Disclaimer: The quotes are the beliefs/statements of the people interviewed, not the views of Honey Pot or Honeysuckle Magazine.
Shedding its public image as a “plant that gets you high” has been no easy feat, but hemp is finally being recognized for its medicinal value and powerful benefits, on many different levels. In a dramatic change of heart from past years, politicians like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who spearheaded the campaign leading to the federal legalization of hemp with the 2018 Farm Bill, are embracing the idea of hemp cultivation in response to the imminent death of the tobacco industry.Both hemp and tobacco have historically been grown in Kentucky, so why was hemp outlawed for so long, while tobacco was bolstered as the state’s central crop? Both crops can be utilized for medicinal purposes, both are smoked and both have been harvested by taking advantage of slave labor in the past; so why the discord? The differing ways that these crops have been classified has made hemp’s importance and potential in the medicinal, farming and textile industries harder to define until recent years.
In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted a survey, revealing that only 14% of adults in the United States currently smoke cigarettes—a steep decline from tobacco’s peak at 42.4% in 1965. This reduction in tobacco smoking habits has allowed hemp to make a comeback in the industry, picking up where tobacco left off.
Hemp was grown across the U.S until the mid-1930s, when cannabis became regulated as a drug in 35 states due to the Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act in 1934. The act was meant to produce revenue by providing penalties for drug violations, though it did not give states the authority to exercise police power in order to seize the drugs or the ability to punish those responsible. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 put further taxes on the commercial sales of cannabis products. Through this act, farmers could acquire tax stamps for the cultivation of hemp fiber, doctors would be taxed for prescribing cannabis, and pharmacists would be taxed for selling cannabis. Cannabis was officially outlawed with the passing of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970. The CSA made it illegal to utilize hemp in any way, shape, or form—even for medicinal purposes. Efforts have been made time and time again to reschedule cannabis under the CSA, and they have failed continuously—until the 2018 Farm Bill was passed.
Prior to today’s era of recreational and medicinal cannabis, hemp’s value was not backed by science. For that reason, hemp has been much more difficult to purchase than tobacco. Because the crop wasn’t legalized until recently (and growth and selling of hemp is still restricted in numerous states), people have not had the option to choose hemp over tobacco. Tobacco has been sitting on shelves at every gas station and convenience store for decades.
However, as Margaret McKenzie, owner and co-founder of the Salt Creek Hemp Company in Colorado, observes: “[With] the harmful effects of tobacco and the notoriety… of the reputation it’s getting now, [and] lifestyle trends getting more healthy, less people smoking, makes [hemp] a significant change. Big Tobacco is not unaware of that trend. They probably spent [billions of] dollars lobbying against hemp legalization because they saw that coming.”
Craig Lee, former president of the Kentucky Hemp Growers’ Cooperative Association and owner of a 200-acre hemp farm, explains why hemp was outlawed and tobacco given the platform needed for agricultural success. Lee, a native of McConnell’s home state of Kentucky, underscores the role that money, power, and greed played in outlawing hemp. “There was a war going on between hydrocarbon-based society and carbohydrate-based society,” he says. “We were always an agrarian society; we grew what we [ate], we farmed, we did everything. Then the industrial revolution came on and formed the hydrocarbon-based society. These two are the mirror image of each other—the only difference is one you grow, and one you mine. The biggest threat to the hydrocarbon society was hemp.”
The theory is that cannabis was outlawed because hemp products could be made more cheaply than oil-based hydrocarbon products. Hemp threatened the petro-chemical industry as a whole, namely the DuPont Corporation, which invented products made with petroleum. (In 2017, DuPont merged with the Dow Chemical Company.) DuPont feared hemp as a fiber would be tough competition to synthetic nylon and other cellulose-based products. Hemp was then being used to make cars for Ford, while DuPont was a shareholder in Ford’s competitors.
A widely held claim that attempts to answer our question “Why was hemp outlawed in the first place?” is that four collaborators, including DuPont, united to kill the hemp industry by passing the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. DuPont’s leadership collaborated with newspaperman William Randolph Hearst, who had large investments in the timber industry; Andrew Mellon, the Secretary of the Treasury at the time and the country’s wealthiest man, who had remarkable investments in DuPont; and Harry Anslinger, commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the man who drafted the Tax Act. To protect their business interests, these bigwigs allegedly plotted to make hemp illegal.
Before Anslinger headed the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, marijuana was called by the name “Indian Hemp”. Anslinger pointed to Mexicans and Blacks as the primary users of cannabis—publicly referring to it as marijuana, a Mexican name, to link the plant with low-status immigrants who were at the bottom of the social pyramid. This furthered the negative connotation that the government wanted associated with the crop. Cannabis was condemned to extinction by class warfare, racism, and a complicit government whose officials had something to gain from it’s destruction.
The idea of big conglomerate companies—“The Man”—taking useful,environmentally-friendly matters such as hemp from“The Little Man”—farmers—is still something we see echoed today. Even in a time when hemp is increasingly accepted, the people are being separated from the land as a means of wealth.
“This is by design and nobody is going to tell you this,” Lee says. “The government is the big arm of these robber barons.” The picture Lee paints is a canvas of separate moving parts: the government that outlawed the crops, the companies that caused its demise, and conglomerate corporations that are now trying to take advantage of those trying to enter the hemp industry now that it is legalized. “They don’t care about sustainability,” he comments. “They’re all about the dollar. They don’t care if it kills or cures you.”
Some have been quick enough to enter the hemp industry, starting co-ops in order to build a community centered around America’s “new crop”. Tony Silvernail, Organic Transition Trainer for the Organic Association of Kentucky, provides guidance and information to growers considering the move from tobacco to certified organic hemp production. “Now we’re looking at this and a lot of them [the farmers] still have the transplant equipment and other cultivation equipment, everything like that. So they’re like, dusting it off, greasing it up, like, ‘hey let’s put this back to work again’. There’s a lot of crossover there,” Silvernail says. He points out various tools that can be repurposed for the re-emerging crop: “Transplanters, we can use them. You’re seeing these big black barns—they’re drying barns for the tobacco. You’ve gotta dry the hemp and these barns are perfectly set up to do that.”
Since hemp cultivation has been outlawed for the last 80 years, farmers haven’t developed the same level of sophisticated machinery for hemp as they use to harvest other crops. Kentucky farmers have had a head start, thanks to people like Silvernail who are enthusiastically diving into industrial hemp, but they still have a long way to go.
There is a large push to keep hemp organic, as those shifting from varying industries attempt to modify their agricultural techniques to capitalize on the new hemp trend. McKenzie worries that traditional farms used for other crops might try to use unsavory practices on hemp. “I don’t think that, you know, traditional, large agricultural practices are good at all for hemp because they’re based on synthetic fertilizers,” she says. “I think that’s the basis for so much of these diseases and autoimmune problems that we’re seeing in us humans these days, it’s that we are poisoning our own food.”
There will need to be a shift, McKenzie predicts, in how farmers will have to start growing in order to practice agriculture more sustainably. “It’s a huge learning curve because on the large scale it’s very, very difficult, just because of where things are and how [they] have developed to this point,” she notes. “And [we’re seeing] amazing benefits that the grain has… the stalk and the fiber—but farmers aren’t going to grow it if there’s no market for it. So it’s like a cart before the horse-thing… But as it becomes more mainstream, the demand is going to be higher for those products, and it’s going to drive the farming industry to it.”
Hemp has various uses, stemming from its seeds, oils, stalks and fibers. The most popular among its uses is the chemical found in hemp, cannabidiol (CBD). More and more people are calling CBD a “miracle drug” used for treating chronic pain and some of the worst childhood epilepsy syndromes.
However, Lee fears that too many farmers are focused on extracting CBD and neglect its uses as a degradable, renewable replacement for plastics. “CBD is bullshit compared to what the rest of the plant is good for,” he says. “You know, CBD in its own respect doesn’t need to be done by the largest indoor operations; CBDs need to be done by the person who’s got a quarter acre of ground.” The emphasis that consumers, farmers and big businesses have put on CBD serves to overshadow the other boons of hemp that could sweep the nation.
Hemp is the future and has over 25,000 uses just from the plant’s stalk and fibers alone and even puts nitrogen back into the soil it’s grown in. All told, the legalization of hemp could generate billions of dollars in annual budgetary gains for federal, state, and local governments alike. These gains would come from two primary sources: decreases in drug enforcement spending and increases in tax revenue. If a new product came on the market tomorrow that was as addictive and deadly as tobacco is, there is no doubt that quick action and profitization would occur. We have had a blind spot when it comes to the tobacco crop, but we have the power to support a crop that helps the people instead of hurting them; one that is more than ready to re-enter our society.
To learn more about hemp cultivation and resources for hemp growers, check out the Let’s Talk Hemp Summer Solstice digital magazine.