This week, May 2-8, is Hemp History Week. A more accurate title would be “Legalize Industrial Hemp” Week, as that is the purpose of these next several days, during which 550 events related to the promotion of hemp will occur across all 50 U.S. states.
The first such week was held last year. Hemp products are currently legal, evident in the cereals, supplements, milk substitute, and protein powders sold in stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. The issue, however, is that companies import 20 tons of hemp oil from Canada to create a market that last year was worth at least US$400 million. The reason? Since the mid-20th century, industrial hemp has been banned in the United States because the government does not distinguish between food- and industrial-grade hemp and the other member of the Cannabis family that makes you high. At least six states have authorized farmers to grow the crop, but very few do because of the risk that federal agents will destroy their yield.
It was not always this way. Hemp farming in the United States dates back to the colonial era. Hemp was a staple from the 1600s until the mid-19th century, and founding fathers including George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson grew the crop. With the backlash against marijuana smoking in the 1920s and 1930s, however, the U.S. government declared hemp a narcotic with the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937–later legislation outright banned it. The U.S. Department of Agriculture briefly allowed hemp farming during World War II to help the war effort, and George H.W. Bush’s parachute that saved his life in late 1944 was reportedly made from hemp. Henry Ford also built an experimental car body made with hemp fiber. Despite advances in paper and pulp processing and the promise of new uses in thousands of other products, hemp farming has still been illegal in the U.S. since post-World War II.
Since 1998 the U.S. as allowed the import of food-grade hemp, and companies including Nature’s Path, Nutiva, and Manitoba Harvest make a bevy of products from breakfast cereals to high-protein supplements. Washington DC is also starting to get it, as politicians with diverse views from Barney Frank to Ron Paul have introduced legislation to legalize industrial hemp production. For now that bill languishes in Congress, but hemp products have become more popular. The benefits are numerous: easy to farm with almost no need for herbicides or pesticides, easily gaining the “organic” label for farmers; adaptability to most climates; promise as a biofuel feedstock; potential for water remediation technologies; and building materials. For the hemp lobby, however, the road ahead is a long one.
Most of this week’s events focus on food, and it is easy to see why. Shelled hemp seeds taste like sunflower seeds, and hemp protein powder is a good post-workout or meal replacement without the chalky taste of other health supplements. To learn more, visit an event locator here.