Can I get arrested for wearing hemp clothes?
As silly as that question sounds on its face, there's more to hemp's legal status than meets the eye. It was a customer at a craft fair who got me curious by saying that she had always thought hemp was illegal. What I found out is curious indeed.
First, a little botany: Both industrial hemp, the stuff that textiles, paper and foods are made with, and recreational/medicinal cannabis come from plants that share a common ancestor. Over the more than 7,000 years in which humans have grown cannabis, selective breeding has resulted in the emergence of many cannabis varieties.
Is it for rope or dope?
To understand the differences between cannabis grown for industrial hemp purposes as opposed to strains cultivated for marijuana requires some botanical clarification. Within the cannabis genus there are three species: Cannabis indica, Cannabis sativa and Cannibis ruderalis. Over the millennia these species have been crossbred by humans for various purposes, resulting in hundreds of strains. Natural crossing of strains has produced many more hybrid types. Hemp bred for its seeds, oil and fiber contains trace quantities of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the stuff that produces the euphoric effects of recreational and medicinal marijuana. Smoking industrial hemp varieties is more likely to give you a headache than a high.
On the other hand, cannabis grown for marijuana can contain more than 20% THC and has been bred to produce little fiber. It's cultivated so as not to produce the seeds that diminish the plant's psychoactive potency.
Uncle Sam doesn't get it yet
Oddly enough, the U.S. government does not distinguish between these two very different plants grown for completely different purposes. Since 1937 it has been illegal to grow any variety of hemp in the U.S., and under current law imported hemp products are subjected to zero-tolerance standards for THC. Thirteen states—California, Colorado, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and West Virginia—now permit industrial hemp cultivation for research and/or commercial purposes. But so far, few farms have begun its farming due to resistance from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The DEA continues to oppose industrial hemp cultivation arguing that pot proponents are really seeking a "back-door" route to getting all forms of cannabis legalized. The agency, with some justification, argues that with thousands of hemp strains confusing the picture, enforcement of industrial-only hemp cultivation is problematic.
There is light at the end of the tunnel though. A provision in the farm bill passed in January 2015 allow colleges, universities and state agriculture agencies to grow and do research on the crop without being penalized by the federal government. The provision applies only to states where industrial hemp is legal.
One interesting wrinkle is the opposition to industrial hemp by some outdoor recreational and medicinal pot growers. Cross-pollination could ruin the potency of marijuana bred for its euphoric properties.
Hemp's big comeback
Meanwhile, industrial hemp production is taking off all over the world in response to consumer and manufacturing demand for hemp clothing, oil, paper and seeds. Today more than 30 countries are growing hemp. In Canada, industrial hemp THC content is limited to 0.3%. Since it is typically grown using few if any synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, hemp is among the world's most environmentally friendly crops. And as one of the fastest-growing biomasses on the planet, it holds the promise of replacing synthetic fibers whose manufacture threatens our ecosphere.
So, in answer to my customer's question, industrial hemp is legal in the U.S., but growing it isn't. For more information about hemp's use in clothing, read our story here. Blended with eco-friendly Tencel, a fiber made from sustainably farmed eucalyptus trees, hemp is a mainstay of the Sympatico Clothing collection. Learn more about our supple, rayon-like hemp/Tencel fabric here.