The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The South says no to marijuana but yes to hemp

A tractor cuts a small plot of hemp at a University of Kentucky research plot near Lexington. The Oregon Agriculture Department has begun accepting applications to grow industrial hemp, in time for spring planting.  (Dylan Lovan/Associated Press)
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For more than 100 years, Jane Harrod’s family set aside a corner of their farm to grow tobacco. The 20 acres they grew when she was a girl was only a fraction of the 400 acres the family owned outside Lexington, Ky., but it promised good money, about $1,000 an acre.

“Most all of us farmers raised some tobacco,” said Harrod, 63. “Tobacco definitely put the clothes on our backs when we were kids.”

But tobacco isn’t the reliable cash crop it once was. That has Harrod and hundreds of other farmers across the South revisiting a plant from deep in the region’s past: industrial hemp.

Known as marijuana’s non-potent cousin, hemp is not likely to replace the billions of dollars that tobacco once provided, but proponents such as Harrod say they’re willing to take a chance on a crop they hope will breathe new life into the South’s family farms.

Those efforts have faced resistance from law enforcement groups that worry that hemp farms could be hiding acres of marijuana, which would become harder to detect.

The South has largely resisted legalizing pot, even for medical use. (Medical marijuana is legal in 23 states and recreational pot is legal in four.) But in states where tobacco once reigned supreme, industrial hemp has come back into vogue.

Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia are among the 20 states that have enacted laws allowing researchers and farmers to revive the long-forbidden plant. And late last month, the North Carolina legislature approved a proposal to do the same; that bill is on the governor’s desk.

The end of federal subsidies for tobacco in 2004 and decreasing popularity of smoking have wiped out much of the crop’s prominence and profitability. The United States grew $1.8 billion worth of tobacco in 2014, a far cry from its peak in 1981, when the country produced $3.5 billion worth, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In Kentucky, 60,000 farms once grew some tobacco, mostly family farmers looking to make extra money, said Will Snell, an agricultural economist at the University of Kentucky. Now, just 4,500 do, as large-scale production has taken on a bigger role and family farmers have been pushed out of the business.

Hemp’s backers acknowledge that the plant probably won’t completely fill the gap left by tobacco, but they hope it will give farmers such as Harrod a new, potentially lucrative option.

The Hemp Industries Association estimates that Americans bought $620 million worth of hemp products last year — including clothing, building materials and food made with hemp seeds, said Eric Steenstren, the industry group’s executive director.

“It’s not the replacement, but it’s part of the solution,” said James Comer, Kentucky’s agriculture commissioner, a Republican who sponsored the state’s hemp bill when he was in the legislature.

The crop has set off something of a gold rush in states such as Kentucky, where hundreds have applied for permits to grow it, Comer said.

Harrod said she will apply to grow five acres next year. She and her siblings stopped growing tobacco in 2002 as the crop was in decline and their mother died of lung cancer. Other alternatives, such as vegetables, hogs and cattle, haven’t made up the difference.

Hemp’s relationship with marijuana has helped fuel some of the interest in the crop. The two plants are different varieties of the same species, Cannabis sativa, but instead of a high, hemp can be turned into material used in clothes and building materials.

Supporters pitch hemp as something of a miracle crop — a plant that can be used to make, among other things, car parts and cannabidiol oil, a chemical that’s thought to help people with severe epilepsy.

Hemp once reigned in the South. Harrod, the Kentucky farmer, says her grandfather grew it during World War II. She figures her ancestors grew it back to her farm’s founding in 1804. But it hasn’t been grown widely since the 1950s.

“We used to believe in this plant so much,” said Tennessee state Rep. Jeremy Faison, a Republican who sponsored the state’s bill to legalize the plant. “In the Southeast, you’re going to see it be a part of our future, just like it was a part of our past.”

Still, the politics haven’t always been cut-and-dry.

State lawmakers have complained that resistance from federal law enforcement has slowed the plant’s reintroduction and kept farmers from planting their seeds on time. (The Drug Enforcement Agency referred questions to the Department of Justice; a department spokesman didn’t return a request for comment.)

When Kentucky’s pilot program hit such roadblocks, it took Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican who represents the state, to clear a pathway for research in the 2014 federal farm bill.

After South Carolina passed a hemp bill last year, the pilot program it was supposed to create never materialized. The Legislature’s bill didn’t specify which agency should set it up.

So lawmakers this year proposed a bill to fill in the gap. It quickly met opposition from the State Law Enforcement Division, which feared hemp could give cover to growers hoping to furtively grow marijuana. The bill never left committee. (The agency declined an interview request.)

In North Carolina, state Sen. Stan Bingham, a Republican, faced similar opposition when he pitched industrial hemp a few years back. When police groups came out against the bill, he dropped the issue.

“I just gave up on it because I couldn’t get it passed,” Bingham said.

But this year, he tried again. Looser federal rules on hemp helped ease the process, and the law enforcement groups didn’t put up a fight. It passed the Legislature last month by a large margin.

“They had some very conservative members that I would’ve thought would’ve voted against this no matter what, but they didn’t. They saw the job opportunities,” Bingham said. “There’s just a lot of things that can be done with this, and I hope we’ll have a bright future.”