Steve Kohller looks out over the winter stubble on his 1,000-acre farm on the Illinois prairie. Several years of poverty prices for corn and soybeans have him dreaming of a new crop, one that would grow as tall as 14 feet and, he says, might someday rival soybeans in terms of cultivated acres throughout the Midwest.
"It's not a savior," he says, wearing only a thin denim jacket against the bitter February cold. "But it may be the answer we've been looking for."
The crop he's talking about is hemp, whose close ties to marijuana have long drawn a stern gaze from authorities. But in farm country, where something close to a depression reigns, the struggle to legitimize industrial hemp is serious business.
Some 27 states have either passed laws favoring hemp or are considering such legislation, according to the North American Industrial Hemp Council (NAIHC). Hemp production is illegal by federal statute, so states generally call on Washington to alter its policy or set up research plots, which are required to be fenced and guarded.
Here in Illinois, legislation that would allow hemp research at the University of Illinois has passed both the state House and Senate and is currently sitting on the governor's desk, awaiting action.
"You aren't going to solve the corn-, soybean-, and wheat-price problems so long as we're producing far beyond our needs and the needs of the world," says Bud Sholts, chairman of NAIHC. "What this country deeply needs - in terms of agricultural development and price stabilization - is an alternative crop of significant acreage that works well in the rotation, which industrial hemp does."
Hemp proponents call it a miracle crop. Its fiber can be blended together to create a fiberglasslike material lighter and stronger than steel, which can be used to make a variety of products, including cars. Hemp can also be used in textiles, building materials, carpeting, even circuit boards.
As a replacement for petroleum-based products, hemp would lessen dependence on foreign oil and is a renewable resource. It is also biodegradable. Hemp car bodies could be shredded and dumped in landfills. More than 30 countries have legalized hemp growing, including Germany, Canada, England, Australia, and France
But in this country, hemp can't shake its shady reputation. Although both sides in the debate acknowledge it's impossible for someone to get high on hemp even if he or she smokes a boatload of it, suspicion lingers.
Drug Enforcement Agency spokeswoman Rogene Waite said a 1998 statement on industrial hemp that equates it with marijuana still represents the agency's policy on the matter, but added the DEA is "currently in the process of reviewing some of the security and other issues surrounding the regulation of industrial hemp."
Robert Weiner, a spokesman for the White House drug policy office, cites a litany of complaints about hemp. "From a plane, it's very difficult to distinguish between marijuana and hemp, so the enforcement side of this would be extraordinarily difficult."
But Paul Mahlberg, a professor of cell biology at Indiana University in Bloomington, says law enforcement in Europe has no trouble telling the two apart. He says hemp grows eight to 14 feet high, is unbranched, and is planted a few inches apart, like a
cornfield. Marijuana plants are typically three to four feet high, branch out like bushes, and need to be planted four feet apart.
Moreover, Professor Mahlberg maintains that planting the two species together would be ill-conceived: When hemp cross-pollinates with marijuana, it cuts the drug's potency in half, making it useless for illicit purposes.
But White House officials also question hemp's value to farmers. "Hemp is not necessarily economically viable," says Mr. Weiner, citing an Agriculture Department report that says US markets for hemp products in 1999 could have been produced on less than 5,000 acres of land.
Jeff Gain, former chair of the USDA's Alternative Agriculture Research and Commercialization Corp., scoffs at the comment.
"Of course, there's no market if they won't let us grow the stuff," he says. "We've told the DEA and the others: Go to Detroit and talk to them, and they'll tell you how important they believe these kinds of fibers are to the future of the automobile industry. It's no secret."
Hemp proponents contend that widespread public misunderstanding about hemp has created an atmosphere in Washington in which potential supporters are silenced out of fear they'll be labeled "soft on drugs," a political kiss of death. Mr. Gain says the same is true of corporations that would benefit from hemp products.
But things may be changing. Mr. Kohller and 37 other farmers here in Illinois have pooled their resources and become minor investors in a hemp-processing plant in Canada, to learn about manufacturing techniques. Their ultimate goal is to build a plant locally, at a cost of as much as $5 million, as soon as hemp is legal again in the US.
And some say that day may not be far off. Gain says sources tell him the draft DEA regulations now circulating in Washington are sympathetic to hemp growers. "I'm very optimistic that some time in the next year or so hemp will be legalized on the federal level," he says. "I truly believe that this crop will rival the soybean industry in about 15 to 20 years."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society