Since the passage of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, commercial grade hemp has been considered a controlled substance by the U.S. government alongside its cousin, marijuana. However, hemp contains only the smallest amount of THC, the psychoactive component that makes marijuana a recreational drug. Instead, commercial grade hemp is a sustainable crop that can provide raw materials to create commercial goods and food.
Now, the U.S. government is slowly easing its restrictions on commercial grade hemp. The 2014 U.S. Farm Bill, passed in February, authorizes hemp planting and harvesting in states that have already legalized the crop; fifteen states currently allow for hemp production as described by the new law and have begun issuing permits to farmers. However, current regulations prevent farmers from cultivating hemp on an industrial scale.
For decades, U.S. agricultural regulations as well as public opinion have mistakenly equated hemp with marijuana, limiting its viability as a commercial grade crop. According to David P. West, PhD and contributor to the North American Industrial Hemp Council, “the THC levels in industrial hemp are so low that no one could get high from smoking it. Moreover, hemp contains a relatively high percentage of another cannabinoid, CBD, that actually blocks the marijuana high.”
Industrial hemp is a boon to the environment as it can be grown without using pesticides and it does not drain the soil of nutrients. Moreover, hemp may help purify toxins and waste water; notably, Phytotech used industrial hemp to clean up the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.
Additionally, hemp can be used as a high protein food source or as a raw material to produce commercial grade goods. Hulled hemp seeds, often called hemp hearts, are soft in texture with a mild nut-like flavor that allows them to be used like chia or flax seeds. Hemp seeds contain a complete protein as well as Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. A 1998 study by Oregon State University argued that the stem or stalk of hemp can be used to manufacture building materials, textiles, paper, garden mulch, and animal bedding.
Jim Denny, founder of the Mile High Hemp farm, expressed his excitement about the new law: “The crop right now is sellable. I’ve already had people contact me on my website saying, ‘We know you’re growing stuff and we want to buy it from you.’ And we haven’t even put it in the ground.” Denny is one of more than four dozen farmers who are planting 1,600 acres of hemp across Colorado this year.
Even with the new regulations and the interest of farmers such as Denny, hemp production will probably not increase significantly in the near future. Hemp seed is scarce and laws still prohibit importing viable hemp seeds.