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The other Cannabis legalization story

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Cally Carswell | May 15, 2013 09:53 AM

There were obvious ways to avoid being drafted into combat during World War II: Be a woman. Or a man younger than 18. Or a man of prime age who was somehow "physically, mentally or morally" unfit. And then there were less apparent avenues. For instance: grow hemp. The government would not only allow you to stay home, they'd even give you the seeds and provide cultivation tips, as they did in the propaganda film “Hemp for Victory.”

Surprisingly enough, this government-sponsored pro-hemp campaign launched just a few years after the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act was passed to discourage the use of mind-altering varieties of Cannabis sativa L. -- but not hemp, a distinct type of Cannabis sativa L. containing only trace amounts of THC, the ingredient that attracts tokers to pot like fruit flies to an overripe banana. The U.S. Army imported Manila hemp fiber from the Philippines to make uniforms, rope and canvas, but the Japanese cut off the supply after seizing control of the country. And so the task of growing fiber for the armed forces fell to patriotic farmers right here at home, who responded to the call of duty: Between 1942 and 1945, some 400,000 acres were in hemp production, and the raw materials were processed by hemp mills built by War Hemp Industries, Inc.

This little history lesson speaks to the curious nature of contemporary drug laws, which have made domestic hemp cultivation, though not technically illegal, effectively so. If there was ever a time where momentum was moving in the right direction to change that, though, it seems to be now.

When Coloradans voted to legalize recreational marijuana use last fall, they also legalized hemp farming. This week, a southeast Colorado farmer planted the first crop. The Kentucky legislature just passed a bill to create a licensing system for hemp growers. (Hemp is being eyed there as a crop that could replace tobacco, which has become less profitable.) And Kentucky senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, along with Oregon senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, are co-sponsoring federal legislation to end hemp’s tenure as a controlled substance.

And there’s the rub. In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act replaced the Marihuana Tax Act, because lawmakers and regulators realized it didn’t make sense to tax something you really wanted to prohibit (i.e. THC-rich varieties of Cannabis). The new act adopted language from the old act defining “marihuana” as including all parts of the Cannabis sativa L. plant except the “mature stalks of such plant, fiber produced from such stalks, oil or cake made from the seeds of such plant” – language that was meant to differentiate between the industrial uses of hemp, and the recreational uses of marijuana. However, the CSA made hemp a Schedule 1 controlled substance, just like pot, meaning growers have to be permitted by the Drug Enforcement Administration, whose practice it is to deny applications for such permits. Courts have repeatedly held that the law unambiguously gives DEA the authority to do so.

The arguments for legalizing hemp farming are many. It can be used in everything from food to cosmetics to clothing to paper to beer to building supplies – even as a substitute for petroleum products in the making of plastic. And perhaps most importantly, it is not pot. There is really only one argument for continuing to prohibit it: that if people were growing hemp everywhere, it’d be difficult for law enforcement to police pot production. The crops look too similar, the logic goes, and hemp fields might be used to hide pot plants. This argument is a little flimsy, though, because hemp fields would in fact be inopportune places to conceal marijuana plants due the possibility of cross-pollination, which could reduce the potency of the pot. And licensing and registration systems for hemp producers in other countries where marijuana is still illegal work quite well. The cops know where the hemp is, they can inspect it and make sure growers comply with rules and regulations, and criminals aren't interested in setting up shop where the authorities expect them to be.

But unless the CSA is amended swiftly, Colorado’s first hemp farm will simply have to go about their business with fingers crossed. Colorado’s hemp law contradicts federal law just as its recreational pot law does. The question for both industries is whether the feds will turn the other cheek.

"My goal has been to see Colorado hemp farmers put seeds in the ground without interference from the federal government," Lynda Parker, a hemp advocate, recently told Westword. "We're not quite there. Once the harvest happens and we see no DEA agents, then my goal will have been accomplished."

Cally Carswell is the assistant editor at High Country News.

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