Industrial hemp could be an “economically viable alternative crop” for United States farmers, according to a white paper published by the Congressional Research Service this summer. The CRS is the nonpartisan research arm of the United States Congress.
 
In the July 2013 report, entitled "Hemp as an Agricultural Commodity," the CRS acknowledges that the hemp plant is “genetically different” from cultivated cannabis and boasts that its components may be utilized in the production of thousands of products, including paper, carpeting, home furnishing, construction and insulation materials, auto parts, animal bedding, body care products and nutritional supplements.
 
The report concludes: “[T]he US market for hemp-based products has a highly dedicated and growing demand base, as indicated by recent US market and import data for hemp products and ingredients, as well as market trends for some natural foods and body care products. Given the existence of these small-scale, but profitable, niche markets for a wide array of industrial and consumer products, commercial hemp industry in the United States could provide opportunities as an economically viable alternative crop for some US growers.”
 
So why aren’t domestic farmers already enjoying the benefits of this economically viable crop? Look no further than the federal law, which classifies all cannabis varieties -- including hemp -- as prohibited Schedule I substances, and the intransigent attitudes of those who zealously enforce it. “The main obstacles facing this potential market are US government drug policies and DEA concerns about the ramifications of US commercial hemp production,” the report acknowledges. “These concerns are that commercial cultivation could increase the likelihood of covert production of high-THC marijuana, significantly complicating DEA’s surveillance and enforcement activities and sending the wrong message to the American public concerning the government’s position on drugs.” (FYI: No cannabis cultivator would ever plant their crops in or near hemp fields because cross-pollination between the two plants would significantly compromise marijuana potency.)
 
Fortunately, more and more US lawmakers are becoming hip to hemp. The 2013 CRS report notes that “the past decade has witnessed a resurgence of interest in the United States in producing industrial hemp.” Ten US states have enacted legislation removing barriers to the crop’s commercial production. (Three states, Colorado, Kentucky and Vermont, did so this year.) Federal legislation to exclude hemp from the US Controlled Substances Act is pending in both the House and Senate. And perhaps most significantly, House members this spring for the first time ever adopted an amendment that would have allowed institutions of higher education to grow or cultivate industrial hemp for the purpose of agricultural or academic research. (The amendment was approved as a provision to H.R. 1947, the Federal Agriculture Reform Act on 2013, aka ‘the farm bill,’ which was ultimately killed by Congress for reasons unrelated to either hemp or farming.)
 
But several states are no longer waiting for Congress to act. Following the publication of an August 2013 Justice Department memo stating that federal prosecutors will not interfere in states with “robust regulations” governing legal cannabis production and distribution, lawmakers in several states have called for the full and immediate implementation of their local hemp laws. Lawmakers in Colorado and Vermont both enacted legislation allowing for the licensed production of hemp regardless of federal permission. In Oregon, US Attorney Amanda Marshall told The Oregonian newspaper that her office would not target or prosecute those operating in compliance with the state’s 2009 law authorizing hemp production. And in Kentucky, state regulators are also moving full-speed ahead to adopt rules governing industrial hemp farming following comments from the state’s Commissioner of Agriculture, who believes that the recent DOJ memo is applicable to hemp as well as marijuana. “The DOJ is saying that is saying that it’s legal to grow marijuana in states that have a regulatory framework but not legal to grow hemp? I don’t think so,” the Commissioner informed reporters earlier this month. “We’re going to proceed unless the DOJ specifically tells us not to proceed.”

Paul Armentano is the deputy director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and he is the co-author of the book Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?