Hemp wasn’t always the pet plant of tie-dyed liberals. Its spiky leaves once covered thousands of acres across the country. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew it. An early draft of the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper. Betsy Ross’ flag is said to have been sewn from hemp fabric.
Now, a movement is under way to bring hemp back into the mainstream. In June, a Texas congressman introduced legislation to legalize the growing of hemp in the United States for the first time since 1937. Hemp products are legal in the United States, but growing hemp is not.
In North Carolina, some say the plant—which looks like marijuana but has none of its psychoactive properties—could be salvation for farmers.
“It’s so easy,” said Gale Glenn of Durham, a former Kentucky tobacco farmer who is vice chairwoman of the North American Industrial Hemp Council, which advocates for its legalization. “You close the gate and don’t touch it for months. It’s exactly what farmers need. They don’t need four acres of tomatoes that they have to pick by hand. They need an industrial crop.”
To hear advocates tell it, hemp is a gold mine. It grows almost anywhere without fertilizers or pesticides. Its fibers can be used to make a variety of products, such as auto parts, bleach-free paper and high-quality fabric. Its seeds are a nutritious snack or a source of luxurious oil.
And, though it is in the same family as marijuana, it has such a minuscule amount of THC, the chemical that gets pot smokers high, that it can’t be used for recreational purposes.
“You could smoke four acres of hemp if you wanted to,” Glenn said. “But all you’d have is a terrible headache and sore throat.”
But many farmers in North Carolina are not so eager to jump on the hemp bandwagon—which has been populated for years by the dreadlocked, environmentally conscious and pro-marijuana crowds.
The N.C. Farm Bureau opposes the growing of hemp. President Larry Wooten said the bureau takes its cues from law enforcement groups, which he said are “diabolically opposed” to the crop.
The federal Drug Enforcement Administration, along with many local law enforcement groups, points out that hemp does have small amounts of THC. And they argue that hemp’s similarity in appearance to marijuana would make drug enforcement a nightmare.
“I’m against the manufacture of any illegal substance under the guise of industrial hemp or whatever,” said Wilkes County Sheriff Dane Mastin, president of the N.C. Sheriff’s Association.
It has been a long time since the government had a campaign called “Hemp for Victory,” which encouraged farmers to grow hemp for parachute cords, rope and other military supplies during World War II.
These days, hemp is sold in the United States mostly in the form of high-end clothing in specialty shops and as oil in natural foods shops.
“If farmers plant hemp, who’s going to buy it?” Wooten asked. “Why isn’t the user coming forward saying, ‘We need this product. Help us get it.’?”
He points to kenaf, a crop in the cotton family that has similar uses, as evidence that hemp would flop.
Four years ago, a few Eastern North Carolina farmers planted kenaf as an alternative to tobacco. They put up money for a processing plant and made a deal to sell it to car manufacturers, who used the strong fibers in auto parts. Today, the plant is closed, and the farmers are no longer growing kenaf.
Paul Skillicorn, former president of the now-defunct Carolina Kenaf Farmers Foundation, said they were undercut by jute farmers in Bangladesh.
But hemp advocates say American farmers should at least have the option to supply the existing hemp market. Those who sell hemp products say it’s ridiculous that they have to import all their merchandise.
Frank Brown, who runs Natural Selections in Ocracoke, sells hemp clothing, bags, cosmetics, oils and food products. All of the raw materials for his products come from Asia, South America and Europe.
“Hemp is an incredible, incredible plant,” Brown said. “Even though it’s not politically correct, God put it on Earth for us to use it.”
Staff researcher Becky Ogburn contributed to this report.