It’s been nearly 20 years since former Idaho legislator Tom Trail began beating the drum for industrial hemp.
The eight-term Moscow representative tried repeatedly to convince his legislative colleagues to support the crop. Trail introduced at least five resolutions and memorials over the years, urging Congress to recognize the difference between hemp and marijuana and to authorize its cultivation.
Despite support from the Idaho Farm Bureau, most of his bills never made it out of committee. The only one that did was shot down on the House floor on a 47-15 vote.
However, the U.S. Senate – and perhaps Congress as a whole – may now be prepared to go where the Idaho Legislature feared to tread.
Earlier this year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., introduced legislation that would remove all federal restrictions on hemp cultivation. Co-sponsored by Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the measure was included in the Senate version of the latest farm bill reauthorization, which passed the Senate Agriculture Committee on June 13.
The full Senate still needs to approve the bill. The hemp provisions, which aren’t in the House farm bill that passed Thursday, also have to survive negotiations over the final version of the reauthorization measure. Nevertheless, for the first time in more than 80 years, commercial cultivation of industrial hemp could once again be an option for American farmers.
Trail, it seems, was decades ahead of his time.
“We’re the only country in the world that prohibits the growing of industrial hemp,” he said in a recent interview. “I think it would be a very viable crop for Idaho farmers.”
No high here
Although hemp and marijuana are both varieties of cannabis sativa, hemp has much lower levels of THC – the psycho-active component in the plant that makes people “high.”
By modern definitions, industrial hemp must contain less than 0.3 percent THC by weight. Even poor grades of marijuana, by contrast, have about 10 percent THC; the most potent strains can exceed 30 percent.
This difference in THC levels undercuts one of the main objections Trail heard regarding his hemp legislation.
“The big concern by law enforcement was that (drug dealers) would hide marijuana in the middle of hemp fields,” he said. “But I had testimony from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police saying that wasn’t true, because cross-pollination ruins the quality of the marijuana. The pollen can float about 15 miles.”
Trail first became interested in hemp after attending an international farm conference in Canada in 2000.
Like the United States, Canada banned the crop in the 1930s. However, controlled production by licensed growers resumed in 1998. Last year, a record 136,000 acres were harvested. That prompted the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance to crow that “the agricultural hemp industry is poised to grow to $1 billion in sales by 2023, creating 3,000 new jobs over the next five years.”
Before it was banned, hemp had a long history in the United States and around the world as a source of fiber. In recent years it has also become a popular food supplement. All told, the plant can be used in about 25,000 different products. Its short- and long-strand fibers make everything from rope and canvas to cloth, paper and building materials. Hemp seeds are a nutritious source of protein for humans and livestock, while hemp oils and extracts are used in cosmetics, soaps, plastics and lubricants.
Given these broad applications, Trail, who served five years as chairman of the House Agricultural Committee, figured Idaho farmers should have the opportunity to raise the crop.
“One of the beauties of hemp is that its root system goes down 12 feet and encourages the percolation of water,” he said. “It also controls weeds, because it grows so thick. I see it as an excellent rotational crop.”
Idaho: Surrounded by hemp states
Trail may have been one of the few Idaho legislators who was sweet on hemp, but that wasn’t the case nationwide.
In fact, there were enough supporters to convince Congress to add a section to the last farm bill reauthorization, in 2014, allowing the crop to be grown as part of a state or university research pilot project, so long as it’s permitted by state law.
Since that time, the National Conference of State Legislatures says, at least 35 states have passed some sort of hemp-related legislation. That includes Washington, Oregon, Nevada and Montana.
Nevertheless, cultivation of the plant is still subject to numerous regulations. Anyone who wants to grow the crop has to be licensed or permitted by the state department of agriculture. Some states also require growers to undergo background checks. Hemp continues to be listed as a controlled substance by the federal government, so water from federal reservoirs typically can’t be used to irrigate the crop. Even acquiring the seed to plant an experimental field requires a special import license from the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Many of these barriers would be eliminated by the language Sen. McConnell inserted in the new farm bill, as it removes hemp from the list of controlled substances.
“It’s time the federal government changes the way it looks at hemp,” he said in April, when introducing the legislation. “We’re optimistic industrial hemp can become, sometime in the future, what tobacco was in Kentucky’s past.”
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