The fuzzy state of industrial hemp

Posted by Rose on

When I last wrote about industrial hemp cultivation in the United States , things were looking up. A number of 

states had recently legalized growing industrial hemp—in some cases permitting experimental crops. Kentucky, at the forefront of this movement, was actively pursuing hemp as an alternative to tobacco. Consumer demand for body-care products, foods, textiles, and building materials augured well for the future of industrial hemp. At that time, 13 states had some form of industrial hemp program in development. That number is now up to 22.

But there are troubling political, social and legal developments that throw a shadow over hemp’s future in the US. One of those developments is the growing use of cannabis-derived extracts for their therapeutic action on a broad swath of disorders ranging from seizures to anxiety. As more states have legalized medical marijuana, use of CBD oil in particular has become far more visible.

Cannabidiol, abbreviated as CBD, is just one of the 113 cannabinoids that have been identified in cannabis so far. CBD extracts aren’t made to get you high; they lack significant amounts of another cannabinoid—THC—the stuff that produces marijuana’s euphoric effects. But the differences between industrial hemp versus strains of cannabis grown for medicinal and recreational purposes are pretty blurred in the public consciousness. Media often covers industrial hemp and non-psychotropic forms of cannabis with the same winking merriment and pun-laden headlines with which it treats stories about pot in general.

The problem lies, to some extent, in terminology. Producers of industrial hemp in my state, Oregon, must limit THC content to less than .3 percent, but there is no limit on CBD content. But that contradicts the Wikipedia article defining what constitutes hemp. According to Wikipedia, “Several varieties of Cannabis, known as hemp, have a very low cannabinoid content, and are instead grown for their fiber and seed.”

But that’s not true of strains bred for their high CBD content. They are being promoted by pro-cannabis groups for their medicinal/therepeutic value. According the Wikipedia definition, that would mean such strains should not be thought of as industrial hemp, but rather as what they are: cannabis strains with high CBD content.

Further muddying the waters, the federal government continues to classify all cannabis, Including hemp, as a Schedule I drug—the same classification it gives heroin. The feds say cannabis has no accepted medical use and also has high abuse potential. At the same time, Washington has traditionally severely restricted scientific research.

The current U.S. attorney general has stated his opposition to all forms of cannabis (including hemp) cultivation and use, further clouding hemp’s future. He has recently put states with medical and recreational marijuana programs on notice that, due to diversion of cannabis into illicit markets, they are complicit in violations of federal law. Where all this will go remains to be seen. Currently, though, the consequences of this conflict between state and federal law causes headaches for farmers, distributors and retailers of cannabis products. Banks won’t deal with them, landlords are leery of running afoul of the feds, and even the protections of trademarks and copyrights can’t be granted under federal law to such operations.

Since I originally wrote Can I Get Arrested for Wearing Hemp? , states such as Oregon, where I live, have legalized both medicinal and recreational use of marijuana as well as industrial hemp cultivation which raises interesting questions both legal and botanical. Questions that were sharply underscored as I recently drove along a nearby interstate: First, I passed a substantial crop of industrial hemp as proudly proclaimed by large signs on the farm indicating the crop will be used for CBD oil production. Within moments, another grow came into sight, but this one had a tall wooden fence surrounding it and no signs, with plants just peeking over the fence—typical of the dozens if not hundreds of cannabis farms in my county.

Cannabis that’s been bred for high CBD content, such as that first field I encountered, actually poses a threat to any surrounding cannabis grows. Given the right conditions, pollen from the hemp field is capable of fertilizing other strains intended for medicinal and recreational use that grow miles away. These other strains are cultivated to remain unfertilized and seedless so as to maximize THC content in the marijuana flowers. Having neighboring fields of industrial hemp is a potential disaster for those growers.

Oregon continues to tweak its hemp rules, recognizing that there’s a difference between cannabis raised for traditional fiber and seed use and strains grown for their high-CBD content. But until there is coherent federal law in place, hemp’s status will continue to be uncertain.

Just as I was about to post this, a very positive headline hit my in-box: "FDA Declares CBD ‘Beneficial,’ Wants Your Input ASAP.” According to Leafly, the FDA is now seeking comments and information about CBD’s benefits in the treatment of neurological disorders and other conditions. Before getting too excited, however, it’s important to note that the FDA’s call for comments has only to do with recommendations the U.S. will make to the the World Health Organization. The WHO is currently reviewing a 1971 convention that includes all forms of cannabis in its schedule of outlawed psychotropic substances.

Meanwhile, the outlook for domestically grown hemp being transformed into textiles here in the U.S. Is fraught with challenges. Starting in the 1970s, textile mills began exiting the United States in search of cheap labor and minimal regulation. Today the domestic textile industry is a mere shadow of its former self, mirroring the condition of U.S.-made apparel. Manufacturing textiles is both capital- and labor-intensive. Given the realities of the global economy that shape today's clothing and textile markets, I’m not counting on having a domestic option any time soon when it comes to purchasing hemp fabric grown, spun, and woven in the US.

But who knows where all this is headed? Consumers have certainly become better informed about fast fashion and its many negative impacts on our planet. That awakened consciousness may transform both the way we make clothes as well as the materials from which they’re made. Perhaps, in their own almost imperceptible way, those customers of mine who “get” Sympatico are a sort of cutting edge—an advance party blazing a different path that approaches apparel making in particular and consumption generally in Earth-friendly ways.


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