For 80 years, hemp and marijuana were legally bound together. Now, thanks to some enterprising Kentuckians, they are poised to get a divorce.
Four congressmen — two Kentucky Republicans, a Virginia Republican, and a Colorado Democrat — have introduced legislation to remove hemp from the federal list of controlled substances. The bill has the support of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the powerful libertarian senator Rand Paul, both also from Kentucky.
If the bill passes, hemp — a plant as likely to get you stoned as a cup of soybeans — will become legal to grow everywhere. It will be a major reversal of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which essentially made both plants illegal to grow, and the 1970 law that designated them both equal to heroin and more dangerous than opioids.
If it passes, the law will be good for rural Maryland. Several farmers around Frederick and the Eastern Shore have expressed interest in growing industrial hemp, a plant with many uses. It can be spun into fiber for clothing, pressed into oil for cooking, processed into food and used for insulation in everything from houses to automobiles. Its active ingredient, cannabidiol, was long used in medicines to treat conditions ranging from the common headache to epilepsy.
In the 1950s, the U.S Department of Agriculture determined that the Hagerstown area had some of the finest soils in the country to grow and cultivate hemp. And in the 1990s, in an under-the-radar experiment near Queenstown, hemp grew well in more modern conditions. (Hemp and marijuana do not grow well together; they cross- pollinate and neutralize each other’s active ingredients, thus making it hard to hide a patch of weed in a hemp field.)
It will be good for Baltimore, too. The city, situated in an ideal transportation hub, has the available warehouse space to house small factories to transform the hemp into useful products. Baltimore also has the biomedical know-how with Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland, and the fiber arts infrastructure with Maryland Institute College of Art. In Under Armour, Baltimore has a large company interested both in working with hemp and in bringing back manufacturing jobs from overseas. And the city’s maker culture could spawn small companies producing small-batch hemp oils, salves, granola bars and lotions.
But Maryland is already behind on hemp, and a new regulation introduced last month will not help it catch up.
The 2014 Farm Bill authorized state agriculture departments to create and commercialize industrial hemp research programs in partnerships with universities. Several states registered farmers to grow hemp and kept an eye on their progress through their agriculture departments. The farmers are allowed to experiment on their own with how to harvest, where to harvest and where to sell. No state did as much with hemp as Kentucky, which had acres of tobacco fields seeking new life after the tobacco settlement. This year, more than 200 farmers in the Bluegrass State will grow 13,000 acres of industrial hemp — more than all other states combined. Kentucky has 40 processors, 525,000 feet of greenhouse space and dozens of jobs in Louisville processing and selling hemp products.
In contrast, the Maryland Assembly has failed, for the past three years, to create a university program that would grow hemp for research purposes, then process it and market it commercially.
Last month, Maryland introduced a new regulation that only universities can grow hemp and only on university farms, and that the plant must be fenced in and destroyed when the experiments end. The comment period on this law extends until Aug. 21 (send comments to email@example.com).
If the new regulation goes into effect, there can be no hemp processing in Maryland, no testing to see how it best travels, no commercialization. Though Maryland has passed a provision stating the federal hemp statute will apply here if it passes, new hemp businesses may not want to take a chance on a state that doesn’t have its infrastructure ready. Virginia and Pennsylvania, which recently began hemp programs and already have growers, might be more attractive.
Curiously, though hemp was banned because of its association with marijuana, Maryland’s marijuana growing rules are poised to be less restrictive.
Hemp won’t get you high. But it will create jobs, improve soil, protect the environment and heal many of the diseases that ail us. Instead of putting restrictions on it, Maryland should follow Kentucky’s example and let hemp flourish.
Rona Kobell, a former Sun reporter, is the author of Hope for Hemp: A Misunderstood Plant Prepares for its Comeback, published by the Abell Foundation. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.