MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin has a rich history in hemp cultivation. The state’s soil and climate are ideal for the growth of the crop. Unfortunately, due to federal regulation, hemp cannot be grown in the state, or in any other state.
Hemp was first planted in Wisconsin in 1908. Over the next four decades, the state’s fertile south-central region proved to be a favorable location for cultivation. For many years, Wisconsin stood behind only Kentucky in terms of hemp acreage.
Granted, much of the production of hemp in the twentieth century was dedicated to wartime use. The military employed hemp for a variety of purposes in both World Wars. L.H. Dewey of the USDA once stated that, “Wisconsin hemp is now used in sewing the shoes worn by American soldiers and hemp fiber is at the present time the only suitable fiber available in sufficient quantities for this purpose. It is also used as cordage in ship building, and hemp tow is the best available material for calking vessels.”
Although hemp cultivation all but ceased by the late 1950s, criminalization did not take full effect until the passing of Controlled Substances Act in 1970. Since then, many novel uses for hemp have been discovered and developed.
Hemp can be used in the production of paper, construction materials, insulation, geotextiles, and even foodstuffs. The plant is also promising from an environmental standpoint: in comparison to cotton, the amount of herbicides and pesticides required to grow hemp is negligible.
When Canada lifted a 60 year-old ban on hemp cultivation in 1998, the nation experienced positive effects almost immediately. According to Dr. Dave West, a prominent plant breeder and hemp historian, the Canadian success has demonstrated the usefulness of hemp seed as well as fiber.
“The Canadian industry is benefiting mostly by the seed. The biggest products in Canada are in the nutritional area. You’ve got energy bars that are being made with hemp. You’ve got the virgin oil pressed, good for a lot of things with its omega-3s. It’s like fish oil, gives you the same stuff. It’s got a lot going for it in the nutritional area.”
Many states—North Dakota, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Oregon, California, Montana, West Virginia, and Vermont—have legalized hemp cultivation within their borders. Yet little has changed. Cultivation will not become widespread until the federal ban is repealed, assuring farmers that their actions will not result in legal turmoil.
Those concerned about hemp’s relation to marijuana need not be. The active substance in marijuana—what gives it its mind-altering power, what makes people “high”—is THC. On average, plants used for drug purposes contain around seven percent THC. Industrial hemp, on the other hand, has a THC concentration of less than one percent.
Writes West: “[H]emp fiber had no potential to be diverted into the recreational drug market. Marihuana […was] defined as the flowering tops of the hemp plant. In truth, it is the flowering tops of female, non-fiber Cannabis sativa L. varieties from equatorial regions. Fiber hemp never had psychotropic potential.”
The economic possibilities of hemp cultivation are not limited to farming. The integration of an essentially new material into the productive world would also unlock the potential for growth in manufacturing, warehousing, distribution, and retail. And of course that growth would be accompanied by new jobs.
Perhaps the greatest productive potential lies in hemp’s usefulness is specialty products and in niche markets. Whether it could ever become as ubiquitous as cotton or flax is doubtful but certainly not impossible.
Of course, growers of cotton and flax have an interest in keeping any competition at bay. Powerful, determined lobbying efforts should be expected to contest legalization endeavors.
Maybe legalizing hemp would not change anything. Maybe no one would grow it. Maybe no one would have any use for it. We can only know for sure, however, if the possibility of cultivation exists. There seems to be no legitimate reason not to permit a hemp market.
The promise of a nascent—or rather, renewed—hemp industry should not be underestimated.
Joseph S. Diedrich also writes for the MacIver Institute, The College Fix, Young Americans for Liberty, Conbustible, LibertyBlog.org, Young American Revolution, and Musings of a Superfluous Young Man. Find him on Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and Twitter @JSDiedrich.
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