Heirloom Hemp Then and Now
In the founding of our country, hemp wasn’t just legal. Hemp production was patriotic. Our founding fathers wrote drafts of the Declaration of Independence on hemp. Hemp became a monetary staple. Hemp supplied settlers heading West with food, fiber, and fuel. George Washington grew hemp. And the second president of the United States, John Adams, had a to-do list ranking “hemp to be encouraged” higher than the “Declaration of Independency.”
But in the 1910s, xenophobia-specifically resentment of Mexican laborers, led states to ban cannabis. Ironically, the first state to ban this drug was California in 1915. The federal government followed. In 1937, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Henry J. Anslinger called cannabis “the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.” That same year, Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act, imposing a tax of $100 per ounce every time the drug went down the supply chain, from farmer, to distributor, to retailer, to consumer. $100 in 1937 is about $1,800 today. This tax survived until the Supreme Court unanimously struck it down the tax as unconstitutional in May 1969, shortly after Richard Nixon’s inauguration in 1969. Nixon took this decision as an assault on his “law and order” campaign platform, and started what has become known as “the war on drugs.”
The war on drugs may be winding down, but the war on heirloom hemp remains very much alive. The problem rests in the 2014 Farm Bill. The 2014 Farm Bill allowed research institutions to grow industrial hemp. The 2014 Farm Bill defined hemp as the Cannabis sativa L plant with a THC concentration of 0.3 percent of less. This is not much. To give the old fashioned high, the plant needs to contain at least one percent THC.
In 2018, Congress went further. The 2018 Farm Bill legalized the production of hemp as an agricultural commodity-but with the same 0.3 percent threshold, but also punishes states, Native American tribes, and growers that accidentally allow plants to contain more than 0.3 percent of THC. The 2018 Farm Bill allows the USDA to revoke state plans to permit the cultivation of hemp. Any grower that “negligently violates” a state or tribal plan three times in five years becomes ineligible to grow hemp for the next five years.
Naturally, weather and plant impact THC concentration. So corporations are rushing in to patent hemp seeds that are compliant with the 0.3 percent threshold. And states, under pressure to ensure that hemp does not exceed 0.3 percent THC, have required hemp cultivars to go through an extensive system of university research, development, and testing. Florida requires cultivars to be developed by either the Institute of Food and Agircultural Sciences at the University of Florida or the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. And the after the university develops the hemp seed, the university can only allow cultivars that have a THC level of 0.3 percent after one growth cycle. A growth cycle cannot be less than twelve weeks. And North Carolina requires hemp growers to participate in an industrial hemp research program managed by a state university. All this research and testing makes it difficult to find a seed that counts as “hemp” under federal law, no matter what the agent of the plant, no matter what the weather. In hemp policy, we have come a long way. But heirloom hemp policy still has a long way to go.