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Revival of hemp industry at hand?

Some say the weed, once produced widely in Iowa as a contribution to the WWII effort, could be a valuable crop here again.

by George Anthan, the Register's Washington Bureau Chief

owans were startled in the mid-1960s when newspaper headlines proclaimed that cannabis sativa, better known as marijuana, was growing on the Statehouse grounds.

Actually, it shouldn't have been a surprise -- and it most likely wasn't a plot by counterculture forces to embarrass the state.

It was simply that cannabis, also better known for centuries as hemp, had been produced widely in Iowa as a patriotic (and profitable) contribution to the World War II effort. It was part of a program to provide vital rope and sheeting for the Navy.

And the seeds of this hardy weed simply had stayed around, even after hemp production was prohibited, popping up in ditches, at the edges of fields -- and on the Statehouse grounds.

Now, some farmers and agricultural researchers are trying to re-establish the hemp industry in the United States, contending it can be highly profitable.

Iowa a Garden Spot

The move to resurrect hemp output is centered in Colorado, Missouri and Kentucky, but agricultural experts agree that Iowa represents ideal growing conditions for cannabis.

In fact, delegates to this year's national convention of the American Farm Bureau Federation voted overwhelmingly in favor of research into revival of an industrial hemp industry in the United States.

The United States currently imports a small amount of raw hemp from the Philippines, Britain and China for processing into a variety of products. Hemp advocates say many more finished hemp-containing products are imported -- products that could be produced here.

Industrial hemp, its proponents contend, doesn't offer the euphoric impact of marijuana because it contains less than 1 percent of the chemical THC, which produces the effects.

There have been periodic reports since World War II of attempts to harvest wild-growing hemp in Iowa and to convert it to smokable material. But self-described "experts" say it's highly inferior, if not downright repellent, as a drug.

Paper, Canvas, Cloth

Cannabis fiber, which is separated from the plant's stem, is essential to the manufacture of certain kinds of cordage and also is used in making paper, canvas and a popular cloth for clothing. Oil from the plant is manufactured into caulking material, paint, plastics, varnish and soap.

Hemp was a major crop in the southeastern United States until the mid-19th century, when cheaper imports began arriving. But it became a vital crop in the Midwest, especially in north-central Iowa, as World War II cut off overseas supplies.

A 1943 report in The Des Moines Register notes: "Growing the weed as a crop looked a little silly to some farmers at first. Many were skeptical. They had known hemp only as marijuana, a harmful narcotic, a weed smoked by drug addicts."

The report continued: "Government men told farmers the war had cut off imports of Manila hemp and sisal fiber" and that "farmers need not worry about growing a narcotic." By the end of the war, more than 4,000 Iowa farmers were growing hemp on tens of thousands of acres, with prices guaranteed by the government.

Herbert Howell, a farm management specialist at Iowa State University from 1934 until 1973, said in addition to promoting hemp production, the government set up about a dozen hemp processing plants in Iowa during the war.

A Surprise

ISU economist Neil Harl, who grew up on an Iowa farm, said: "I was a kid then, but we viewed it as part of the war effort, and it was a surprise to many law-abiding Iowa citizens to learn it had another use."

Bob Winter, a northeastern Colorado farmer and president of the Weld county Farm Bureau, is a leading advocate of an industrial hemp industry and contends the Justice Department's Drug Enforcement Administration is "brainwashing state legislators and local law enforcement officials into opposing the move.

Winter said international trade treaties signed by the United States say that any hemp with less than three-tenths of 1 percent THC shall be considered industrial hemp, and not marijuana.

"But current U.S. law does not differentiate between industrial hemp and marijuana," he said. "Thanks to these laws, the U.S. lags behind other world powers in hemp production and must import raw hemp pulp for manufacture here."

Winter and the Colorado Hemp Initiative Project, which he helped organize, estimate that industrial hemp producers would reap a profit of more than $500 an acre, based on current prices.

"Everybody agrees this is a good idea except the drug enforcement people," he said.

Potential Reflected

Dennis Stolte, a Farm Bureau official here, said the group's backing of industrial hemp "was a bit of a surprise to a lot of us. It shows the potential for hemp and reflects farmers' looking for alternative crops."

Stolte said hemp "grows like a weed, with very little need for pesticides or cultivation. And its water needs are not very great."

In a recent publication, the Farm Bureau says that many new varieties of the cannabis sativa plant available in Europe contain less than three tenths of 1 percent THC and that "European farmers have been growing hemp for over 20 years without any problems related to marijuana."

But the DEA hasn't budged. Agency officials here said hemp is just another name for marijuana although federal law does exclude from the "marijuana" designation the stalks and fibers from hemp plants and products manufactured from these fibers.

Des Moines Sunday Register
July 7, 1996, Page 1B.

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This page last updated on 16 April 1999.