Hemp. Serving civilization for 10,000 years. Let’s make it legal again.

Can a crop suffer from prejudice?

Apparently so.

Hemp has been an integral part of human civilization for millennia. Ancient peoples spun its fiber for clothing and ate its seed for nourishment.

In the earliest days of America’s settlement by Europeans, hemp was essential. The Virginia Assembly in 1632 ordered “that every planter as soone as he may, provide seede of flaxe and hempe and sowe the same.” This is because the English Navy required sturdy rigging and sailcloth.

Native Americans grew their own form of hemp — Apocynum cannabinum — but most of the colonists grew the hemp they had brought from Europe — Cannabis sativa. Colonists could even pay their taxes in hemp, and the crop became essential for both ground and naval forces as the colonies fought Britain for their independence.

Hemp stayed an important cash crop — the material made from hemp covered the wagons of western pioneers and provided their clothing, too — all through the 1800s. In the 20th Century, the tide turned as some states criminalized cannabis although the federal government, during World War II, encouraged farmers to grow it in its “Hemp for Victory” campaign.

But in 1970, the federal Controlled Substance Act made it illegal to grow hemp in the United States.

Why?

Because hemp is the same species as marijuana — cannabis. There’s one important difference, though. Hemp has very little THC — tetrahydrocannabinol, the major mind-altering constituent of marijuana.

Jennifer Gilbert Jenkins, a soil scientist at Morrisville State College — the first in the state to get a permit to experiment with hemp — explained the difference between hemp and marijuana by likening it to the difference between grain corn and sweet corn. They are the same species, but grain corn is “disgusting” to eat, she noted, while sweet corn is delicious.

“The difference,” she said, “is they have been bred so that one accumulates starch, and the other, sugar.” Similarly, hemp has been bred to have much less THC — the current legal requirement is .3 percent although the hemp grown at Morrisville this year had 10 times less than that — while marijuana has been bred to have more THC, as much as 15 percent.

That either is considered by the federal government to be a Schedule 1 drug — like heroin, LSD, or cocaine — is absurd. It’s an unfortunate remnant of the conservative reaction to the 1960s era of protest.

The Republican administration of Richard Nixon commissioned a report in 1972 that included a description of marijuana’s uses as a medicine through history — in China, Egypt, and in America from the mid-19th Century to the 1970s.

“In large measure,” the report said, “the marihuana issue is a child of the sixties, the visual and somewhat pungent symbol of dramatic changes which have permanently affected our nation in the last decade … We would de-emphasize marihuana as a problem.”

Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, a conservative Republican from Kentucky, has led the way in reintroducing hemp to America. He backed changes in the Agricultural Act of 2014, known as the Farm Bill, that allowed colleges to grow and conduct research on hemp if states set up such programs.

New York State has, largely pushed by legislative leaders from the Southern Tier. Democratic Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo is proud of the progress that has been made with 115 growers currently licensed.

She saw that industrial hemp was being unfairly locked in with the ban on cannabis, and she also knew it had multiple uses. It can be refined into paper and textiles and can be used for biofuel or for food.

Companies like Audi and Volkswagen use hemp to make biodegradable plastic for car interiors. And hemp can be made into concrete-like blocks for insulation; hemp fibers can replace wood to build breathable homes.

Further, companies in Lupardo’s district, and across the state, are already manufacturing with hemp. But they have to import the raw material from countries, like Canada and in Europe, that allow farmers to grow it.

So McConnell’s current push — to remove non-psychoactive cannabis from the definition of marijuana in the Controlled Substance Act, makes sense. It speaks to core Republican values: creating jobs, expanding the economy, and producing materials here in America rather than importing them from abroad.

Just as McConnell wants to revitalize rural Kentucky economies, Lupardo wants to revitalize upstate New York economies — many towns and cities, like Lupardo’s Binghamton, once had manufacturing bases that have since declined.

“We need federal government to get out of the way,” Lupardo told us.

We agree. We wholeheartedly support the Hemp Farming Act and hope to see it as part of the next Farm Bill.

Last week, we walked through fields of hemp at Indian Ladder Farms in New Scotland, admiring the innovation of Laura Ten Eyck and her husband, Dietrich Gehring, who were part of New York State’s hops revival and now have a thriving cidery and brewery on the farm. As Ten Eyck researched their book on hops, she became curious about hemp, which is in the same family.

She reached out to Gilbert Jenkins at Morrisville who is now investigating the best way to control weeds in hop fields at Indian Ladder Farms. Gilbert Jenkins told us, “We’ve got a hundred years’ worth of research on corn, soy, and wheat.” But research on hemp is more more limited. She said research in Canada and Europe had been going on for about two decades.

Why should the United States lag behind?

Now is the time to end the prejudice — and make progress.

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