewhere.

Hemp Innovation And Entrepreneurship

That sort of thinking doesn’t account for the many types of local processing, manufacturing and retail businesses that entrepreneurs might create for hemp in Hawaii, says Thielen, who has explored these ideas with senior officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture on trips to Washington. Innovative hemp-related startups could provide diversity for an economy far too beholden on tourism and military expenditures.

An official transfer of the state’s hemp research and production license with an enactment date of July 1 would allow progress to begin with the start of the next fiscal year, says Thielen.

For a state where the environment is rapidly changing around marijuana, moving with equal speed on hemp will test the limits of some social conservatives — perhaps Tsuji chief among them — and the ability of proponents to make a compelling case for immediate and more holistic changes that are needed to bring this industry to life.

After two decades of fighting what has sometimes been a lonely battle on an often misunderstood issue, Thielen isn’t daunted by the challenge. In fact, experience has taught her exactly the right buttons to push.

“We’re talking jobs for people. The faster we can move this ahead, the more promising it is that those (sugar-related) jobs can be saved,” said Thielen. “There’s no need to delay – there’s actually no excuse for delay and we don’t’ need to.

“This is about job creation. What could be better? Job creation and saving agriculture. That seems to me to be very compatible for Republican and Democrat values.”

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