By Janet Burns
And now, after years of major change for US agriculture and industry, real investment in this versatile crop stands to significantly elevate our economy and quality of life for generations to come.
The idea of upping hemp production is already common ground politically. As farmers have faced water shortages, unstable markets, and punishing seasonal conditions, communities around the country have pressured lawmakers to help them restore US agriculture with more profitable, sustainable plants.
Hemp has long been seen to fit that bill. Best known for its use in textiles, it offers wide-ranging applications that countless sectors are keen to get in on.
For example, hemp seeds in whole or processed form contain an impressive amount of protein, nutrients, and essential fatty acids, among other things — offering an efficient way to boost nutrition in human and animal diets — while hempseed oil has increasingly become a preferred ingredient in common food, beauty, and health products.
Its sturdy fibers have also been put to growing use in high-quality plasticsand auto paneling, durable building materials, and other common industrial commodities. And when it comes to environmental impact, hemp is not only a low-fuss crop capable of flourishing in US farmland; it can also clean up tainted water and soil, bully weeds away, and be converted into biodiesel.
Unlike other Cannabis sativa varieties and hybrids, which aremostly grown for their chemically potent flowers (or ‘buds’), hemp is also legally distinguished from marijuana in the US as containing less than 0.3% of the cannabinoid chemical THC — considered to be the most intoxicating, psychoactive component in cannabis plants, as well as a treatment option for certain serious illnesses.
So while hemp crops can be used to extract the non-intoxicating chemical cannabidiol, or CBD, which has a demonstrated and growing list of compelling health uses, they can’t get anyone high.
In short, it’s no wonder that hemp has been described as an industrial ‘miracle plant.’
For Rocc Johnson, owner and operator of New Orleans’ Uptown Hemp, the plant has become both his calling in life and a way to revitalize the economy in his home state.
“I’m so excited and humbled to be part of the [cannabis] industry that’s coming to Louisiana,” he commented by phone. “For me, it’s not about money at all; it’s about a better way of life, and helping people get the knowledge to help other people.”
Johnson said he got the idea to get involved in marijuana and hemp from his uncle, a member of Louisiana’s National Guard, and from his mother, who died from cancer in 2011 after “never smoking or drinking in her life.”
Prior to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, which caused widespread destruction and fatalities across New Orleans, Johnson had moved to California, and spent years there soaking up knowledge and culture around cannabis plants and the industry. After witnessing the pain and nausea his mother experienced during her treatment, Johnson decided to help bring the medicinal and economic value of cannabis back to his hometown, starting with hemp.
Today he sells numerous hemp-made items, from shoes to shirts, as well as a range of hemp-based health and medicinal products. After some productive networking at recent cannabis conventions, he’s also in talks with Julian Marley to distribute his products around the country, and hopes to help bring a full-scale hemp festival — codename Hemp Hop — to New Orleans next year.
Down the line, Johnson also plans to create an onsite grow-space in the large two-story building where he’s set up shop. In addition to getting deep satisfaction from the relief that customers say his CBD products provide, Johnson remains enthralled with “the fun side” of hemp production: namely, planting a seed and letting it grow. “It’s just like in life,” he added. “I can’t say enough about the process, about the feeling of actually producing something.”
The arguments for hemp’s advantages are mostly long-standing (aside from ongoing discoveries about cannabinoids, new applications in nanotechnology and industrial oils, and so on). But our current opportunities to advance hemp’s status as a crop — as well as a transformed cultural climate for cannabis generally — certainly qualify as ‘groundbreaking’ conditions.
One way that proponents have sought to steer US agriculture toward hemp is through the next federal ‘Farm Bill,’ an omnibus package of food and agriculture policy that lawmakers can renew every five years.
Since 2013, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Rep. Blumenauer (D-OR), and other members of Congress have been gathering support to bolster hemp production through this process; they also helped to pass a 2014 version of the package, currently in effect, with new allowances for agricultural hemp pilot programs.
Like most major bills, the latest Farm Bill has not been free of controversy. At present, legislators have seemingly missed their Sept. 30 deadline to approve the package, which has stirred numerous arguments in Congress over its core principles, funding levels, and a proposed work requirement for low-income recipients of food assistance.
Under the Senate-approved version of the bill, hemp and derivatives, hemp extracts, and cannabinoids derived from hemp “would be treated as agricultural commodities and removed from the purview of the Controlled Substances Act and the Drug Enforcement Administration,” according to CannaLawBlog.
The more recently House-approved version, which introduced the well-publicized provision affecting up to two million Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients, doesn’t take such steps to remove federal barriers around hemp. It also stipulates that anyone with a felony drug conviction would be barred indefinitely from participating in federal or state hemp programs.