With the prices of corn, soybeans and other commodities at their lowest levels in years, and the agricultural community taking an economic beating, twenty-one states have either passed or considered bills related to the legalization of industrial hemp. That was the case in Illinois this week as the Senate, by a vote of 49-9, passed a bill that would provide $375,000 for a two-year study by the University of Illinois on the potential benefits of hemp to that state's beleaguered farmers. The bill now goes to the House.
Barry McCaffrey, however, sees industrial hemp not as a boon to farmers but rather as a threat to the nation.
In a letter faxed Monday (2/28) to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), the White House "Drug Czar" warned against the House's adoption of the plan.
"The federal government is concerned that hemp cultivation may be a stalking-horse for the legalization of marijuana," McCaffrey wrote.
But state Senator Evelyn Bowles (D-Evansville) strongly disagrees with McCaffrey's assessment. Senator Bowles told The Week Online that she is disappointed in McCaffrey's interpretation of the bill.
"It is absolutely ludicrous to put that (drug-related) connotation on the intention of this bill," said Senator Bowles. "What we are trying to get done here is simply a study for the purpose of exploring a legitimate agricultural option. We hope to study all aspects of industrial hemp, from its economic potential for Illinois' farmers to the potential for growing hemp with zero THC. The agriculture departments at the Universities of Illinois and at Southern Illinois would undertake this study."
"Agriculture in Illinois is as depressed as it's been probably since the 1800's," Senator Bowles continued. "In looking at the industrial hemp issue, it has become apparent to me that it has the potential to be a definite positive as an alternative crop for farmers in our state. I would note that the Farm Bureau and the soil and water management people are very supportive of this study."
Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, told The Week Online that the Speaker has not yet commented publicly on the letter.
"The Speaker has said that he is in receipt of the letter, and he has circulated it to the House, so that people can draw their own conclusions," he said.
Madigan, a conservative Democrat who has been a member of the House for 26 years, and Speaker for all but a brief time since 1983, doesn't want to influence his colleagues by taking a position until all the facts are before them. But according to Brown, he has not exactly been swayed by McCaffrey's take on the matter either.
"He (Madigan) wants to listen to the entire debate on the bill before coming to a decision," said Brown. "But the bill calls for a study by two prestigious universities, with all kinds of safeguards in place including low THC seeds from a secure source. Agriculture is an enormous industry in this state, and they're having a tough time. As far as we can tell, the people who want to see this passed have legitimate agricultural interests at stake here. The Speaker views this bill as a sincere effort to study industrial applications of hemp."
The Week Online has obtained a copy of McCaffrey's letter, which outlines the administration's concerns. In addition to the statement regarding hemp as a "stalking horse for marijuana legalization" (which appears in the letter in bold type), McCaffrey expresses concern about the impact of edible, low-THC hemp products on the reliability of drug testing. The letter reads in part:
"Over the past two years, the DEA has received information that sterilized cannabis seed, not solely bird seed, has been imported for the manufacture of food products intended for human consumption. DEA also learned from the Armed Forces and other federal agencies that individuals who tested positive for marijuana use subsequently raised their consumption of these food products as a defense against positive drug tests. Consequently, the Administration is reviewing the importation of cannabis seeds and oil because of their THC content. The National Institute on Drug Abuse is studying the effects of ingesting hemp products on urinalysis and other drug tests."
But Erwin Sholts, Director of Agricultural Development and Diversification for the state of Wisconsin, and Director of the North American Industrial Hemp Council told The Week Online that McCaffrey's rationale is less than compelling.
"Did you know that if you eat a poppy seed bun you'll test positive for opiates for the next four hours?" he said. "The saddest part of the federal government's campaign against industrial hemp is their dishonesty. This is not about drugs, it's not about marijuana, it's not about the counterculture. It's about farmers, and it's about a crop that is both useful and environmentally desirable. Dr. Paul G. Mahlberg, who was a primary researcher on the cannabis plant for the Bureau of Narcotics and the DEA for 34 years, joined the board of NAIHC and has been outspoken in opposition to much of what the government is now presenting as fact."
Dr. Mahlberg, from his office at the University of Indiana, told The Week Online that the DEA refuses to recognize or admit some basic, established truths regarding cannabis.
"According to the DEA, hemp is marijuana," said Dr. Mahlberg. "They don't recognize a substance called hemp, despite the fact that it is recognized the world over. They have their own little definition of what cannabis is. Also, the federal government's interpretation that industrial hemp leads to the abusive use of marijuana is incorrect for two reasons. First, hemp is low in THC and high in CDC, cannabidiol, while marijuana has the opposite distribution of these two agents. CDC, it must be stressed, is antagonistic to THC. In other words, the presence of high levels of CDC renders THC with little or no effect. Second, since these two plants (hemp and marijuana) are so closely related, they will cross-pollinate. This means that the presence of hemp being grown in an environment will degrade THC levels in the seed generation of any marijuana being grown in proximity to it."
Sholts is concerned that the administration's intransigence on industrial hemp will cause a lot more damage to the nation than any perceived problems stemming from its cultivation.
"The United Nations has said that within six years the world will be facing a fiber crisis," Sholts continued. "I had a study done several years ago by the US Forest Products Laboratory here in Madison. That report showed that six years from now, we'll have a market for hemp in Wisconsin large enough to support half a million acres of production. The DEA heard about that study and do you know what they did? They ordered me to take the name of the lab off of it. I can still distribute it, but they told me that I had to identify it only as coming from a 'distinguished federal researcher.' Ha."
"In Illinois, they're looking to do a study, and the feds come in to try and kill it. Here in Wisconsin, we are trying to pass a joint resolution of the House and Senate which simply says that if the federal government does get around to changing its policy on hemp, that the state will promote its cultivation. Now, you can't get much more benign than that. But the feds came in to try to kill that too. Out in Hawaii, where they passed a law to do a test crop, you know what they have? They have a quarter of an acre of hemp, inside a steel cage, with two guards circling the plot."
Hemp is being grown experimentally in Canada, England and Australia, is cultivated in Switzerland, China and elsewhere. The United Nations defines industrial hemp as having a THC level below 1%. The DEA, until recently, considered 0.3% THC as the upper limit, above which hemp seeds or other products could not be imported. On January 5 McCaffrey's agency sent a letter to customs agents and other officials, instructing them to set their new standard at 0% THC detectable. Research indicates that it is nearly impossible for humans to self-induce intoxication at levels anywhere below 2.5% THC.
But despite hemp's support among dozens of farm bureaus, agricultural associations, state legislatures and even the DEA's former lead researcher, McCaffrey has consistently dismissed hemp's potential as an industrial crop. In 1998, in response to a question about hemp, McCaffrey ridiculed the idea, saying that despite the support of "noted agronomists like (actor and hemp advocate) Woody Harrelson" he saw no evidence of any legitimate use for the crop. Sholts and others disagree.
"The first large scale uses of domestic hemp will be in the automotive industry, where it's already being used, as well as in carpets, building materials and the like," Sholts said. "You must remember that it does take some time to reintroduce a crop industrially. On the agricultural side, we have farmers across the country who desperately need a new crop. Cotton farmers who need a rotation crop. Corn and soybean farmers who can't get a decent price for their crops because we overproduce."
"There's an enormous groundswell of support among American farmers for the re-legalization of industrial hemp, and soon, possibly within a year, they're going to make a lot of noise at the federal level. And Barry McCaffrey is going to have a very tough time trying to stand up in the public arena against the American farmer."
Senator Bowles agrees.
"I'm very, very disappointed that General McCaffrey chose to somehow tie the issue of industrial hemp in with the drug issue," she said.
Asked whether she believes that McCaffrey's response represents bureaucratic flailing at shadows in the midst of a losing effort to hold together a failing mission, Senator Bowles quoted from a Chicago Sun-Times editorial from March 1st.
"The federal government is concerned that hemp cultivation may be 'a stalking horse for the legalization of marijuana,' McCaffrey wrote to House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago). That is typical overreaction from McCaffrey, commander-in-chief of the nation's costly but largely ineffective war on drugs."
Pressed as to whether she believes that General McCaffrey was, in fact, the front man for a failed policy, Senator Bowles paused. "I'll just say that the observation by the Sun-Times was on target," she said, adding, "I just wish that General McCaffrey had looked more closely at the real purpose of our hemp bill."