Take a trip down the aisle of the nearest Whole Foods Market and it won’t take long to fill a shopping basket with products trumpeting the health and beauty benefits of a commodity Texas farmers are forbidden to grow: hemp.
Lotions, shampoos and shower gels boasting hemp’s essential oils and antioxidants. Shelled seeds, or hemp hearts, promising bigger boosts of protein and omega fatty acids than chia or flax seeds. Boxes of non-dairy hemp milk touting vitamins, minerals and amino acids for healthy hearts and glowing skin. All in packaging that if not displaying the leaves of the long-taboo cannabis plant itself is inevitably splashed with hearty doses of green.
There already are more than 25,000 identified uses for hemp, ranging from health foods and nutraceuticals to clothing, car dashboards, biodegradable plastics and construction materials like “hempcrete.” With the nation’s farm incomes near a 12-year low, it’s no wonder Texas growers want in on a market that’s expected to explode nearly sixfold to $1.65 billion in the U.S. alone by 2021.
“Making money from farming has gotten harder and harder every year and it it’s just another crop that gives me something else to grow,” said Jeff Williams, a West Texas rancher who raises alfalfa, corn and winter cereal grains near Fort Stockton. He envisions not only growing hemp but also investing in a co-op to process it.
“I raise cattle. And you know who makes ultimately the most money year in, year out is the slaughterhouses,” he added. “The producers, the feeders, we’re at the bottom of the totem pole. For me this is such a monumental new industry, and to be able to jump in at the ground floor and not only grow but produce products, to be able to have both sides of that chain, is one of the most exciting things.”
Whether that becomes a reality depends on the Texas Legislature.
Hemp is a variety of the cannabis genus, as is marijuana, but the two plants are distinctly different. Hemp grows tall and spindly, while marijuana is shorter and densely packed. More importantly, hemp has nominal amounts of THC, the psychoactive compound that caused cannabis to become illegal during the Depression era.
Yet while hemp can’t get you high, proponents say many lawmakers in this conservative state are fearful a vote to legalize hemp would be a vote to legalize pot.
Under a provision of the 2014 farm bill, 40 other states already allow farmers to grow hemp as part of pilot programs with universities or state departments of agriculture.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, whose bluegrass state once led the nation in hemp production, got wide bipartisan support for his 2018 farm bill provision to decriminalize hemp.
The measure would remove hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, which in 1970 classified marijuana (and hemp) as a Schedule 1 drug along with heroin, peyote and MDMA (ecstasy). It also would make growers eligible for crop insurance. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, cosponsored the bill.
“It’s Mitch McConnell’s bill but it’s cosponsored by Chuck Schumer as well as three dozen other senators,” Jonathan Miller, a Kentucky lawyer who serves as general counsel for the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, told members of the Texas House Agriculture & Livestock Committee during an interim hearing in July. “Can you imagine there’s any other issue than motherhood and apple pie that Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer agree on? But they’re both out there excitedly promoting this, which is a sign of true excitement of the industry.”
Kentucky’s pilot program has already resulted in about $17 million in gross product sales generating $7.5 million for hemp farmers and nearly 100 new full-time jobs. That’s a welcome development for farmers who have seen demand for tobacco steadily decline.
Hemp is not mentioned in the House version of the farm bill.
House Agriculture Committee chairman U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Midland, has said he is fine with it as long as it doesn’t cost crucial votes on a package that includes contentious work requirements for food stamp recipients that make up the bulk of the five-year spending plan.
“When it was over on the House side because of the food stamp issue the bill passed by only two votes,” Miller said. “They didn’t want to bring up the hemp issue because if it lost two votes then it would kill the bill.”
The two chambers will begin hammering out their differences in conference committee when House members return from their August recess.
Even if passed, the federal legislation would not pre-empt state laws.
Some Texas lawmakers already are convinced hemp production should be allowed in Texas. Legalization measures passed out of the state agriculture committee unanimously in both 2015 and 2017. But that’s as far as the effort got.
The Texas GOP’s 2018 platform supports legalization of hemp, and state Democrats’ 2018 platform supports legalization of recreational marijuana.
But so far, the only cannabis provision to make it into law is strictly regulated use of cannabidiol, or CBD, for treatment of intractable epilepsy. The allowance, known as the Compassionate Use Act, is so narrow Texas is not listed as one of the 30 states that allow medical-use marijuana.
“You’ve got this momentum going, but we have to somehow get these legislators beyond this knee-jerk response that hemp is marijuana and it’s going to cause everybody to become dopeheads and stuff,” said Laurance Armour, a Wharton farmer who thinks hemp could be a viable and less thirsty alternative to rice in a region whose sandy soils won’t sustain most row crops.
Rice farmers in the region were without water from 2012 to 2015 as drought conditions led the Lower Colorado River Authority to hold back water for reservoirs in Austin.
Cotton farmers also are interested in hemp as an alternative or rotator crop. According to Shawn Hauser, an attorney with the American Hemp Campaign, the per-acre value of hemp production is around $21,000 from seeds and $12,500 from stalks. As of May 1, the gross per-acre value for cotton and cotton seed was $637.
“Given Texas’ size, agricultural infrastructure, friendly business climate and low cost of resources,” she said, “we could likely be the biggest producer of all the states.”
Coleman Hemphill, chairman of the Texas Hemp Industries Association, said hemp’s advantages include the relatively time it takes to reach harvest, 60 to 90 days compared to about a 160 days for cotton.
“Just that reduced time frame is going to reduce a lot of the liabilities with the crop and the water consumption,” Hemphill said. “It’s not a silver bullet by any means, but it is resilient.”
Armour, the Wharton farmer, had just been at a water use luncheon with state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who he said didn’t know of the difference between hemp and marijuana.
“It’s sort of the misconception that people have who are in a position to do something about legalizing it,” Armour said. “She said, ‘Well, what if you smoke it?’ I said, ‘Well, you’ll get a cough and a sore throat.’”
Asked to comment, Kolkhorst noted that she voted in favor of the 2015 Compassionate Use Act.
“In 2015, Texas enacted the Compassionate Use Act, which I supported to give some doctors the ability to prescribe low-THC cannabis for patients who have epilepsy,” she said. “In terms of expanding the conversation, federal law has traditionally included hemp within the same category as marijuana, but some states are experimenting with industrial hemp farming. I am confident Texas will continue to study this issue and listen to all sides of the debate during the next legislative session.”
Another common objection is that marijuana could end up hidden in hemp fields.
It’s an argument that’s quickly debunked, as cross pollination with hemp weakens marijuana’s THC content.
“The marijuana growers don’t get along with the hemp growers,” said Rick Trojan of Colorado Cultivars, the largest hemp farm in Colorado. “People that are growing high THC outdoors, they run the risk of having pollination and that crop ruined.”
Texas lawmakers largely have been mum about their positions on hemp legalization. Conaway’s office did not respond to an inquiry on whether he’d support hemp, nor did any of the five Texas congress members named to the farm bill conference committee.
Hemp, one of the oldest crops known to mankind, is believed to have originated some 10,000 years ago in Central Asia and arrived in America on board the Mayflower. The British Empire compelled colonists to grow hemp for such maritime uses as hempen ropes and canvas for sails. The Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper. It was grown by both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Accounts of why cannabis was essentially prohibited in 1937 vary, to include the theory Harry Anslinger, who led the Department of Prohibition, was looking for something new to ban after the prohibition on alcohol was repealed. Another popular explanation links prohibition to fears that minority groups were spreading a substance that incited madness and violence.
Elsewhere hemp has continued to be grown.
According to the Congressional Research Service, hemp imports to the United States totaled $67.3 million in 2017.
Ninety percent of the imports came from Canada. Other suppliers included China, Romania and other European countries, India, the Dominican Republic and Chile. The U.S. is the only industrialized nation to prohibit cultivating hemp.
“We currently cannot grow it but we can import it, said Jim Reaves of the Texas Farm Bureau, which is against legalizing marijuana but is for legalization of hemp. “We eat it, we make clothes out of it, we make all sorts of stuff out of it. … I mean it’s grown in other states, this is a no-brainer.”
“We’ve been doing a lot of education just to make sure everybody understands this is not a bad thing,” Reaves added. “Over the last four years, we’ve had a 50 percent drop in gains from our crops and our crop production. This would give our farmers additional revenue, especially in some of those bad years.”