Hemp: Miracle Fiber or Dangerous Drug?

Why is the U..S. the only developed country where hemp is still illegal?

Commercial hemp grown in Manitoba, Canada
Commercial hemp grown in Manitoba, Canada. Mike Grandmaison/All Canada Photos/Getty Images

Dear EarthTalk: A number of products, including paper and clothing--even food and beer--are made from hemp. What is it about hemp that makes it so versatile--and why is it illegal to grow in the United States? Is it also illegal in Canada?
-- Doug Jones, via e-mail

What did the first Gutenberg bible, Christopher Columbus’ ropes and sails, the Declaration of Independence and the first American flag have in common?

All were made from hemp. Indeed, many of America’s forefathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, earned a living at one point in their lives growing and selling hemp, which was used to make everything from paper to rope to sails to clothing. During World War II, the crop was of such strategic importance for making clothing that the U.S. government provided farmers with subsidies to convert other types of fields over to hemp cultivation.

The Many Uses of Hemp

Hemp is a renewable and easy-to-grow crop that is tough enough to substitute for paper or wood and malleable enough to be made into clothing and even a biodegradable form of plastic. Meanwhile, hemp oil is all the rage among natural foods gourmands, who enjoy its nutty flavor and its healthy amounts of protein and omega fatty acids. Hemp is also a popular ingredient in many new hand and body lotions.

Hemp Is Easy to Grow

Environmentalists and farmers alike appreciate hemp as an alternative to cotton for clothes and trees for paper.

Unlike cotton, hemp does not require large doses of pesticides and herbicides as it is naturally resistant to pests and grows fast, crowding out weeds. To make paper, trees must grow for many years, while a field of hemp can be harvested in a few months and make four times the paper over a few decades.

Also, the making of paper from hemp uses only a fraction of the chemicals required to turn trees into paper.

Why is Hemp Farming Illegal in the United States?

In spite of hemp’s versatility, in 1970 the U.S. Congress designated hemp, along with its relative marijuana, as a “Schedule 1” drug under the Controlled Substances Act, making it illegal to grow without a license from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Although industrial hemp does not contain enough psychoactive ingredients to make a smoker “high,” farmers who grow it can risk jail time.

U.S. Alone Classifies Hemp as a Drug

Today, the U.S. is the only developed country that has not officially established hemp as an agricultural crop, according to the Congressional Research Service. Britain lifted a similar ban in 1993, and Germany and Canada followed suit soon after. The European Union has subsidized hemp production since the 1990s.

Canadian Farmers Cashing In on Hemp

With their American competition out of the running, Canadian farmers have been reaping hemp’s financial rewards, especially following a ruling by a U.S. federal court that hemp-made products could be imported into the U.S. In 2013, the Canadian hemp industry managed 66,000 acres in production, according to the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance.

The Battle Over Hemp Continues

American farmers have long lobbied to lift the U.S. ban. Legislatures in 13 states have all passed laws that would make hemp legal if the U.S. government were to allow it. The DEA has long maintained that allowing American farmers to grow hemp would undermine the “war on drugs,” as marijuana growers could camouflage their illicit operations with similar-looking hemp plants. However, in 2015 the federal government showed some evidence of detente: if allowed by the state, universities or state agricultural agencies are now allowed to conduct pilot hemp growth programs for research purposes.

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Edited by Frederic Beaudry.