Hemp hype or cash crop?
Iowa Farm Bureau sees potential in plant's fibers,
but state drug czar just sees a wicked weed
by Eric Stern, Courier Staff Writer
Jon Fogarty will make $100,000 this year from selling marijuana.
Fogarty, 24, owns Grass Roots, an Iowa City clothing store that separates itself from typical retail outlets with a small tag on the apparel: "100% hemp."
"There's a market," Fogarty said. "It's a novelty."
And his customers pay for the luxury of an environmentally friendly fabric three times as strong as cotton with $65 jeans and $80 shirts, Fogarty said.
Since growing hemp is illegal in this country, the real cost comes from importing it, he said.
U.S. companies, including Adidas, Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, imported $1.2 million of hemp last year, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, for what hemp retailers say amounts to a $60 million industry.
Fogarty would like to see prices driven down with homegrown hemp, but only controversial legislation could bring that.
"Because it comes from the same plant as marijuana, there's a lot of reefer madness out there," Fogarty said.
So last year he talked to his local legislator, Minnette Doderer, about over-turning state laws. But Fogarty wasn't the only one interested in changing a 60-year-old federal marijuana law.
The Iowa Farm Bureau was planting the same seed.
The powerful agriculture organization passed a resolution in December calling for research into the crop's uses. Some farmers say hemp could be the next soybean.
That led to state House and Senate bills to allow Iowa State University to grow hemp for research. The bills made it out of the agriculture committees, but have been sent back for more research.
Hemp legislation has grown like the weed itself. Hawaii and Vermont recently passed measures promoting hemp research, and Colorado and Missouri have attempted to pass similar laws. The University of Mississippi holds the only Drug Enforcement Administration permit to grow marijuana and hemp for research.
"It's the most versatile crop I know of," Doderer, D-Iowa City, said. "It's a great cash crop."
Proponents tout hemp's potential uses in rope, textiles, oil, paint, paper and fuel.
Legislation goes to pot
The bills passed easily in the agriculture committees earlier this year, and legislators says there were enough votes to pass the bill.
"Then the drug people came in," said Rep. Effie Lee Boggess, R-Villisca, who co-sponsored the bill. "And they said it was too controversial."
Boggess was talking about the Governor's Alliance on Substance Abuse, which sprayed political herbicide on the hemp bill. "Our drug czar had some grave concerns about this," Gov. Terry Branstad said.
The bills lie dormant this summer in their respective agriculture committees, while state drug czar Charles Larson, the bill's exterminator, has been working to convince the Farm Bureau to overturn last year's resolution.
"After Mr. Larson found out about it, he was pretty upset," said Rep. Russell Eddie, R-Storm Lake, who sits on the House ag committee.
The bill may have gone, to borrow a Cheech and Chong movie title, up in smoke.
"We decided to hold on to it and study it a little more," Eddie said. "Right now it doesn't look very promising."
Larson met with the Farm Bureau resolution committee two weeks ago, and will meet with the House Agriculture Committee in January.
But weeds aren't that easy to kill.
Rick Robinson of the Iowa Farm Bureau will continue to push for hemp research.
"It begs for investigation," said Robinson, director of local and environmental affairs.
Farmers can grow any crop in the world, Robinson said, except hemp.
ISU would support research if legislation gets passed, said David Topel, dean of the school's agriculture college.
"It's an interesting concept," Topel said. "It could be a niche market."
The research, however, is not too critical, he said.
"We know it will grow here," he said. "Hemp has grown here for many, many years."
In fact, Iowans grew 45,000 acres of hemp in World War II to produce needed fibers cut off from Southeast Asia. U.S. farmers grew 176,000 acres of hemp during the war.
Proponents cite war hemp production as evidence that hemp is marketable, but Larson says it couldn't do well without subsidies.
"The minute the war ended, the industry died," Larson said.
Hemp is too labor intensive and expensive to produce, DEA officials say. But pro-marijuana legalizers are duping farmers into thinking the crop is profitable, Larson said.
"I think it's sad to lead farmers that there's some hope," Larson said.
Confusing the issue
But hemp proponents say Larson is rolling marijuana and hemp into a joint issue.
Hemp, called marijuana's misunderstood cousin by supporters, is a crop while marijuana is the drug, legislators like Doderer say.
Bill supporters say the drug chemical tetrahydrocannabinol, found in marijuana, is significantly lower in hemp.
Smoking hemp will give you the same kick as smoking corn silk, Doderer said.
But Larson said the THC level in hemp is still too high.
Larson accuses the bill sponsors of being "tools of the drug industry," Doderer said.
"I'm too old for pot," Doderer said. "The drug czar ought to do more about drugs and not worry about hemp."
Separating the pot smokers from the hemp growers will be difficult, lobbyists and legislators say, since pot smokers often organize under the guise of hemp legalization. In the past decade, police have made drug arrests in groups like the University of Northern Iowa Hemp Club and the Quad Cities Hemp Fest.
But groups expected to unite on the issue, like the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, are letting the Farm Bureau harvest the legislation.
"I don't think the Farm Bureau people would appreciate a (marijuana legalization) group," said Carl Olsen, Iowa NORML state coordinator.
That's because the drug issue is separate, said Roger Gipple, a West Des Moines farmer who introduced the Farm Bureau resolution last year.
"I've never smoked marijuana," Gipple said. "I'm not part of a conspiracy."
Gipple said he's worried about the future of agriculture if Iowa doesn't diversify its crops.
"The product is as dynamic and exciting as the soybean," Gipple said.
But Larson said it's impossible to separate the drug aspects from hemp.
"It sends the wrong message to youth," he said.
The state's Department of Public Safety narcotics division seized 900,000 marijuana plants last year and spent $340,000 over the last three years on aerial surveillance and herbicide spraying.
"It's an enforcement nightmare," Larson said.
If the Legislature passes the bill in the upcoming session -- and the DEA grants a permit -- the DEA would mandate security fencing and 24-hour patrolling at ISU's research facility, estimated at $1.7 million for a proposed Colorado test plot.
And if federal laws are relaxed, people will plant marijuana among the hemp plants, Larson said.
While hempsters and a researcher at Mississippi's Marijuana Project say there are ways to distinguish industrial hemp from marijuana, law enforcement officials says it's impossible to tell with the naked eye.
"It would be diverted for the wrong use," said DPS narcotics division director Ken Carter. "How are we going to tell the difference? The kids won't know."
The Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier
Sunday, August 31, 1997, Page A1
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This page last updated on 16 April 1999.