WASHINGTON, D.C. — Sitting on the wide green lawn that separates the U.S. Capitol and the Supreme Court building, Eric Steenstra handed over a pocket-size copy of the U.S. Constitution made from hemp paper.

“Tree-free hemp-blended paper,” to be exact, and made in America.

Steenstra is president of Vote Hemp, a single-issue nonprofit founded in 2000 to remove barriers to industrial hemp farming in the United States. Vote Hemp is perhaps the leading organization dedicated to changing hemp laws, helped by nationwide grassroots networking and its location in the Washington, D.C., area.

“Check it out,” Steenstra said, indicating the Constitution.

In addition to the familiar text (the one that begins, “We the People of the United States …”) the inside cover includes quotes from the first three U.S. presidents extolling hemp’s virtues.

Products made from hemp include soap, milk, seeds to snacks.
Products made from hemp include soap, milk, seeds and snacks. Chad Blair/Civil Beat

“Make the most you can of the Indian Hemp seed and sow it everywhere,” said George Washington, who cultivated hemp at nearby Mount Vernon his entire life for industrial purposes — for fibers to make rope, sailing canvas, clothing and fishing nets.

“Hemp is the first necessity to the wealth and protection of the country,” said fellow agronomist Thomas Jefferson.

But hemp cannot be commercially produced legally in the United States, even though U.S. hemp-based products accounted for about $600 million in sales in 2015. Instead, it must be imported from Canada, Europe, Asia and elsewhere at the cost of about $76 million, according to U.S. senators such as Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.

That’s because hemp is part of the cannabis plant, which produces marijuana, which is a forbidden drug at the federal level akin to heroin, LSD, Ecstasy and peyote.

“Make the most you can of the Indian Hemp seed and sow it everywhere.” — George Washington

But hemp won’t get you high. As a hemp advocate told The Marijuana Times earlier this year, “You can smoke all 3 acres of my hemp farm and your lungs would give out before getting high.”

Hemp contains less than .3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol — THC — the ingredient in pot that gets you buzzed. Even though they are from the same plant, hemp and marijuana are genetically different and are cultivated differently.

If advocates like Steenstra are successful, hemp’s federal status could soon be changing.

Eric Steenstra Vote Hemp President3. 7 june 2016
Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, points to the founding fathers as early supporters of hemp products. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

From Hawaii To Kentucky

Twenty-nine states, including Hawaii, have moved to define industrial hemp as distinct from marijuana and removed barriers to production.

Legislation establishing an industrial hemp pilot program to allow its cultivation and distribution of its seed in Hawaii for research purposes unanimously passed the Legislature last month and awaits Gov. David Ige’s signature.

At the federal level, 70 members of the U.S. House of Representatives (including Democrats Tulsi Gabbard and Mark Takai from Hawaii) and 14 members of the U.S. Senate (including Democrats Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz from Hawaii) are backing versions of an Industrial Hemp Farming Act.

The legislation would remove hemp from the Schedule I controlled substance list and define it as a non-drug so long as it contains less than .3 percent THC.

hemp revenue pie chart

While political polarization has perhaps never been greater in D.C., the legislation is co-sponsored by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the Senate and Rep. Thomas Massie in the House. Both are Republicans and both hail from Kentucky, which is among the states most focused on developing industrial hemp.

“Mitch McConnell was not in favor of hemp five years ago, but he has really come around and changed his view,” said Steenstra, who lobbies on Capitol Hill. “He’s a true champion.”

Steenstra credits McConnell’s fellow GOP senator, Rand Paul, and James Comer, Kentucky’s former agriculture commissioner who this year is a GOP candidate for Congress, for persuading McConnell to embrace hemp.

“Hemp is the first necessity to the wealth and protection of the country.” —Thomas Jefferson

“Kentucky has a unique, historic hemp crop, and Comer saw that they could create a lot of jobs and help farming and manufacturing in the state,” said Steenstra.

Meanwhile, the Hemp Industries Association — a nonprofit trade group representing businesses, farmers researchers and investors — and allies earlier this month filed a petition with the Drug Enforcement Administration to remove industrial hemp plants from the schedules established under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

Steenstra says changing the federal designation for hemp is critical, and it’s something that the DEA can do on its own.

“But to fix this, to really solve it, we need Congress to step in,” he said.

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 assists University of Hawaii staff members in the first harvest of the Industrial Hemp Field at the UH Waimanalo Research Station in July 2015. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

10,000 Years Of Hemp

Hemp, according to the Hemp Industries Association, “is among the oldest industries on the planet, going back more than 10,000 years to the beginnings of pottery.” In addition to Washington and Jefferson growing hemp, farmers were legally required to grow it during the colonial period and into the republic for economic purposes.

“We shall, by and by, want a world of hemp more for our own consumption,” said John Adams.

But in 1937, Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act (yes, spelled with an “h” instead of a “j”), which began the era of hemp prohibition. A brief respite came during World War II, when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor cut off hemp fiber supplies from the Philippines.

To understand that period, Steenstra encourages folks to watch a short film called “Hemp For Victory,” which was shown during the war to encourage U.S. farmers to grow hemp for the war effort.

What’s so great about hemp? Vote Hemp and the Hemp Industries Association identify a number of attributes:

  • “Hemp is a renewable resource that can help reduce market dependency on synthetics, lumber, cotton and other non-sustainable industrial materials.
  • “Hemp contributes to environmentally responsible food and fiber production, forest conservation, reduction in agricultural pesticide use, and soil remediation.
  • “Hemp sequesters carbon from the atmosphere thus mitigating the rise of CO2 levels responsible for climate change.
  • “Hemp seed products are among the fastest-growing categories in the natural foods industry and are rich in healthy Omega-3 essential fatty acids, highly-digestible protein and naturally occurring vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin E and iron.”
Hemp=Jobs. Small tent at entrance of the Marijuana Expo held at the Hawaii Convention Center. 19 july 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
A tent at the entrance of the Marijuana Expo held at the Hawaii Convention Center in July 2015. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

There are also a lot of myths the industrial hemp folks aim to dispel. Here’s one example:

Myth: Legalizing hemp while continuing the prohibition on marijuana would burden local police forces.

Reality: In countries where hemp is grown as an agricultural crop, the police have experienced no such burdens.

Hemp’s chances to become a viable U.S. crop again changed dramatically two years ago, when Congress passed the 2014 Farm Bill. An amendment to the bill defined industrial hemp as distinct from the cannabis sativa L. — that is, stating that industrial hemp is not psychoactive.

The Farm Bill allowed for states that have already legalized the crop to cultivate hemp “within the parameters” of state agriculture departments and research institutions.

In Hawaii, state Rep. Cynthia Thielen, a Republican, and state Sen. Mike Gabbard, a Democrat, spearheaded the hemp pilot project legislation that now awaits the governor’s action. If signed into law, it would appropriate funds for administrative costs within the state’s Department of Agriculture.

In its committee report on the bill, lawmakers wrote:

Industrial hemp is well suited to Hawaii’s climate and soil and can grow to over ten feet in a short period of time with little water and no pesticides. … Industrial hemp has over 25,000 uses, including food, fiber, and fuel products, and has high potential to contribute to the future viability of the State’s agricultural industry.

The bill has many supporters, including the DOA, the University of Hawaii System and the Hawaii Farm Bureau. And, though it is set to expire in 2021, lawmakers could extend the sunset date, depending on what happens nationally.

Hemp History Week sticker

Steenstra noted that he was being interviewed during Hemp History Week (June 6-11). The Senate passed a bipartisan resolution to that effect to boost the nation’s agricultural industry and economy.

Lauren Stansbury, spokesperson for Hemp History Week, handed over a bag full of hemp swag like Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soap (the label reads, “let us be generous, fair and loving to Spaceship Earth”), Natierra’s Dark Chocolate Hemp Seeds (“a superfood snack”) and Living Harvest Hemp Milk (“Non GMO Project Verified”).

“We shall, by and by, want a world of hemp more for our own consumption.” — John Adams

Steenstra then pulled out another booklet printed on tree-free hemp-blended paper. It was titled “Hemp,” and it contained the research of Lyster Dewey, the lead botanist for fiber plant investigations, part of the federal Bureau of Plant Industry back in 1913. Dewey grew and studied hemp, and his test plots were on Arlington Farms, where the Pentagon now stands.

Steenstra’s point was that Washington once led the way on hemp and it can lead the way again. And he credits Hawaii’s lawmakers, too, noting that Alexander & Baldwin has talked about growing industrial hemp on its former sugar cane lands in Central Maui.

“It’s really an incredibly sustainable and versatile crop, and I have no doubt that if Congress and the states remove restrictions and allow it to farm and grow hemp commercially, we will see hemp become one of our major commodity groups in the U.S.”

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