Christopher Boucher never thought marijuana would be legalized before industrial hemp. “You’re crazy – that’ll never happen; industrial hemp will be legal first,” he told friends over 20 years ago, when he first got into the hemp business. Boucher is vice president of US Hemp Oil, a California-based company that imports, processes, researches and plans infrastructure for industrial hemp. Their sister company, Hemp Meds PX, produces and sells the products made with US Hemp Oil’s imports. US Hemp Oil imports its hemp mainly from Europe, but they plan to set up a processing plant in Colorado next year, where industrial hemp is now legal following the legalization of recreational marijuana earlier this year. “It’d be an economic boon to rural communities,” said Boucher. He is one of the leading experts on industrial hemp in the U.S. and has been working with the substance for 20 years. He says hemp could be the “most successful agro-economic commodity in the last 60 years.” Linda Booker, the producer and director of “Bringing It Home,” a new documentary on the hemp industry, agrees. “Farmers are definitely looking for alternative crops,” Booker said.
The first commercial hemp harvest in 56 years took place in October, when Ryan Loflin of Colorado rounded up 45 volunteers to help harvest his 55-acre crop, according to the Denver Post. But Loflin’s harvest and Boucher’s planned processing plant won’t be entirely legal — hemp farming is still considered illegal by the U.S. Federal Government. Permits can be granted by the Drug Enforcement Agency but the agency has yet to issue one of these permits. However, the federal government stated publicly earlier this year that they will not prosecute marijuana-related offenses in states that have legalized the substance. It still could be a while before commercial farmers can begin planting in most states. The House of Representatives introduced two bills in February that would amend the Controlled Substances Act to allow industrial hemp farming. Both were later added to the 2013 Farm Bill, however neither were passed onto the Senate for approval and were left out of the bill. Ten other states are waiting for the federal government to reclassify hemp. California, one of the most recent additions to that list, passed SB-566 in September, allowing the state’s farmers to prepare to grow industrial hemp should a federal law pass.
In the meantime, millions of dollars of hemp and hemp products are imported into the United States every year, and that number continues to grow. In 2012, hemp product imports have increased 300 percent over the last several years, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. Another 2012 estimate puts the value of U.S. hemp imports from Canada and China at $2 billion — money that could be generated by companies like US Hemp Oil. “This could be a billion-dollar industry,” Boucher said. “It enhances the middle class, which we’ve really destroyed.” Hemp product revenues reached $500 million in the U.S. last year, according to the Hemp Industries Association, which was co-founded by Boucher in 1992. While domestic farmers wait, Canada controls 90 percent of the U.S. hemp seed and food market. Hemp is an extremely versatile crop, according to Boucher.
“What other crop can you make food, plastic, clothing?” Boucher said. “Corn, wheat, soy. Now add hemp in there.” Many major European and American car manufacturers, like Ford and Mercedes-Benz are using hemp fiber in their door panels and other areas of their vehicles. “We laugh now; hemp’s not for hippies anymore,” said Booker. The food and nutrition industry is one of the fastest growing sectors for hemp products according to Booker, but it’s hemp housing that piqued her interest in the material. Hemp housing is sustainable, recyclable, carbon-negative and blocks the growth of mold and mildew. “It’d be a great crop to re-introduce,” she said.Reintroducing hemp as a crop would also require adjusting the public’s views on hemp and its relation to marijuana. Boucher says a large majority of the American public think the two are the same thing, and don’t know that hemp and its byproducts contain less than 0.3 percent THC – the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. “You say ‘marijuana’ and everybody knows what that is,” Boucher said. And Booker says the marijuana stigma is what’s preventing hemp from being reclassified. “What is takes is education,” Booker said.
Boucher says that many of the misconceptions about industrial hemp exist because of the misinformation distributed by the government. In August, the Air Force banned Blueberry Power Flip flavor of Chiobani brand Greek yogurt because it contains hemp seed, according to the Huffington Post. Twenty years ago, even Boucher’s girlfriend had a hard time shaking hemp’s association with the drug. After meeting the founder of the industrial hemp movement, Jack Herer, author of what Boucher calls “the hemp bible” the book The Emperor Wears No Clothes, he decided to start making the clothing he sold at the time from hemp. When Boucher told her about his plans, “she said, “You can’t make clothes out of pot!’” But not enough companies are catching on. Boucher says that one of hemp’s biggest obstacles to legalization is that the movement hasn’t organized to bring in other national groups, manufacturers, and money, the biggest factors that helped legalize marijuana. “It’s still all a volunteer army,” he said. Booker says there is a pretty good showing of bi-partisan support within the government, though hemp legalization needs support from everyone, “from farmers to green builders to consumers.” “There’s a lot of things we’re fighting against, but this is something positive that we can say yes to,” she said. “If they want to see this happen, they have to take action.”
BY KATHARINE LOTZE