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HEMP IN THE 21ST CENTURY

With more and more hemp-derived products showing up in consumer goods these days, there is also substantial confusion about the difference between industrial hemp that's cultivated for its seeds, oil and fiber and marijuana grown for its psychoactive and medicinal properties. Opponents of industrial hemp cultivation in the U.S., including the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), argue that hemp isn't really a commercially viable crop, and charge that proponents are simply seeking a back-door method of legalizing the recreational use of marijuana.

While the arguments made by opponents of legalization of industrial hemp cultivation have some basis in truth - proponents of recreational pot sometimes blur the distinction between the two crops - the reality is that hemp is both economically viable and ecologically sustainable. Through cultivation the industrial varieties of hemp have evolved into a plant that's substantially different both in its botany and use from the varieties used as medicine and as a recreational drug.

To clarify the differences between cannabis grown for industrial purposes versus types cultivated for marijuana calls for some botanical history. The cannabis genus includes three species: Cannabis indica, Cannabis sativa and Cannibis ruderalis. Having been cultivated for around 3,000 years, species have been crossbred by humans for various purposes, resulting in hundreds of strains. The strains cultivated for their seeds, oil and fiber contain infinitesimal quantities of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the main substance responsible for the euphoric effects of recreational and medicinal marijuana. Smoking industrial hemp varieties on the other hand is a recipe for producing a sore throat and perhaps a headache without any compensating buzz.

Hemp is turning up in a vast range of products including foodstuffs, paper, apparel, and many more applications. As just one example, German automaker BMW recently began using a hemp-based composite material as insulation in its automobile doors. While the cultivation of hemp continues to be outlawed in the U.S., the crop is being grown in Canada, Australia, Europe and Asia. U.S. law-enforcement authorities argue that it would be difficult to prohibit pot while permitting industrial hemp farming since the two plants are somewhat similar in appearance. Proponents counter that it's easy to differentiate the two types since varieties grown for industrial use produce a great deal of fiber and seeds, whereas the mediucinal and recreational varieties have few or no seeds and are cultivated to maximize their flowering heads that contain psychoactive compounds.

Cannabis raised for recreational use has at least 3% THC content, with many of the new and most potent strains producing levels of 20% and more. In Canada, the government has issued a list of low-THC cannabis varieties that may be cultivated for industrial hemp. Industrial hemp proponents urge the U.S. to follow Canada's example by establishing a list of permitted industrial hemp varieties. Training law enforcement personnel to discriminate between the two types should be quite easy they maintain.

Following the guidelines of the UN Narcotics Convention, a number of cannabis strains have been developed that contain tiny quantities of THC. Those quantities are reduced further during industrial processing, resulting in end products containing virtually no THC. Despite this, the DEA continues to oppose industrial hemp cultivation arguing that pot proponents are really seeking a "back-door" route to getting all forms of cannabis legalized. On the other hand, recognizing the reality of a burgeoning consumer demand for hemp-based products, in March 2003, the DEA issued rules permitting sale of products such as food, oil, paper and textiles that contain no THC at all.

Today, a large portion of hemp production occurs is in response to the increasing popularity of hemp oil that's rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Hemp fabrics and clothing are also increasing in popularity among consumers. Because hemp requires little or no commercial fertilizers or pesticides, it has become a textile of choice among eco-friendly shoppers.

In May 2011 congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) introduced H.R. 1831, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2011, which would amend the Controlled Substances Act to exclude industrial hemp while differentiating it from marijuana. The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. Capitol Hill watchers don't give the bill much of a chance - similar bills died in committee in each of the last three congressional sessions.

Some states have also legalized or are considering the legalization of industrial hemp. But unless the federal government does an about face by permitting cultivation, U.S. farmers are unwilling to risk growing a crop that might lead to confiscation or arrest. In this regard, the industrial hemp lobby faces the same quandary as proponents of medical marijuana. Even if some states permit its use and cultivation, there is no guarantee that the feds won't enforce the existing laws. Recent raids on medical marijuana gardens by DEA officers have put a chill on that activity while also raising the specter of similar raids on farms producing industrial hemp that may be legal according to state or local laws.

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