Hemp advocates see the plant as a viable alternative crop for U.S. farmers. But federal law fails to distinguish industrial hemp from its more notorious cousin, marijuana. Hence the dilemma facing proponents, a group that includes farm leaders, legislators, agricultural researchers and economists, environmentalists and plant experts with Ph.Ds.
Industrial hemp and marijuana are varieties of the same plant species, Cannabis sativa L. Industrial hemp is grown for its stem fibers and seeds, while marijuana is grown mainly for its buds. Industrial hemp is low in the drug THC (less than 1 percent). For marijuana, the higher the THC (usually 3-20 percent), the more potent effect the drug can have.
Hemp has been grown for centuries and was commonly used for rope and fabrics. It was grown extensively in the United States until laws in the 20th century made it illegal. It can be legally grown now, but only by permit from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Those permits are few and far between.
Worldwide, the industrial hemp picture is different. Growing the plant is allowed in most countries, and Erwin A. "Bud" Sholts, chairman of the North America Industrial Hemp Council, said that 33 nations, including Canada, are developing industries centered on production of the crop.
"It has hundreds and hundreds of uses," said Sholts, a former Wisconsin state agricultural diversification expert.
Industrial hemp fibers can be manufactured into fabrics for clothing, blankets, carpet, upholstery, sails, tarps, awnings, rope and numerous other items. It can be made into paper, plastic or hemp oil. British researchers have used it to manufacture surfboards. It's used in some health food snacks, for lotions and in manufacturing car parts.
Industrial hemp, advocates note, requires little or no herbicides or pesticides. Bugs don't usually like to eat it and it grows thick enough and fast enough to block out would-be competitive weeds. It has good soil-restoration qualities.
Several states, including North Dakota, Maine, Montana and West Virginia, have passed legislation to allow farmers to grow industrial hemp, but their efforts remain blocked by the DEA. California passed a bill to legalize hemp but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it.
Numerous farm organizations nationwide support legalization. Nonetheless, many law enforcement agencies oppose its legalization, largely because such an action is viewed as a potential softening of tough drug laws designed to promote health and safety.
The issue found its way to the Wood River Valley last fall when the citizens of Hailey approved one pro-hemp and two marijuana-decriminalization initiatives. Hailey officials have declined to implement all three initiatives and are preparing litigation to have them snuffed out in court.
The initiatives were brought to the voters by Ryan Davidson, chairman of The Liberty Lobby of Idaho, who is trying to get grassroots efforts going to legalize both hemp and marijuana.
Hailey resident Catherine Holub, who has a master gardening degree and specializes in organic gardening, caused a bit of a stir at a Hailey City Council meeting earlier this year when she showed up with a pair of socks made years ago from hemp. She told council members she'd pay any of them $50,000 if they could get high from smoking them. There were no takers.
Hailey has scant agricultural land for growing hemp, but Holub told the Idaho Mountain Express that she advocates legalization because growing hemp is environmentally sound and because the United States has a rich, but mostly forgotten, tradition with the crop.
"It just baffles me that they wiped something as traditional as this out of our history," Holub said.
Holub's family immigrated to Idaho from Pennsylvania in the late 1860s. They settled in the Shoshone area and later some of them moved into the Hagerman Valley.
"I know that at one point in time, prior to the 1930s, my family grew hemp down there," she said. "They used it to make clothing,"
Holub disputes a claim made in a 2000 U.S. Department of Agriculture report that industrial hemp is not a viable crop for U.S. farmers.
"Oh, the potential is immense," Holub said. "Think about it. Fifty thousand items can be made from one source, and none of it is toxic. Try to say that about shampoo for instance. You can't.
Sholts, of the North American Industrial Hemp Council, also disputes the USDA findings. He studied crop diversification while employed with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture and found that industrial hemp was the only viable crop to fit in with corn and soybean crop rotations.
Claims have been made by some pro-hemp advocates that other industries, including the cotton, timber and petrochemical, have resisted legalization of hemp.
"If other industries are fearful of it, then that demonstrates the potential," he said.
Sholts said the biggest problem with legalizing industrial hemp in the United States is because the DEA and other government entities continue to cling to an outdated definition of the plant that links it to marijuana. He said it will take either a presidential declaration or an act of Congress to change that definition.
"It's going to happen, because American agriculture wants it, American industry wants it and the public wants it," Sholts said.