Editor’s note: Libertas Institute opposes government intervention and regulation in the economy that disadvantages one industry in order to protect another—such has been the case with the agricultural growth of industrial hemp which faced opposition from competing industries with greater lobbying power. Hemp cultivation has been illegal under federal law since 1957 when a combination of interventionist factors effectively ended U.S. domestic hemp production despite centuries of successful use of the crop. This included confusion on the part of the Drug Enforcement Agency between industrial hemp (non-psychoactive variety of cannabis plants grown for their fiber) and “marijuana” (cannabis varieties high in THC grown for psychoactive drug use). The DEA remains confused to this day by including cannabis generally on the controlled substances list despite the recent farm bill which recognized industrial hemp as separate from marijuana and actually legalized research-based growth of the crop (Sec. 7606 of the Farm Bill, HR 2642).
Thus far, 32 states have considered pro-hemp legislation with 20 states enacting their legislation into law. Ten states (California, Colorado, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia) have passed industrial hemp farming laws and removed barriers to its production.
Colorado’s legalization for the agricultural cultivation of industrial hemp begins this year. Colorado farmer Ryan Loflin of Rocky Mountain Hemp, Inc. jumped out ahead of the regulation last year and in October 2013 he harvested the first domestic, commercial hemp crop in the U.S. in nearly 60 years.
The following is an edited transcription of an interview Libertas Institute conducted with Ryan Loflin about industrial hemp. The comments in this interview do not necessarily reflect the views of Libertas Institute.
Libertas Institute: Tell us a little about your background. How did you get involved in growing industrial hemp?
Ryan Loflin: I’m a third generation Colorado farmer. I actually left the farm when I was 18 years old, mainly due to the economy and because farming didn’t seem like a bright future. I got into construction instead and became busy building homes. But I always had a connection to the farm and as soon as Canada legalized industrial hemp farming I saw the unbelievable profits farmers were making there—$300 an acre! This was 15 years ago when corn was only $80/acre and wheat $40/acre. To me, those type of returns were mind boggling and I was hopeful we would see this crop re-established in the United States, particularly because of the importance of its multiple uses.
LI: What are some of those benefits and uses of industrial hemp? Why might hemp production appeal to entrepreneurs? Are there environmental benefits to hemp farming?
RL: That’s the beautiful thing about hemp, and you can see why they made it illegal. Hemp is very beneficial and has so many uses—it was a threat to large and powerful industries. It is a beneficial crop in almost every possible way. Hemp is a cheaper crop to grow, it requires less fertilizer and less water, you don’t need pesticides, and you need very few herbicides because it creates a canopy blocking out sunlight for undergrowth accomplishing weed mitigation naturally.
It is a better crop to farm for the soil, too, because it actually puts nutrients and nitrogen back into the soil remediating it between rotational crops. From a farming perspective, it’s brilliant. The seed is also one of the most nutritional seeds there is—it’s considered a superfood. For technology, entrepreneurs would have a field day with hemp. I believe you can pretty much make anything but glass from hemp. You can make a fiber steel, plastics and polymers, paper, textiles, etc. Hemp-based products are truly limitless—whatever you can imagine you can probably make out of hemp. Perhaps we can even figure out glass one of these days!
LI: You mentioned having a background in construction. What hemp applications exist for the construction industry?
RL: There will be a huge market for a concrete substitute called “hempcrete.” The hemp stalk has two main components: the long outer “bast” fibers and the short inner woody “hurd” fibers. The hurd core is a lot like wood and can be used in many applications. To make hempcrete, you mix the hurd with lime and water and blend it in a simple cement mixer, and it can then be used for insulation, wall structures, siding, etc. You can pour it a foot thick in frames to create walls. It’s actually breathable, so that you can have healthier walls. Many construction problems are actually a function of airtight walls which create mold and other sick home issues—not to mention the harmful chemicals in so many building materials from formaldehyde to glues creating a toxic environment. Hempcrete could solve all of that by letting everything breathe and actually filtering air flow into the house thus capturing and sequestering contaminants in the air before reaching your home.
LI: News reports indicated that you planted your crop before Colorado implemented any sort of regulatory regime for agricultural hemp. Do you think other farmers should follow suit and simply start planting regardless of regulation?
RL: I don’t know if I would recommend doing that if states aren’t already moving as fast as Colorado was. Although currently, it seems everyone is really jumping on board with industrial hemp. I think in the next few years we are going to see federal legalization of industrial hemp production.
LI: In your view, why did the federal government outlaw industrial hemp to begin with?
RL: I think it comes down to the lobbying ability of those with money and power. For example, the lumber, paper, textile, chemical, and oil industries all have immense lobbying power. Those industries have all played a direct role in keeping industrial hemp growth illegal.
LI: Do you find it odd that industrial hemp was once such an important and popular crop in America to the degree that at one point in history the federal government even explicitly encouraged people to grow it? What are your thoughts on how it became suppressed?
RL: It was actually mandatory to grow hemp at one point! The suppression of industrial hemp is just a testament to how our government can misinform people in the United States. Going forward, it just comes down to reversing the mis-education of people since the era of “reefer madness” propaganda. In my view, they didn’t make “marijuana” illegal because they were concerned about the abuse of psychoactive components in “marijuana” plant varieties. Rather, they did it because they wanted to ban industrial hemp to protect powerful industries. They knew they couldn’t outlaw clothing and newspapers so they had to use misleading propaganda instead. The printing, clothing, and other industries were afraid of hemp. An internal government estimation predicted that by 1941 40% percent of all paper was going to be produced from hemp. The lumber industries were freaking out and needed to put an end to hemp.
LI: So “marijuana” regulation was actually a byproduct of eliminating hemp as an industrial competitor?
RL: Exactly. They figured they could scare the American populous with the so-called “reefer madness.” Unfortunately, original propaganda was even full of racist undertones trying to scare Americans with the idea of blacks, Mexicans, and other immigrants using marijuana and competing with whites in society.
LI: Do you find it interesting how this trend has reversed and industrial hemp legalization is coming on the back of “marijuana” legalization for medicinal use in many states? It seems that industrial hemp legalization may be a byproduct of general acceptance of cannabis for medicinal uses.
RL: Yes, that is very true. In our opinion, it doesn’t matter what precipitates legalization of hemp as long as it is legalized as an agricultural crop for industrial uses. It is very comical that it is reversed now—quite ironic!
LI: Where do you envision industrial hemp going in the next five years?
RL: The next five years will be a really huge development and building period for the hemp industry in America. From seed development and processing facilities, which are needed desperately, to product and market development, hemp will be in a very active building phase. I envision full agricultural legalization of industrial hemp in the next couple of years. I would like to see it before President Obama finishes his term just so we don’t have to inform a new administration on the issue. So far, it has seemed that this White House has been open to agricultural legalization of hemp. Once it is legal, it will become just like corn or wheat. It really is just another commodity crop—only more valuable and with more uses.
LI: If you had to two minutes to talk to the average American about industrial hemp—perhaps those who might confuse hemp and “marijuana,” thinking it was another excuse to legalize the latter—what would you say?
RL: I would start with the historic record of how hemp became illegal under dubious reasons. Additionally, the science shows that the THC level of industrial hemp is 0.3% which will not get you high. Hemp has nothing to do with drug use—it’s all about jobs and economic development. I would ask if they have a job. If they don’t, I would say that in five years you can go to a rural area and you will have a job. Hemp production will create thousands of jobs, particularly in small town rural America. That is the sort of place I grew up and am now working to revitalize with processing facilities and other hemp production-related industries.
Farming is my heritage and I’m excited to see it make a comeback. Farming is critical to our country because it is where our food comes from. With hemp legalization farming will make a big comeback in the next five years. I think people are going to wake up to that reality. As we show people the benefits of hemp production, it will speak for itself.