Kentucky won a lawsuit on Friday against the federal government for the right to plant a shipment of hemp seeds that had been impounded. The case underscores what appears to be a comeback for the controversial plant, which, despite having much lower THC levels than marijuana, has been classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency as a Schedule I drug on par with heroin.
Federal legislation outlawed hemp as part of a war on marijuana in 1937. But this year's Farm Bill, passed on Feb. 4, contains a provision that allows colleges and state agencies to grow and conduct research on the plant in states that allow it.
Growing hemp under these circumstances is now legal in Kentucky, along with 15 other states that have removed barriers to hemp production.
Though industrial hemp and marijuana come from the same plant, Cannabis sativa, hemp seeds are bred to produce plants with 0.3 to 1.5 percent THC, whereas marijuana has 5 to 15 percent. THC, the ingredient in marijuana that gets people high, is far too low in hemp to have the same effect.
Hemp proponents said the plant can be an environementally friendly source of paper, textiles, oils and biodegradeable plastics.
Long before Kentucky’s spat with the DEA to release its shipment of hemp seeds, the state led the U.S. in hemp production — with a mid–19th century peak of 40,000 tons per year.
In fact, before the U.S. was even a country, its first big cash crop was hemp. Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper.
Hemp was briefly freed for use during World War II — growing the plant was considered a patriotic duty as part of the government’s Hemp for Victory campaign — when foreign sources of textiles, ropes and fibers came under enemy occupation and the U.S. needed to grow its own. A hemp-rigged parachute saved George H.W. Bush’s life while he served in the armed forces. But when war subsided in Europe, the U.S. found new sources, and hemp was phased out.
The plant’s disenfranchisement began in the early 20th century, when powerful petrochemical and pulp-paper industries realized they stood to lose billions if hemp’s potential was fully realized.
The main orchestrators of the anti-hemp movement were newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst and Lammont Du Pont, the head of the multinational petrochemical conglomerate, according to author Jack Herer — who wrote the seminal marijuana text “The Emperor Wears No Clothes.”
Du Pont began persistently lobbying the U.S. Treasury Department from 1935 to 1937 to enact federal legislation that would stymie hemp’s increasing production.