ILL. - Steve Kohller looks out over the winter stubble on his
farm on the Illinois prairie. Several years of poverty prices
for corn and soybeans have him dreaming of a new crop, one that
would grow as tall as 14 feet and, he says, might someday rival
soybeans in terms of cultivated acres throughout the Midwest.
not a savior," he says, wearing only a thin denim jacket against
the bitter February cold. "But it may be the answer we've been
The crop he's talking about is hemp, whose close ties to marijuana
have long drawn a stern gaze from authorities. But in farm country,
where something close to a depression reigns, the struggle to
legitimize industrial hemp is serious business.
Some 27 states have either passed laws favoring hemp or are considering
such legislation, according to the North American Industrial Hemp
Council (NAIHC). Hemp production is illegal by federal statute,
so states generally call on Washington to alter its policy or
set up research plots, which are required to be fenced and guarded.
aren't going to solve the corn-, soybean-, and wheat-price problems
so long as we're producing far beyond our needs and the needs
of the world," says Bud Sholts, chairman of NAIHC. "What this
country deeply needs - in terms of agricultural development and
price stabilization - is an alternative crop of significant acreage
that works well in the rotation, which industrial hemp does."
Hemp proponents call it a miracle crop. Its fiber can be blended
together to create a fiberglasslike material lighter and stronger
than steel, which can be used to make a variety of products, including
cars. Hemp can also be used in textiles, building materials, carpeting,
even circuit boards.
As a replacement for petroleum-based products, hemp would lessen
dependence on foreign oil and is a renewable resource. It is also
biodegradable. Hemp car bodies could be shredded and dumped in
landfills. More than 30 countries have legalized hemp growing,
including Germany, Canada, England, Australia, and France
But in this country, hemp can't shake its shady reputation. Although
both sides in the debate acknowledge it's impossible for someone
to get high on hemp even if he or she smokes a boatload of it,
Drug Enforcement Agency spokeswoman Rogene Waite said a 1998 statement
on industrial hemp that equates it with marijuana still represents
the agency's policy on the matter, but added the DEA is "currently
in the process of reviewing some of the security and other issues
surrounding the regulation of industrial hemp."
Robert Weiner, a spokesman for the White House drug policy office,
cites a litany of complaints about hemp. "From a plane, it's very
difficult to distinguish between marijuana and hemp, so the enforcement
side of this would be extraordinarily difficult."
But Paul Mahlberg, a professor of cell biology at Indiana University
in Bloomington, says law enforcement in Europe has no trouble
telling the two apart. He says hemp grows eight to 14 feet high,
is unbranched, and is planted a few inches apart, like a cornfield.
Marijuana plants are typically three to four feet high, branch
out like bushes, and need to be planted four feet apart.
Moreover, Professor Mahlberg maintains that planting the two species
together would be ill-conceived: When hemp cross-pollinates with
marijuana, it cuts the drug's potency in half, making it useless
for illicit purposes.
But White House officials also question hemp's value to farmers.
"Hemp is not necessarily economically viable," says Mr. Weiner,
citing an Agriculture Department report that says US markets for
hemp products in 1999 could have been produced on less than 5,000
acres of land.
Jeff Gain, former chair of the USDA's Alternative Agriculture
Research and Commercialization Corp., scoffs at the comment.
course, there's no market if they won't let us grow the stuff,"
he says. "We've told the DEA and the others: Go to Detroit and
talk to them, and they'll tell you how important they believe
these kinds of fibers are to the future of the automobile industry.
It's no secret."
Hemp proponents contend that widespread public misunderstanding
about hemp has created an atmosphere in Washington in which potential
supporters are silenced out of fear they'll be labeled "soft on
drugs," a political kiss of death. Mr. Gain says the same is true
of corporations that would benefit from hemp products.
But things may be changing. Mr. Kohller and 37 other farmers here
in Illinois have pooled their resources and become minor investors
in a hemp-processing plant in Canada, to learn about manufacturing
techniques. Their ultimate goal is to build a plant locally, at
a cost of as much as $5 million, as soon as hemp is legal again
in the US.
And some say that day may not be far off. Gain says sources tell
him the draft DEA regulations now circulating in Washington are
sympathetic to hemp growers. "I'm very optimistic that some time
in the next year or so hemp will be legalized on the federal level,"
he says. "I truly believe that this crop will rival the soybean
industry in about 15 to 20 years."