Illustration Cannabis sativa clean" by Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé

Illustration Cannabis sativa clean" by Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé

Cannabis is like our friend the dog. Seriously. It can be bred to produce a variety of species that appear to be quite different from one another. Large Labrador Retrievers may seem to be an entirely different species than tiny Toy Poodles, but they are both canines nonetheless. Such is hemp to its storied cousin, marijuana, better known by its scientific name, Cannabis. It is but one plant with many uses.  
  As a species of the genus Cannabis sativa L, hemp is characterized not only by its tall, strong stalks, but also by its trace amounts of the THC that produces the well-known high. Still, hemp carries much of the same baggage as its well-known cousin, inhibiting development of those many uses. Via the courts, state legislatures and other regulatory bodies, hemp and its constituent products are finally beginning to establish footholds in the global market place.

 The cultivation of hemp appears to have originated in China. Human migration took it westward into Asia and Europe where cultivation for fiber and seed was widespread by the 16th Century. Hemp was brought to the New World by the Pilgrims for spinning and weaving and then spread south and west to Virginia and Kentucky. The hemp industry flourished through the mid-Twentieth Century to satisfy cloth and cordage needs for World War II. After 1945, production rapidly declined largely due to narcotics laws enacted against its cousin, marijuana.   

  The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) that governs the availability of drugs in the U.S. was enacted in 1970. Despite a long history of use, marijuana was placed in the most restrictive Schedule I, where truly dangerous substances like heroin and LSD reside. The federal government takes a “one plant” stance by categorizing the entire Cannabis plant into Schedule I. Confusion abounds with this classification, since hemp often contains only trace amounts of THC.  

  Under the CSA, cannabis can only be grown with a permit from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and of course, the DEA is quite stingy with its permits. As a result, most hemp products in the USA are derived from imported hemp. The DEA has articulated a “plain language” interpretation of the CSA – zero tolerance for any THC whosoever.

  In reaction, the 2014 Farm Bill contained an amendment to permit research institutions and state agriculture departments to grow industrial hemp in states where cultivation is legal. Kentucky moved quickly to set up pilot programs, only to have the necessary imported seeds blocked at the airport by the DEA citing to the lack of the required permit. The DEA ultimately released the seeds, but left hemp production clouded with uncertainty.

  Congress moved quickly in 2015 to pass an appropriations bill to block federal enforcement authorities from interfering with state agencies, hemp growers and related agricultural research projects. This green-lighted states such as Kentucky, Tennessee and Colorado to begin planting hemp. Sorry to say, Ohio is not among these states and has no hemp legislation pending.

  As hemp production rolls out, our state stands to lose out on a billion dollar industry. China, where it all began, is one of the globe’s largest producers of hemp and largest supplier to the United States. Global hemp cultivation was estimated in 2013 at 200,000 acres and 380 million pounds. The U.S. market has been valued at $581 million retail. Hemp foods and supplements alone total about $184 million. All of these figures are unofficial because of the legal tug-of-war that still constrains the hemp industry.

  The aforementioned sales dollars come from these uses:

  • Hemp bast fibers: strong, durable fibers for rope, twine, paper, fabrics, textiles, carpeting, car parts and more.

  • Hemp hurd: cellulose-rich, short fibers for animal bedding, low-quality paper, insulation and fiberboard.

  • Whole hemp stalk: biofuels, ethanol, synthetic gas and methane.

  • Hemp oil: nutritious foods for humans and animals, personal care products. Also, paints, varnishes, inks and industrial lubricants, biodiesel.

  On a final policy note, the DEA is not the only federal agency to vie with the growing commercialization of hemp. Companies claiming to market medicinal hemp oil containing low quantities of THC often tout high quantities of CBD, another component of the cannabis plant. In March 2015, the FDA, which governs the labeling of pharmaceutical drugs, warned a number of these companies against making medical claims. In May, the agency stepped up its enforcement by telling these companies that CBD cannot be sold as a dietary supplement. This action could strike at the heart of the billion-dollar hemp oil food and supplement market. The direction the FDA will ultimately take is unclear, but it again illustrates the uncertainty that defines the hemp marketplace.

  Will hemp finally escape the shroud imposed by marijuana? Will Congress continue its laisse faire approach toward hemp farming in legal states? Will the DEA and FDA crack down on hemp production and products as still subject to the CSA?

  Times are changing and with change comes new possibilities. Hopefully, the various species of the Cannabis plant will ultimately be used to their fullest potential. Much like our canine friends, every dog will have its day.

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