Just months after its agents seized 20 tons of hemp birdseed bound from Canada to the US, the Drug Enforcement Administration has approved a research project at the University of Hawaii that will develop strains of the plant suitable for industrial use in that state. When the first seeds were planted in the research plot on Tuesday (12/14), behind a 12-foot security fence topped with razor wire and 24-hour surveillance cameras, Hawaii became the first state in more than 40 years to legally cultivate hemp.
The project will be funded by a $200,000 grant from Alterna Professional Hair Care Products, a California based company that uses imported hemp seed oil in its products. "Alterna feels a responsibility to help support America's farmers and affording them the opportunity to grow industrial hemp for American-made products is our ultimate goal," company president Mike Brady said in a press release.
The political force behind the project has been Hawaii State Representative Cynthia Thielen, who lobbied her colleagues and Governor Ben Cayetano for three years until legislation approving hemp cultivation was passed in May. Thielen, whose web site includes a "hemp primer" to help acquaint her constituents with the plant's industrial uses, contends that hemp could provide a valuable boost to the state's agricultural economy, which has been dependent on a lagging market for sugar cane.
In spite of the fact that hemp's illegal status stems directly from drug war hysteria -- it is classified along with its cousin, marijuana, as a Schedule I narcotic, yet it contains only trace levels of THC -- Thielen has taken care in her crusade to distance her issue from drug reform in general. Indeed, when The Week Online asked her to comment on this story, she refused. "I don't want to be quoted in your publication, because this isn't at all related to marijuana legalization or medical marijuana," she said. "It's an agricultural issue, not a drug issue."
Nevertheless, few could argue that Thielen's single-mindedness has not paid off. This week, local drug policy groups applauded Thielen's efforts and expressed excitement about the research project. "DPFH is proud that Hawaii has become the first state since World War II to plant industrial hemp and believes it has tremendous potential to help the state overcome its economic woes," said Pamela Lichty of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii in an e-mail to The Week Online. "Kudos to Representative Thielen for her commitment and persistence in the face of opposition from her colleagues, state law enforcement officials, and the Feds. This pilot program represents a true breakthrough for common sense and hopefully marks an evolution in US drug policy to a more science-based and pragmatic approach."