Hemp in America – Will We Ever be Allowed to Grow It?

The Issue

Hemp is a fiber product that has dozens of potential uses, yet it cannot be grown in the United States because it is technically the same species as marijuana, cannabis sativa, which has been illegal in the United States since 1937. In recent years, however, such diverse interests as environmentalists, paper manufacturers, and drug legalization hemp-educate-yourselfactivists have joined forces to advocate amending U.S. drug laws to distinguish between the kind of cannabis one smokes and the kind that could revolutionize several industries. Changing the law could impact the environment in the US because hemp could revolutionize the paper industry and reduce deforestation, and because hemp production requires the use of far fewer pesticides than the fibers it could replace. It also would impact trade issues because the current ban requires hemp to be imported on a large scale from abroad.


Hemp is viewed by many to be one of the world’s most perfect products. The plant’s fiber produces rope and cloth which is strong and resilient. Hemp makes pulp and other paper products cheaper, cleaner and more efficiently than wood. Hemp pulp can be used as a biomass fuel, with much less negative side effects such as air pollution, and could some day replace petroleum as the primary (and importantly, a home-grown) source of fuel in the US. Hemp may also be consumed as a cheap source of protein and is believed to have many medical applications.

In fact, a legendary article in Popular Mechanics in 1938 proclaimed that hemp could be manufactured into more than 25,000 environmentally friendly products. (1)

Hemp is considered by many to be the world’s oldest agricultural product and has a long history in the US as an important fiber product. Both the Declaration of Independence and the original St. James Bible are printed on hemp paper. George Washington advocated a hemp-based economy for the US.2) Hemp has long been the best source for strong ropes and sails which were crucial in the development of the US navy. In fact, it has been said that hemp was as important to the US during the 1800’s as oil is now.(3)

It is clear that even in the 30’s, US leaders recognized the value of hemp, even while they banned it. In 1942, the government lifted the ban and encouraged farmers to cultivate hemp to help with the war effort, widely distributing a film call “Hemp for Victory” produced by the USDA.(4) This relaxation of the laws against hemp was terminated by 1957, and the ban continues today under the 1972 Controlled Substances Act.

Hemp was cultivated heavily in the US until 1937 when the Marihuana Tax Act was passed by Congress. The impetus to make cannabis illegal came from several sources. In addition to the anti-drug forces, frequently referred to these days as the “Reefer Madness Movement,” but from petrochemical and pharmaceutical industries who in the 30’s were pushing their newly developed products like plastics and synthetic fabrics, and wanted to eliminate competition by hemp products.

DuPont Chemicals, for example, had just invented a process called chemical pulping which was much cheaper than the mechanical pulping process used up to this same time. Around the same time, a new process was developed for processing hemp. DuPont could corner the market on paper production if they could eliminate the hemp producers. Notably, this deal was financed by Andrew Mellon, whose nephew-in-law Harry Anslinger headed up the FBNDD (the forerunner to the DEA), and who had appointed Anslinger to that position in 1931. (5)

At this point, it is legal in the United States to possess and sell the parts of the cannabis plant which strictly constitute hemp, i.e., the stalk, stem and roots of the plant. In these parts, there are only trace amounts of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the drug which produces a psychoactive effect when ingested or smoked. This is the reason that raw hemp fiber and hemp products are legal to own. The leaves and seeds of the cannabis plant are rich in THC, and possession and sale of these is illegal. Since hemp cannot be grown without seeds or leaves, it is illegal to grow hemp regardless of whether it is to be used for industrial purposes.

Advocates for hemp legalization argue that US drug laws could be amended to allow the growing of cannabis for industrial hemp, but keeping marijuana growing illegal. Drug and law enforcement agencies, however, maintain that marijuana growers would be able to hide their cannabis plants among the legal hemp plants and it would be impossible for narcotics agents to distinguish the two.

There apparently is a process through the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to request permission to grow industrial hemp, but according to NORML, the DEA has denied “every permit for large- scale hemp farming within America’s borders for the last forty years.”(6) The reasoning of the DEA and other law enforcement agencies in not allowing industrial hemp to be grown is that narcotics agents (narcs) could not distinguish between the two plants. Hemp advocates argue, however, that the plants look quite different. In order to produce THC rich leaves, marijuana plants are kept cropped very low to the ground. Hemp, however, comes from the long fibrous stalk, so a good hemp plant is tall, broad, and less leafy. The leaves of industrial hemp have so little THC that smoking them produces virtually no “high” and gives the user a headache.(7) Since the DEA’s primary means of detecting illegal pot growing operations is by helicopter, they maintain that they would be unable to distinguish the two plants from the air. The DEA argues that marijuana growers could sneak their illicit plants into fields of hemp.

In the past, the only vocal advocates for legalization of hemp were also arguing for legalization of drugs generally, and this made it easy for anti-legalization forces to dismiss the arguments, claiming these people are just using hemp as a stepping stone for legalization of marijuana and harder drugs. For example, when Colorado considered an initiative to begin investigating the possibility of legalizing industrial hemp, dozens of state narcotics agents and representatives of the DEA testified that pro- hemp activists were a front for drug dealers who want to legalize marijuana. (8) The obvious answer to this argument, of course, that drug dealers are the last ones who would argue for legalization of marijuana because the price for a plant which is so easy to grow would plummet if it were no longer illegal to grow it. It should also be remembered that these agents’ jobs are threatened if the US relaxes its “War on Drugs” which the US public has heretofore been willing to support wholeheartedly. Certainly the leaders of the DEA, who presumably want to maintain current funding levels, also have a lot to lose should marijuana or other drugs become legal.

The tide may be turning in hemp’s favor in the near future, and more and more people outside the pro-drug liberalization lobby now support development of a hemp industry. The benefits of hemp as a product are becoming clear not only to environmentalists but to entire industries such as the clothing and paper industries. State legislatures and unions are joining in the fight because they see the potential for creating jobs in the US, and because they recognize the damage that anti-hemp laws do to US trade. The movement has also gained a great deal of strength in the South, where declining cigarette sales have made farmers and state legislatures consider the benefits of hemp production as an industry to replace tobacco. Because the decline of the tobacco industry ultimately could affect millions of jobs, the residents of these states will likely find arguments for legalization of hemp especially persuasive. This should make the movement for legalization much stronger in the near future.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, with 4.5 million members, the largest farmers association in the US, joined the pro-hemp movement in 1996. An editorial in its publication referred to hemp as “one of the most promising crops in half a century…[It] could be the alternative crop farmers are looking for.” (9) It could also help growth in rural areas by spurring investment in processing mills. (10) “We’re talking jobs,” said Erwin Sholts, Director of Diversification at Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture. “Why should we import a product in high demand when we can grow it here?” (11)

The environmental benefits of the plant are obvious. It is a very hearty plant which grows very quickly and across a broad geographic range. Where a tree requires decades to grow to the cultivation stage, hemp plants mature in 100 days, so that over time, hemp yields 2-4 times more fiber per acre than trees. (12) Med Byrd, a paper researcher at North Carolina State University, indicated that the paper industry is “aggressively seeking data on hemp,” and notes that law enforcement, in maintaining its stern position against hemp, “throws away science and common sense.” (13)

Another advocate for legalization of hemp is The International Paper Company which believes hemp could be the way to address what they consider the “fiber crisis” which is looming worldwide. This crisis is caused by skyrocketing demand for paper and other fiber products such as pulp and packing materials which the timber companies cannot supply because the global environmental movement has driven the cost of buying forest and processing wood products much higher. Companies like International Paper believe that growing hemp domestically could revitalize US paper companies’ ability to compete internationally.(14)

To date, the debate has been fairly limited to within industries and particular regions, but with the growing popularity of hemp products and the increasing visibility of those involved in the debate, the subject is likely to gain more national attention. Recently, actor Woody Harrelson has gained national attention for the issue by placing himself in the center of a test case challenging the Kentucky law which does not distinguish between growing marijuana and industrial hemp.(15) In June 1996, Harrelson was arrested for planting four industrial hemp seeds in the eastern Kentucky county. While his case has been pending, he has traveled to schools talking about the distinction between the two plants and creating a great deal of controversy in the meantime.

Several states are currently considering initiatives to begin at least experimenting with hemp cultivation and others are considering amending laws to allow the growing of industrial hemp, such as redefining the controlled substance as only those parts of the plant that contains a certain quantity of THC.

Related Cases

PULP – Wood Pulp and Trade

COLCOCA – Colombia and Coca

COCA – Coca Production

BOLCOCA – Bolivia and Coca

USRECYC – US Recycling Law

Legal Standing:

Federally, marijuana was originally banned in 1937 by the Marihuana Tax Act. The federal ban is now contained in the 1972 Controlled Substances Act, which considers the species cannabis sativa a controlled substance, without distinguishing between hemp and marijuana or defining the way it is grown or the purpose for which it is used. Virtually every state has banned the species under state law, but this may be changing, as a few states (California and Arizona) have now created exceptions to the ban on marijuana for medical purposes.

It is significant that federal law will trump state law on drug issues. In 1996, California passed a law allowing doctor’s to prescribe marijuana to patients for medical purposes. So far, the federal government has been vague about its official policy on this situation, but has indicated that they have the authority under federal law to arrest doctors who prescribe marijuana and the patients who use it. They have also hinted obliquely that they could take away a doctor’s license to prescribe medicine (which for an AIDS specialist is essentially like taking away his license to practice) if they violate federal law on marijuana.

On the hemp issue, the DEA is unequivocal that the agency will not be able to distinguish between legal and illegal cannabis plants and thus staunchly opposes any change in the laws of any state. A full discussion of federalism versus state’s rights is beyond the scope of this paper. Hypothetically, however, if a state were to pass laws legalizing hemp, they would not be nullified by the federal law, but federal law enforcement officials could still arrest those planting hemp and prosecute them under federal law.

There is potential here for a constitutional challenge to the authority of Congress to dictate national drug policy. This authority is based on the commerce clause and the fact that contradictory laws on drugs in different states would create interstate drug trafficking and thus disrupt interstate commerce. Since the effect of the federal law is to totally prevent an entire industry from existing, an argument could be made that this is an example of overreaching Congress’ power under the commerce clause.

Regulatory Ban

Growing hemp is illegal throughout the United States under federal law. The law is not designed to restrict trade, and in fact, has negative impact on US trade and a positive impact on imports.

Countries Growing Industrial Hemp Today

The U.S. is the only industrialized nation in the world that does not recognize the value of industrial hemp and permit its production. Below is a list of other countries that are more rational when it comes to hemp policy.

AUSTRALIA began research trials in Tasmania in 1995. Victoria commercial production since1998. New South Wales has research. In 2002, Queensland began production. Western Australia licensed crops in 2004.

AUSTRIA has a hemp industry including production of hemp seed oil, medicinals and Hanf magazine.

CANADA started to license research crops in 1994. In addition to crops for fiber, one seed crop was licensed in 1995. Many acres were planted in 1997. Licenses for commercial agriculture saw thousands of acres planted in 1998. 30,000 acres were planted in 1999. In 2000, due to speculative investing, 12,250 acres were sown. In 2001, 92 farmers grew 3,250 acres. A number of Canadian farmers are now growing organically-certified hemp crops (6,000 acres in 2003 and 8,500 acres in 2004, yielding almost four million pounds of seed).

CHILE has grown hemp in the recent past for seed oil production.

CHINA is the largest exporter of hemp textiles. The fabrics are of excellent quality. Medium density fiber board is also now available. The Chinese word for hemp is “ma.”

DENMARK planted its first modern hemp trial crops in 1997. The country is committed to utilizing organic methods.

FINLAND had a resurgence of hemp in 1995 with several small test plots. A seed variety for northern climates was developed called Finola, previously know by the breeder code “FIN-314.” In 2003, Finola was accepted to the EU list of subsidized hemp cultivars. Hemp has never been prohibited in Finland. The Finnish word for hemp is “hamppu.”

FRANCE has never prohibited hemp and harvested 10,000 tons of fiber in 1994. France is a source of low-THC-producing hemp seed for other countries. France exports high quality hemp oil to the U.S. The French word for hemp is “chanvre.”

GERMANY banned hemp in 1982, but research began again in 1992, and many technologies and products are now being developed, as the ban was lifted on growing hemp in November, 1995. Food, clothes and paper are also being made from imported raw materials. Mercedes and BMW use hemp fiber for composites in door panels, dashboards, etc. The German word for hemp is “hanf.”

GREAT BRITAIN lifted hemp prohibition in 1993. Animal bedding, paper and textiles markets have been developed. A government grant was given to develop new markets for natural fibers. 4,000 acres were grown in 1994. Subsidies of 230 British pounds per acre are given by the government to farmers for growing hemp.

HUNGARY is rebuilding their hemp industry, and is one of the biggest exporters of hemp cordage, rugs and fabric to the U.S. They also export hemp seed, paper and fiberboard. The Hungarian word for hemp is “kender.”

INDIA has stands of naturalized Cannabis and uses it for cordage, textiles and seed.

ITALY has invested in the resurgence of hemp, especially for textile production. 1,000 acres were planted for fiber in 2002. Giorgio Armani grows its own hemp for specialized textiles.

JAPAN has a rich religious tradition involving hemp, and custom requires that the Emperor and Shinto priests wear hemp garments in certain ceremonies, so there are small plots maintained for these purposes. Traditional spice mixes also include hemp seed. Japan supports a thriving retail market for a variety of hemp products. The Japanese word for hemp is “asa.”

NETHERLANDS is conducting a four-year study to evaluate and test hemp for paper, and is developing specialized processing equipment. Seed breeders are developing new strains of low-THC varieties. The Dutch word for hemp is “hennep.”

NEW ZEALAND started hemp trials in 2001. Various cultivars are being planted in the north and south islands.

POLAND currently grows hemp for fabric and cordage and manufactures hemp particle board. They have demonstrated the benefits of using hemp to cleanse soils contaminated by heavy metals. The Polish word for hemp is “konopij.”

ROMANIA is the largest commercial producer of hemp in Europe. 1993 acreage was 40,000 acres. Some of it is exported to Hungary for processing. They also export hemp to Western Europe and the U.S. The Romanian word for hemp is “cinepa.”

RUSSIA maintains the largest hemp germplasm collection in the world at the N.I. Vavilov Scientific Research Institute of Plant Industry (VIR) in St. Petersburg. They are in need of funding to maintain and support the collection. The Russian word for hemp is “konoplya.”

SLOVENIA grows hemp and manufactures currency paper.

SPAIN has never prohibited hemp, produces rope and textiles, and exports hemp pulp for paper. The Spanish word for hemp is “cañamo.”

SWITZERLAND is a producer of hemp and hosts one of the largest hemp trade events, Cannatrade.

TURKEY has grown hemp for 2,800 years for rope, caulking, birdseed, paper and fuel. The Turkish word for hemp is “kendir.”


UNITED STATES granted the first hemp permit in over 40 years to Hawaii for an experimental quarter-acre plot in 1999. The license was renewed, but the project has since been closed due to DEA stalling tactics and related funding problems. Importers and manufacturers have thrived using imported raw materials. 22 states have introduced legislation, including VT, HI, ND, MT, MN, IL, VA, NM, CA, AR, KY, MD, WV and ME, addressing support, research or cultivation with bills or resolutions. The National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) has endorsed industrial hemp for years.

Impact of Trade Restriction: High

Industry Sector: FiExporters and Importers: USA and Many

The primary exporters of hemp to the US are Asia, Canada and Europe (primarily Germany).

Resource Impact and Effect:

Using hemp in place of timber as a source of paper could radically reduce deforestation. One acre of hemp produces four times as much pulp as an acre of timber.(20) Hemp also grows on almost any land and in any region, so it could be grown throughout the US, unlike the trees which are used for paper and which have a fairly limited habitat. Hemp can also be grown on unproductive land and between seasons and can even be used to enrich soil which has become leached of minerals.(21)

Hemp can also be grown without the pesticides that are necessary for cultivation of other textiles and paper products, such as cotton which requires large amounts of pesticides and today is the most polluting of all agricultural industries.(22) Cotton production, in fact, accounts for half the pesticide use in the US, and that product is one of the major products for which hemp could be substituted.(23)

Urgency of Problem: High

Deforestation is an urgent problem around the world, caused by both urbanization and the need for timber for building and paper products. Hemp provides a more efficient alternative to timber in the production of paper products, and can produce building materials inexpensively. (24)

The paper industry is also suffering a “fiber crisis” because the industry is unable to meet the international demand for pulp and paper products from lesser developed countries. The industry in the US especially has difficulty producing these products for export because the environmental movement has pushed up the cost of cutting and processing trees. Hemp would provide an alternative for fiber production that could solve this crisis and increase the value of US exports.


Hemp provides a substitute for many less environmentally friendly products such as cotton.

Relevant Literature

Anthony Clarke, “The Hemp Revolution” (documentary)

Chris Conrad, Hemp: Lifeline to the Future (1993).

Richard Harrington, “The Case for Hemp, a Resource Misjudged,” Washington Post, Mar. 22, 1996, B7.

Jack Herer, The Emperor Wears No Clothes (1985).

Hemp, Farming and the Environment, Grassroots Party of Minnesota Home Page.

Brian S. Julin, ed., Cannabis/Marijuana FAQ, a detailed discussion of “frequently asked questions” about marijuana and hemp produced by pro-legalization students at Ohio State.

John Mintz, “Splendor in the Grass?” Washington Post, Jan. 5, 1997, H1.

NORML Home Page


(1) “New Billion-Dollar Crop,” Popular Mechanics, 1938, available on-line via the NORML Home Page.

(2) NORML Home Page.

(3) John Mintz, “Splendor in the Grass?” Washington Post, Jan. 5, 1997.

(4) NORML, n. 2.


Brian S. Julin, Cannabis/Marijuana FAQ, at http://www.cis.ohio-state.edu/hypertext/faq/usenet/drugs/hemp- marijuana/faq/html.

(6) NORML, n. 2 and Julin, n. 5.

(7) Mintz, n. 3.

(8) Id.

(9) Id.

(10) Id.

(11) Id.

(12) Id.

(13) Id.

(14) Id.

(15) “Around the Commonwealth: Northern Kentucky,” Cincinatti Enquirer, 2/1/97, page C2.

(16) Mintz, n. 3.

(17) Id.

(18) US News & World Report, 1/20/97, page 54, 56.

(19) Mintz, n. 3.

(20) Richard Harrington, “The Case for Hemp, a Resource Misjudged,” Washington Post, Mar. 22, 1996, B7.

(21) Hemp, Farming and the Environment, Grassroots Party of Minnesota Home Page.

(22) Harrington, n. 20.

(23) Julin, n. 5.

(24) Vincent H. Miller, “A Grass House in Your Future?” Freedom Network News, June/July 1989.

Hemp and the Economy:

Could Marijuana and Industrial Hemp Feed our Starving Economy?

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Can Hemp Save the Economy?

The Case for Hemp-America has Handed this Profitable Market to Other Nations

Time to put Hemp to Use

Hemp and the Environment:

The Versatility of the Incredible Hemp Plant and How It Can Help Create a More Sustainable Future

Help Save the Earth, Time to Subsitute Hemp for Oil

Hemp – A Green Solution for Improving the Health of People and the Environment

Help Save the Earth, Time to Subsitute Hemp for Oil

Hemp and Hunger:

Can Hemp Products Save the World?

Can Cannabis Hemp Help Solve Poverty, Conflict & Disease in Africa?

Hemp Facts:

Hemp Facts

The Case for Hemp in America

One response to “Hemp in America – Will We Ever be Allowed to Grow It?”

  1. If our Law Enforcement is too Stupid to tell the difference between Industrial Hemp and the Psychoactive Variety, They are too stupid to effectively perform the Job they were Hired for!!!
    Cross Pollinating the Industrial variety with the Psychoactive Variety actually Destroys the potency of the Psychoactive Variety, So growing it among the Industrial Hemp would NOT be good, As a matter of FACT, You would not want to grow your own within a Mile of a Hemp Farm, Or Nature itself “Bugs & Bees” would cross pollinate and ruin your good weed!

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