47 days for Oregon to make hemp legal again and begin revitalizing our economy

As I continue the countdown until November 6, when Oregonians will vote on Measure 80, I want to focus a little on industrial hemp. Hemp was crucial in our history, from the sails that got the first pioneers to the Americas to the rope and canvas used in World War II. Even though it is a vital component of our history, many Oregonians are not at all familiar with this crop and how it differs from marijuana grown for recreation or medicinal uses. Nor are they aware of the fact that industrial hemp was never made illegal under federal law, even until this day.

Opponents to marijuana often claim that attempts to allow industrial hemp cultivation (and likewise, medical marijuana – which will be the topic of a future article) are simply backdoor paths to legalization of recreational marijuana. On the contrary, most proponents for legalizing marijuana are actually expressing just the opposite, in my experience: They want to legalize recreational marijuana for adults so that there are no longer any legal obstacles to cultivation of industrial hemp (and medical marijuana).

Even though industrial hemp isn’t illegal under federal law, the federal government has been very clear that they will treat hemp farmers as though they were dangerous drug felons. Farmers who would dare grow industrial hemp risk SWAT team raids with guns drawn on their family and employees, just as farmers growing medical marijuana risk. They risk forfeiture of their entire life’s work, including their home, savings, cars, businesses and assets, just to name a few things at stake when you are treated as a drug felon. They can take your children from your custody and they can ruin your reputation, credit and employability by reporting you as a criminal. Without some sort of affirmative approval that removes that risk, farmers simply aren’t able to take the chance growing industrial hemp.

Industrial hemp comes from the same plant as recreational marijuana, Cannabis Sativa, but they are grown in completely different manners that are easily distinguished, one from the other. When growing marijuana for recreational or medicinal purposes, plants are spaced further apart, similar to tomatoes, and encouraged to grow in a “bushy” manner to encourage the flowering tops. Industrial hemp, on the other hand, is grown closely together and encouraged to grow lanky and tall, similar to corn or wheat, to encourage fibers that are derived from the stems and stalks.

The only exception when it might be a bit trickier to distinguish the two is when the hemp is being grown for seed; it is then grown more comparable to how recreational or medicinal marijuana is grown. These particular plants would be heavily seeded. The seeds are derived from the same plant process as the flowers used in recreational marijuana, except that they are pollinated by a male plant to produce seeds within the flowers.

The federal government makes no distinction between industrial hemp and marijuana. This is particularly ironic since the federal laws defining marijuana specifically exclude the hemp in all its forms:

802 (16) The term ”marihuana” means all parts of the plant Cannabis sativa L., whether growing or not; the seeds thereof; the resin extracted from any part of such plant; and every compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of such plant, its seeds or resin. Such term does not include the mature stalks of such plant, fiber produced from such stalks, oil or cake made from the seeds of such plant, any other compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of such mature stalks (except the resin extracted therefrom), fiber, oil, or cake, or the sterilized seed of such plant which is incapable of germination.

So while under the actual laws, industrial hemp is not illegal, our government basically looks at what is clearly industrial hemp and says, “We don’t see a difference, that is marijuana” and then threatens to enforce anti-marijuana laws on industrial hemp farmers. How can you defend against the intentionally blind?

In the 1990’s, when Colorado’s legislature was looking at a bill to distinguish between marijuana and hemp , all legislators received a faxed letter just two hours before the final hearing to approve the bill. The letter was from the Special Agent in Charge of the DEA in Colorado, Phillip Perry, who threatened enforcement of federal drug laws on any farmers that might grow hemp if this law was passed. He claimed that passage of the bill “would have the effect of leading otherwise law abiding farmers down the road to the commission of a felony, under the color of a seriously misguided state statute. If even one honest farmer faces such a dilemma, it would be an insupportable miscarriage of justice.”

While clearly trying to make legislators feel responsible for any future legal action that would be taken against farmers if the bill was passed and refusing to distinguish between marijuana and industrial hemp, he claimed that allowing industrial hemp cultivation would “add the force of a Colorado statute to the perception that marijuana is ‘OK.’” Further, he claimed that industrial hemp was an “illegal drug” itself:

And let us be clear that what we are talking about in this Bill is marijuana. Calling it “hemp” on the basis of an artificial threshold level of psychoactive ingredient does not erase the fact that it is botanically and legally the same plant. An illegal drug by any other name is still an illegal drug.

The author of the Colorado bill, Thomas Ballanco, countered Perry with some very appropriate responses, including the fact that the federal government never outlawed hemp and clearly never intended to, according to the public record:

Your letter represents a serious misreading of federal law and a misunderstanding of Congressional policy. At no time, since cannabis was first regulated in 1937, has Congress ever expressed an intent to outlaw the legitimate hemp industry. At Congressional hearings after the World War II “Hemp for Victory” campaign, Will S. Wood, Deputy Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (forerunner of your organization), guaranteed that marijuana regulation would not have a negative impact on the commercial hemp industry. Congress provided for regulation of the hemp industry in all its legislation until the early 1970s. When Congress stopped, the right to regulate commercial hemp farmers reverted back to the states under the tenth amendment. The federal government continues to recognize the legitimacy of the hemp industry in international treaties and by failing to list hemp producing nations as “drug source” countries for marijuana. Finally on June 3, 1994, President Clinton signed Executive Order 12919 which includes hemp in a list of essential national resources. The federal law is far from clear regarding the interplay between federal marijuana laws and the legitimate hemp industry. At a minimum, this is a question to be resolved by a federal court after appropriate argument, not one that can be dictated by your uninformed supposition.

Industrial hemp has tremendous potential for our economy, our environment and our health. Yet, under what seems at best a misguided application of federal drug laws, Americans have not been able to cultivate hemp since just after World War II when it was deemed “patriotic” to grow hemp to help win the war. There is no mistaking hemp cultivation for marijuana cultivation, as can be clearly seen in the World War II video, Hemp for Victory, regardless of what some in authority may claim.

Oregon has a chance to be on the forefront of a restored hemp industry with Measure 80 on November 6. And while opponents (almost exclusively those that profit off the continued war on marijuana, such as law enforcement, district attorneys and drug treatment providers) will continue to point to recreational marijuana and focus on “getting high” – the real focus of advocates is to remove the obstacles presented by the “war on drugs” and further the conversation to the real topics that we should be discussing that include the economic, environmental and health benefits of industrial hemp.

Additional reading from Thomas Ballanco on industrial hemp
As I continue to countdown to Election Day, upcoming topics will include the various uses for hemp, the controversy surrounding medical marijuana and how the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act 2012 will impact Oregonians. I will also focus on the conflicts with federal laws as well as the election process itself, including who can vote and how to register to vote.

Too many Oregonians aren’t even aware that Oregon will be voting on this crucial issue this November 6. This Election Day 2012 countdown will be full of information that is important to voters all throughout Oregon. Please subscribe to receive email alerts for future articles, including continuing coverage of Election 2012 and Measure 80!

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