Will Hemp Help?

I’m hardly an investment adviser, but here’s how I’d update the advice Mr. McGuire offered Benjamin in the 1967 movie The Graduate: “I just want to say one word to you. One word. Are you listening? Hemp.

Hemp is the nondrug variety of the cannabis plant, and it has many uses, including the production of fiberboard, paper, rope, and comfortable and enduring fabric. In addition — and I’m not making this up — hemp is a natural source of protein, amino acids and omega-3 fatty acids, so you’ll find it in salad dressings, granola bars and cereals. It’s also an ingredient in soaps, shampoos and skin care products. Historians say humans have been growing hemp for more than 10,000 years; the Gutenberg Bible was printed on hemp paper. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were hemp farmers, Abraham Lincoln burned hemp oil in his lanterns, and in 1942, Henry Ford built an experimental car using hemp fiber and declared it “10 times stronger than steel.”

Hemp, much like bamboo, literally grows like a weed, reaching maturity in 90 days. It generally can be grown without pesticides or herbicides, and unlike cotton, hemp requires very little water. Once it’s harvested, the remaining roots create humus that enriches the soil. Northern California’s dry, moderate climate is ideal for hemp. West Marin farmers, are you listening?

Here’s the catch: For the past 50 years, because hemp and marijuana are both within the same species — cannabis sativa L. — federal law has prohibited its cultivation in the United States. Many blame it on the hysteria born of America’s hardly successful war on drugs. But, and this is what Mr. McGuire might’ve also told Benjamin, “That’s about to change.”

Just months ago, Marin’s erstwhile state Sen. Mark Leno authored, the state Legislature passed, and Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the California Industrial Hemp Farming Act (SB 566). "With this bill, California farmers are poised to grow industrial hemp once the federal government gives states the green light,” said Leno last September. “It’s only a matter of time before a farmer’s right to grow hemp is restored.”

Though both are the same species, mari- juana is mostly a sun-loving, carefully tended, bush like plant with branches that yield flowers where the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the plant’s psychoactive component, is concen- trated. Hemp, untended, can grow to heights of 16 feet. And here’s a major difference: Marijuana contains 3 to 20 percent THC, while hemp has less than .3 percent THC.

Currently, Hemp is legally grown in Canada, Germany, France and Russia; also in China and Romania from which the U.S. imports most of its hemp to supply a $500 million hemp industry (it’s legally used for making auto panels and dashboards and the aforementioned clothing, food and toiletry products, as well as paper). Legislation to legalize the growing of hemp has been intro- duced in both houses of Congress and awaits Drug Enforcement Administration evaluation before what appears to be certain passage.

“I’m not an expert on hemp,” says Helge Hellberg, former executive director of Marin Organic, a nonprofit that champions organic farming in West Marin, “but I do know agri- culture and how savvy organic farmers are. If hemp can become an economically viable crop, they’ll figure out how to do it. There’s no reason hemp could — or should — not be raised in West Marin.” Hellberg, who for the past four years has narrated An Organic Conversation, a national radio program con- centrating on healthy lifestyle choices, adds, “I support the legalization of hemp production in California. It’s far more sustainable than, say, cotton, which uses an immense amount of not only water but pesticides; hemp requires little water and no pesticides. Outlawing hemp makes no sense at all.”

Hemp has an exciting future in Marin County, especially West Marin. Growing it could revitalize the family farm, provide hundreds of jobs and bolster Marin’s econ- omy; agriculture, after all, is the county’s highest-grossing industry. That’s my point of view. What’s yours?

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