What does state legalization in Washington & Colorado mean for hemp?

By Russ Belville

In the 2012 general election, Washington State and Colorado legalized the possession of an ounce of usable marijuana and mandated state-regulated cultivation, processing, and retail distribution of cannabis products. But what does this mean for industrial hemp?


As you know, industrial (or non-drug) hemp is just the low-THC cousin to psychoactive marijuana. We’re the only industrialized country in the world that still bans hemp production. But because of that ban, we are the world’s greatest importer of hemp. This is a $400 million market annually in the US with precisely 0% of that going to the American economy through US farmers and processors.


Colorado’s Amendment 64 “directs the general assembly to regulate the cultivation, processing, and sale of industrial hemp.” Coloradoans now have the constitutional right to grow their own six plants. Those, in fact, could be hemp plants. But as far as full-scale hemp farming is concerned, more legislation will be required to allow it.


Washington’s Initiative 502 “modifies the definition of marijuana under Washington state law” so hemp is no longer covered in the state drug laws. As of December 6, 2012, farmers could actually be legally planting fields of industrial hemp under state law.  But as of yet, no Washington farmers have announced plans to cultivate industrial hemp, presumably until they know the answer to one important question: Will the Drug Enforcement Agency place a high priority on raiding non-drug, state-legal hemp farms?


Some states already have laws on the books allowing cultivation of industrial hemp. Yet without the required federal cultivation permit from the DEA – a permit they never grant – not a single hemp crop has yet to be harvested. Will it make any more difference to the DEA that Washington and Colorado legalized hemp by popular vote while Oregon legalized hemp through the legislature?


The United States imports $10.5 million worth of raw hemp products annually, mostly from China. This may be a small figure in the global economy, but how much more hemp would we use if we could produce it domestically? How eager is the federal government to explain why armed agents are raiding a rural farmer trying to earn a living growing a legal non-drug crop?


Besides the economic arguments for beginning the hemp crops in Washington and Colorado are the ecological arguments. It’s an organic crop that scrubs five times more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than trees do, helping us fight climate change. State governments, city transit, school buses, and the like could be mandated to be diesel vehicles burning hemp fuel. Hemp seeds yield an incredibly nutritious food source in addition to the oil used for fuel and biodegradable plastics.


Perhaps most exciting is the use of hemp fiber. It creates superior paper with far less environmental damage and requires less acreage. It is used in fiberglass components to make stronger and lighter materials for cars. As a cloth, hemp regulates body temperature better than cotton and new processing techniques make hemp cloth just as soft and pliable. Reducing our production of cotton could be a huge benefit to the environment; up to one-sixth of all the pesticides used on earth are for cotton crops that use only one-fortieth of global farmland.


One exciting use of hemp fiber comes in the form of substitutes for concrete blocks. In the south of France, where hemp cultivation is legal and the materials are cheap, a vintner recently built a brand-new 9,000 square foot winery using hemp mixed with lime into blocks. The owner, featured in a November post in Wine Spectator, decided he wanted an environmentally friendly building that matched his philosophy for organic wine production.


In hemp/lime blocks, he found the perfect material. In addition to the hemp itself having scrubbed the air of carbon dioxide, the process of the lime “carbonating” the hemp will continue to pull in carbon dioxide from the air for 20 to 25 years. The blocks themselves will last a hundred years or more and are completely biodegradable.


Of particular interest to the winemakers was the breathability factor. The hemp blocks are natural insulators with great acoustic dampening properties. Along with building the winery into the natural earth hillside, the hemp blocks help to keep the temperature in the winery between 54 and 64 degrees Fahrenheit year round even without an air conditioning system. Even as the wine ferments and produces heat, the special construction of the winery and its hemp blocks will keep the temperature inside steady even as outside temperatures range from 21 to 93 degrees.


Two of the biggest problems facing this country are the economy and the environment. Continuing to deny our farmers and entrepreneurs the opportunity to restart the American hemp industry is a mistake we can’t afford to make.


"Radical" Russ Belville is host of The Russ Belville ShowLIVE from 3pm-5pm Pacific. Visit radicalruss.com