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After 56 years, hemp makes a comeback

David Bronner, maker of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, locks himself in a cage full of hemp plants by Lafayette Square in protest of hemp policy. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

It’s been more than half a century, but hemp is back. Sort of.

Earlier this month, a Colorado man harvested the crop for what advocates say was the first time in 56 years. The legality of his actions are somewhat unclear, but they represent a promising turning point for proponents of the versatile plant that can be used in fabrics, textiles, yarns, paper and carpeting.

“I’m much more hopeful than I have been,” says Tom Murphy, national outreach coordinator for Vote Hemp, a nonprofit that advocates for legal changes that would allow farmers to grow the crop. Thanks to a confluence of state and federal policies, hemp cultivation may not be far off.

Hemp, a plant of the same species as marijuana, falls into a legal gray area. Because it contains trace levels of THC — the substance in marijuana that gets people high — it’s governed by the 1970 Controlled Substances Act. It’s not illegal to grow, but you need a Drug Enforcement Agency permit to do so. And none are currently out there, according to a July Congressional Research Service report.

For a long time, no one pushed back. But then residents in Washington and Colorado voted to legalize recreational use of marijuana last November. And the Justice Department made clear in a late-August memo that it would focus its limited resources on prosecuting pot sale to minors, illegal gang activity involving the drug, interstate trafficking of it and violent crimes involving it. In other words, marijuana is still illegal, authorities said, but we don’t have the resources to prosecute low-level users and uses. Many advocates saw that as a subtle green light to Washington and Colorado. And hemp advocates say it likely applies to that plant, too.

Members of both parties in the House and Senate have backed cultivation of hemp for industrial use. A House-passed version of the farm bill included a provision allowing hemp growing. And legislation in the Senate has been introduced by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Over the past decade and a half, more and more state legislatures have been taking up the industrial-hemp cause through a variety of initiatives, too.

“Most of these have been resolutions calling for scientific, economic, or environmental studies, and some are laws authorizing planting experimental plots under state statutes,” the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service reported.

Ten states have removed barriers from producing industrial hemp, according to VoteHemp, which the CRS report also cites. Those states are California, Colorado, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia. California joined that group just a few weeks ago, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 566.

Eleven states have either passed bills creating commissions, authorizing research or greenlighting hemp studies, according to VoteHemp. This year alone, legislation has been introduced in 20 states.

Niraj Chokshi is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post.

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