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State, Federal Efforts Back Farmers in Calling for Excluding Crop From Drug Laws


By ARIAN CAMPO-FLORES

Like many farmers in Kentucky, Brian Furnish has for years struggled to find crops to replace tobacco.

He thinks he has one candidate: industrial hemp, the cousin of marijuana used to make everything from cosmetics to car parts. It grows well in small plots, and demand for some hemp-based products is on the rise. The problem is that federal law makes it virtually impossible to grow the crop in the U.S.

David Kasnic for The Wall Street JournalBrian Furnish, a farmer in Cynthiana, Ky., grows tobacco, corn, wheat and hay, and says he would further diversify into hemp if it were legalized.

"We grew it here for years until the '50s," when it was still permitted, said Mr. Furnish, 37 years old. "I don't see any reason why we couldn't again."

He can take heart from efforts gathering steam from a wide political spectrum in Congress to again authorize hemp production. U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie (R., Ky.) introduced a bill in the House on Wednesday that would exclude hemp from the federal drug law that now lumps it together with marijuana. U.S. Sens. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) and Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) say they plan to file similar legislation in the Senate, where Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) last week said for the first time that he supported growing the crop.

Meanwhile, pro-hemp legislative measures have been introduced or carried over this year in seven states. Several states have already removed barriers to hemp production. "We've never had a better situation than we do right now," said Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, a not-for-profit advocacy group.

Significant obstacles remain. Previous pro-hemp bills in Congress went nowhere. And the White House has taken a dim view of the crop. "Hemp and marijuana are part of the same species of cannabis plant," wrote Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, last year. He added that hemp contains tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana.

Yet proponents point out the amount of THC in hemp is minimal—usually less than 1%, which is considered the threshold for potentially generating a high, according to researchers. By comparison, THC levels in marijuana average 10% and can reach 30% or more. Hemp legislation in the U.S., as well as in European countries where growing it is legal, usually sets the ceiling for THC content at 0.3%.

Farmers cultivated hemp legally throughout much of America's history. By the late 1950s, production ceased, partly as a result of high taxes imposed by the federal government.

The 1970 Controlled Substances Act made no distinction between varieties of cannabis. So while it isn't illegal to grow hemp, a farmer must register with the Drug Enforcement Administration, which Mr. Steenstra said means prohibitively expensive security requirements.

Still, it is legal to import hemp-based products—such as shirts and carpeting—and components of the plant, like hemp oil, used to make beauty products. Industry groups estimate that retail sales of hemp-based products in the U.S. exceed $300 million a year.

The size of that market has enticed advocates in Kentucky, which was a leading hemp producer in the 1800s. Agriculture Commissioner James Comer is championing a bill that would set up a regulatory framework for hemp if the federal government eliminates barriers to production. It is similar to the laws in the eight states that have authorized hemp growing, though all these measures still face the prohibitions under federal law.

"We could be the Silicon Valley for industrial hemp manufacturing," he said. Several makers of hemp-based products have expressed interest in buying from Kentucky farmers, he said.

Among them is Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, an Escondido, Calif., company that imports about 20 tons of hemp oil a year from Canada. "We want to buy from American farmers," said President David Bronner.

The Kentucky effort has drawn support from both tea-party groups and liberals, the latter because the crop is considered sustainable. "People on the right like it because it's a liberty issue," said Mr. Comer, a Republican. And "people on the left like it because it's a green crop."

But some law-enforcement groups argue hemp looks similar to marijuana, which would make it a challenge to conduct aerial surveillance aimed at eradicating pot. "Hemp farming would greatly complicate drug law enforcement activities," the Kentucky Narcotic Officers' Association wrote last November.

Analysts say the measure has a decent chance of passage in the state Senate but faces a steeper climb in Kentucky's House, where Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat, has expressed reservations.

Write to Arian Campo-Flores at arian.campo-flores@wsj.com


 
 
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Kerlikowske suggests that we have a process for deciding what's good to put in our bodies (the FDA). Do you think that's what the criminalization of cannabis is about? Really? So then you must believe that being incarcerated is better for your body. That's great logic. ~ Susan Soares

By: Chris Roberts | 01/07/13 7:46 PM
S.F. Examiner Staff Writer


Gil Kerlikowske, the nation’s top drug cop advocated a “different approach” to narcotics enforcement — and stressed that there is no “war on drugs” — but had stern words Monday for the San Francisco-bred medical marijuana movement. 

Drug users need treatment and education rather than jail terms, according to Gil Kerlikowske, the former Seattle police chief who now heads President Barack Obama’s Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Speaking at a gathering of law enforcement officers at the University of San Francisco, Kerlikowske also said that calling cannabis medicine “sends a terrible message” to the nation’s teens. High school students are more likely to smoke marijuana than tobacco due to the growing “perception” that marijuana is less harmful, he said. 

“We have to ask if we doing everything we can to empower them to make a healthy decision about their future,” he said.

Kerlikowske was in town to highlight the Obama Adminstration’s “21st-century” approach toward drug use. Also in attendance were Mayor Ed Lee, San Francisco police Chief Greg Suhr, and Berkeley chief of police Michael Meehan — who served under Kerlikowske as a narcotics captain on the Seattle police force. 

San Francisco has more than 20 licensed and taxpaying medical marijuana dispensaries. Across California, there are more than 1,000 — all of which pay state sales tax — according to Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana users’ advocacy group.

Federal law enforcement officials have long been at odds with state and local policymakers on medical marijuana. Pressure from the federal Justice Department has shut down seven San Francisco medical marijuana dispensaries since Oct. 2011. 

Before taking office, Obama said that marijuana would not be a law enforcement priority for his administration. Attorney General Eric Holder reiterated that statement, though U.S. prosecutors have since noted that marijuana remains illegal under federal law and a public health nuisance. 

Kerlikowske noted that neither he nor his office have any sway over the Justice Department, and “I wouldn’t suppose that I should tell The City what to do differently.” 

California was the first state to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes in 1996. Today, eighteen states and the District of Columbia now allow the medical use of marijuana, and adults in two states — Colorado and Washington — can legally possess small amounts of marijuana.

Kerlikowske had stern words for legalization, which is often painted as a solution to the public health and budget woes caused by drug use. “The Obama Administration strongly believes it is a false choice,” he said, and not “ground in science.”

“Medicinal marijuana has never been through the FDA process,” he added. “We have the world’s most renowned process to decide what is medicine and what should go in peoples’ bodies. And marijuana has never been through that process.”

Researchers at the University of California San Francisco and elsewhere have found that cannabis may be effective in relieving “wasting symptoms” caused by cancer and HIV/AIDS, may aid sleep and stimulate appetite, and may be effective in treating chronic pain and other ailments.

croberts@sfexaminer.com


 
 
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Even though a California poll in 2007 found that 71% of likely voters would support the legalization of hemp, Governor Schwarzenegger and Governor Brown have vetoed the bills that reached their desks. The poll was conducted by the respected research firm Zogby International. The question is why would these two governors veto a hemp bill? Through the generous support of an anonymous donor, I will be spending 2013 & 2014 figuring that out. I'm also going to be raising money for a study on the cross pollination of industrial hemp and medical marijuana. I'll also be spending a lot of time educating and outreaching. If you or your organization wants to learn more, contact me at Susan@cannabration.com.   

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Mark Leno has been a warrior in the effort to legalize hemp. He led the Senate Bill 676 which would have created a four county pilot program allowing farmers in California to tap into the nations hemp market, which was valued at $400 million annually in 2011. Hundreds of consumer products containing hemp are made in California, but the manufacturers of these goods are forced to import hemp seed, oil and fiber from growers in Canada, Europe and China. Hemp requires little to no pesticides and herbicides, is a great rotational crop, and grows quickly with less water, making it an ideal commodity for California. More than 55% of US companies that create hemp products are based in California. Some of the other leaders in the hemp movement are David Bronner, Patrick Goggin, and Steve Levine. Some organizations working on hemp legalization are Vote Hemp and the Hemp Industries Association.

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