Cannabis activists are in high spirits today, having won a symbolic victory by hoisting an American flag made of hemp over the Capitol building in Washington D.C. The men responsible are Michael Bowman, a Colorado farmer who is lobbying for hemp cultivation to be legalized, and Congressman Jared Polis (D-Colo.), a member of the powerful House Rules Committee (and the first openly gay House freshman to be elected). The flag will fly over the Capitol Dome during July 4, giving patriots and cannabis enthusiasts alike something to celebrate.
Hemp, a fiber and seed crop, is a type of cannabis plant, a cousin of the plant that produces marijuana. It is used to make a wide variety of products such as paper, cloth, biofuel, building materials, and even auto parts, among other things. Hemp is different from its notorious cousin in that it contains negligible amounts of THC. It was once so widely used that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew cannabis for both profit and personal use. But while the idea of our founding fathers toking up is amusing, there is no evidence that they actually grew marijuana, as opposed to hemp.
Bowman and others believe that it is this conflation of hemp with marijuana that is responsible for it currently being illegal to grow under federal law. Yet despite that prohibition, the U.S. is the world's number one consumer of hemp, with total sales reaching $500 million dollars in 2012. Unfortunately, that money is bennefiting Canadian, rather than American farmers. 90% of the hemp consumed in the United States is produced in Canada, where it has been legal since 1998.
Bowman and many farmers would love to see hemp made legal here, so that money could be used to boost the U.S. economy, rather than Canada's. Growing hemp is currently legal in 11 states, but because federal law trumps state law, farmers can't grow it without federal approval or else they would be ineligible for federal farm subsidies for five years.
Kentucky recently attempted to lobby for federal approval. Back in May, Kentucky Senators Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell tried to push for an amendment to the recently-failed "farm bill" that was then being debated in Congress. The amendment would have removed hemp from the federal government’s list of controlled substances, where it has been listed since 1970 as a Schedule I substance. Schedule I means that hemp is officially considered to be as dangerous as heroin, and more dangerous than opium or morphine.
The death of the farm bill in June means that the only other option for Kentucky growers would be to ask the Drug Enforcement Administration (D.E.A.) for a waiver to grow the crop. Seeing as other states have previously tried and failed to obtain these waivers, success is not likely.
After the flag flies over the Capitol Dome, Bowman plans to send it to fly it over the Colorado State House, and then on to Vermont, where he will try to persuade state lawmakers there to make it legal. As for Congressman Polis, he has previously made a name for himself as a forceful advocate for marijuana legalization. In June, the House passed a bill sponsored by Polis that would permit universities to grow hemp for academic research. He introduced a bill today to legalize marijuana nationwide.