News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

February 23, 2014

EDITORIAL: State’s next cash crop?

Versatile ‘weed’ offers options for farmers, businesses, workers

TERRE HAUTE — It’s historical. It was cultivated in Mesopotamia as early as 8000 B.C.

It’s resilient. It was widely used to make ships’ rigging, sails, tents, ropes, parachute webbing and military uniforms.

It’s patriotic. Betsy Ross is said to have used material made from it in the first U.S. flag from it.

It’s artistic. Rembrandt and Van Gogh painted on canvases made from it.

It’s newsmaking. The colonists printed our fledgling nation’s first newspapers on paper made from it — paper that can last hundreds of years without degrading.

It’s documented. Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution on paper made from it.

It’s presidential. George Washington grew it and encouraged all citizens of his era to sow it widely.

It’s fuel-efficient. Rudolph Diesel is said to have extracted its oil to power his engines.

It’s environmental. Paper made from it can be recycled many more times than paper made from trees, and cultivating it for paper takes fewer toxic chemicals during manufacturing than does paper made from trees.

It’s all that.

And it’s banned in Indiana and 39 other states.

It’s hemp, a fast-growing, copiously spreading commodity that a reporter in our newspaper last week called “pot’s less potent cousin.”

The cousin connection is that hemp comes from the same species of plant, Cannabis sativa, as marijuana. But it lacks the drug effects that pot packs. The science of the matter says that hemp, compared with pot, contains much, much, much less THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the chemical that induces a marijuana high. Hemp typically contains less than 0.33 percent THC, compared with 20 to 30 percent in marijuana.

Despite this significant difference, hemp was banned as part of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. That came after hemp had been widely cultivated and used for decades in the United States, including for many products, military and domestic, during World War II. During World War I, Indiana was among states growing hemp.

Now, as mellower perspectives are prevailing, 10 states have legalized hemp.

More states may soon follow suit, because the new federal farm bill, passed by Congress on Feb. 4 and signed into law by President Obama on Feb. 7, will let universities and state agriculture departments start industrial hemp research programs. But only in states in which hemp is legal.

Indiana needs to become state No. 11 to legalize hemp production — because of hemp’s amazing versatility as a source of a wide range of commodities, its ability to grow like a weed (because it is one) in all sorts of ground, and because there are millions of dollars for Hoosier farmers and businesses to cash in on from hemp sales.

An advocacy group called Vote Hemp estimates the U.S. market for hemp at $500 million in annual sales. Our southern neighbor, Kentucky, a hemp-legal state, appears ready to begin to tap into that market. Just last Monday its agriculture commissioner announced five state university projects to test whether planting hemp on sites formerly poisoned by industrial toxins — brownfields — can decontaminate the soil.

Hemp growth in our state and others could help meet a domestic need in which American-grown hemp could drastically cut into the $11.5 million in hemp products that our nation imported in 2011, according to The Associated Press.

In Indiana, it is legal to import hemp, as does an Elkhart County business that spends $1 million a year to import hemp for use inside auto doors and armrests. Yes, it is legal to import hemp to Indiana, but not to grow it.

That appears about to change. Advancing in the Indiana Legislature is a bill that would allow hemp to be grown as “an agricultural product … subject to regulation by the state.”

Under that bill, hemp growers and handlers would have to be licensed, the Indiana State Police would regularly visit hemp fields to test that they meet the agricultural definition, and other stringent standards would have to be achieved and maintained.

The bill passed the Indiana Senate, 48-0, on Feb. 3 and has been sent to the House of Representatives’ Agriculture and Rural Development committee. Fortunately, Rep. Alan Morrison, R-Seelyille, is vice chairman of that House committee, and Rep. Kreg Battles, D-Vincennes, is a minority member. We hope both help advance the bill to the House floor and ultimately to the governor for his signature.

The bill seems to have wide bipartisan support, which it should, because it is not a partisan issue.

Hemp is not pot. Hemp is a cash crop with the potential to help Indiana’s farmers, its manufacturers, its workers, its economy, its ecology and its employment numbers.

Hemp should become legal in Indiana, so our state can join Kentucky and nine other states in sowing its seeds and reaping its benefits.

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