Does Hemp Matter?

In years of studying, designing and implementing drug policies, I have spent perhaps a total of one hour thinking about industrial hemp (i.e., non-intoxicating cannabis grown for its fiber to make paper, cordage, fabric etc.). That may have been too much, or so I have been persuaded by reading the invaluable discussion of hemp by Jon Caulkins, Christina Farber, Angela Hawken, Beau Kilmer and Mark Kleiman in Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know.

To the extent I have been able to stay awake during discussions of hemp policies, the con argument has been that if we let farmers grow industrial hemp, the so-called hemp fields will be used to hide high-potency sensimilla intended to be sold as a recreational drug. The pro argument has been that hemp is a potentially multi-billion dollar industry that has been suppressed by anti-marijuana crusaders.

As is so often the case in drug policy, both of the extremes are factually and analytically wrong.

Caulkins and colleagues dismantle the anti-hemp argument by noting that cannabis pollen can travel three to twelve miles. Therefore any green-thumbed criminal who planted a farm with industrial hemp all around the edges (to fool the police) and a batch of high-potency sensimilla in the middle would end up with a very expensive, very crappy harvest of low-grade pot. The other point the authors make is that there is no evidence of diversion of intoxicating cannabis from industrial hemp farms in Europe. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the U.S. could replicate the same hemp farming system without supporting illegal drug markets.

But why should the U.S. bother? Yes, hemp farming was once a mighty industry and during World War II, the federal government actively promoted it (as in the film “Hemp for Victory“). But it was already dying out not because of drug policy but because of the invisible hand: nylon, cotton and other substitutes became more functional and much less expensive. The result today is that industrial hemp farming is a boutique activity even where it is legal. To quote the authors “China is the world’s largest producer…yet plants 280 acres of cotton for every one acre of hemp”.

The hemp issue in drug policy is thus much ado about very little.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

21 thoughts on “Does Hemp Matter?”

  1. But a useful crop suitable for smallholders ( ” boutique” is a pejorative in our EarlButzed Ag world) to cultivate for its many applications is exactly what we need. If you are paying any attention to the converging catastrophes of climate disruption and peak oil, you’d know that one of the most urgent needs we have is figuring out how to unwind the mega systems that depend entirely on massive applications of fossil duel derived fertilizers and pesticides (cotton is one of the most destructive crops in the world) and replace them with far less resource hungry crops. Industrial hemp is perfect, less for its industrial applications and more for its suitability and compatibility with small-scale post-industrial agrarian culture.

    1. JMG: Remember that there has to be a standard of comparison to make the case that a public policy is a benefit rather than a cost. To say that industrial hemp is “perfect” implies there are no better alternatives…but if, for example, Manilla hemp or flax or some other plant that generates the outcomes you want better and with less impact on the environment and at lower cost, encouraging cannabis hemp production would set back rather than advance your goals.

      1. Wait, first the argument is that hemp is irrelevant because it’s not going to be of interest because corporate agribusiness won’t be interested, now it’s that a psychologist type who, SFAIK, has no knowledge of permaculture or farming whatsoever, thinks that there might be other crops that might be better than hemp.

        How bout we leave it up to the farmers?

        I will concede that perfect is a strong word, but ideal would work just as well. For some smallholders and even suburban yardeners, hemp might prove to be an ideal crop.

        1. JMG says “now it’s that a psychologist type who, SFAIK, has no knowledge of permaculture or farming whatsoever, thinks that there might be other crops that might be better than hemp.”

          Careful — that’s not fair — I am relating what is in a well-researched, well-referenced book that discusses the various agricultural alternatives (including Manilla hemp and flax).

          1. Sorry, I ascribed to you what you were reporting on.

            However, the point remains: any of those authors have any credentials as permaculturalists, horticulturists, or small farmers?

          2. “authors have any credentials as permaculturalists, horticulturists, or small farmers?”

            No idea. And I am not sure it would influence my opinion of the book whatever the answer is (parallel would be an oncologist can be a good oncologist even if s/he has never had cancer as long as s/he knew the research on the impact of various treatments). What I would say is that it’s a good book, so if you are interested in the issue why not buy it, look at the literature the authors cite and see what your own judgment is of whether they are credible?

  2. The Hill

    “A group of bipartisan senators introduced a bill on Thursday that would exclude industrial hemp from the definition of marijuana.
    Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) introduced the bill, which has three co-sponsors — Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).”

    1. I really do wonder if drug warriors engage in the same sort of “nobody should be able to do anything unless the government decides that it is a net good” with respect to anything other than drug policy.

      I know people on that side hate it when they are compared to totalitarians, but they are starting– in this one area only– with the line of thinking of totalitarians. In a free society, the starting point should be the opposite– you can do anything you want, until the government makes a case that you shouldn’t.

      1. Oops, this should have been posted in response to the last comment. Instead, a duplicate of my comment below got posted. Darned commenting system.

  3. As far as I know, it’s not that useful a crop these days.

    But 2 points:

    1. Just as a general principle, we don’t have the government make judgments as to what’s useful and what’s not when it comes to producing manufacturing materials. We don’t ban the paper industry because of ransom notes and written bomb threats. The fact that hemp is theoretically useful is sufficient to mean it should be legal to produce it. It should be legal to produce ANYTHING that’s theoretically useful, unless there’s something along the lines of an environmental reason to prohibit production. Remember, the idea is we live in a free society. We shouldn’t need the government’s permission to do most things; rather, most activities should be legal and then the government should face a significant burden before deciding that an activity is so dangerous and has so little utility that it shouldn’t be legal. Hemp clearly doesn’t meet that test.

    2. the con argument has been that if we let farmers grow industrial hemp, the so-called hemp fields will be used to hide high-potency sensimilla intended to be sold as a recreational drug Bear in mind, that’s not an actual con argument. That’s a pro. People will be able to enjoy themselves. People will be having fun. “It could be sold as a recreational drug” is, without more, a reason to LEAGALIZE hemp.

    I seize on this because it shows how sloppy thinking infects the drug debate. Recreational drugs aren’t bad. If a recreational drug is perfectly safe, it’s good! It means more fun! It’s like a recreational roller coaster, or a recreational national park, or recreational sex! All good things!

    The actual argument has to be something along the lines of “if we let farmer grow industrial hemp, the so-called hemp fields will be used to hide high-potency sensimilla which would be dangerous and harmful to the public if sold as a recreational drug”. Now, I suspect that is false, both for the reasons stated by Professor Humphreys and also because sensimilla isn’t that dangerous. But that’s what the sentence actually has to read for it to constitute a legitimate con- argument.

    Professor Humphreys’ error is exactly at the root of why American drug policy is so screwed up. Instead of worrying about danger, we actually consider people engaging in recreation to be itself a negative. It’s reasoning that would have made John Winthrop and Anthony Comstock proud. In fact, not only is recreation not BAD, but we should be weighing the recreational value of drugs as a POSITIVE in the calculus, just as we do with legal substances like alcohol and tobacco. The fact that people find it fun to drink and smoke is one big reason why those substances are legal, even though they cause more deaths than illegal drugs do. We nonetheless– correctly– feel that the value of people being able to engage in relaxing recreational drinking and smoking is worth the substantial costs.

    Repeat after me. Everything you learned as a kid is wrong. The recreational element of drug-taking is a positive, not a negative, and its a reason for legalization, not prohibition.

    1. Professor Humphreys’ error is exactly at the root of why American drug policy is so screwed up.

      What error? I’ve missed the part of his post where he advocated that industrial hemp remain illegal. You are reading into it something that isn’t there. Saying that the debate is trivial isn’t the same thing as having an opinion one way or the other.

      More specifically, he didn’t even say that he agrees that it would be a bad thing that people would grow intoxicating cannabis amidst industrial quality hemp. He said that that’s the argument being used by those opposed to growing it. Again, that’s not the same thing.

      How about you try arguing against the points that are made rather than the ones in your head?

      1. Re-read what he characterizes as the “con” argument. It’s a telling error– he doesn’t say the argument is it’s dangerous; rather, he says the argument is there’s a recreational use.

        And my point is this is exactly how many people think. I am not characterizing Professor Humphreys’ point. I am saying that all of us seem to have ingrained this puritan streak that says that if something can be used as a recreational drug, that in itself is bad, when in fact not only is it not bad, it’s good. And that this is the reason we get our drug policy wrong.

        Professor Humphreys’ discourse reflects this sort of background presumption. I wanted to bring it out into the open.

        1. Again, what error? The argument *is* that there is a recreational use. That may or may not be a good argument, but it is the argument used by those who oppose the growing of industrial hemp.

          I am not characterizing Professor Humphreys’ point.

          Bullshit. That’s exactly what you did. I will repeat the quote from your original comment: “Professor Humphreys’ error is exactly at the root of why American drug policy is so screwed up.” In what language is that not a characterization of his point?

          You misrepresented his post and, when called on it, denied what you said.

  4. Industrial hemp advocates point to its potential for carbon sequestration, as it producea a lot of carbon-rich biomass very fast without fertiliser. cf. sugar-cane. But sequestration only works if you use the fibre in some long-lived way, for instance as building insulation or buried biochar. Perhaps a slow leakage of THC into the air would make for background comfort and a house price premium in Marin County.

  5. “..green-thumbed criminal who planted a farm with industrial hemp all around the edges (to fool the police) and a batch of high-potency sensimilla in the middle would end up with a very expensive, very crappy harvest of low-grade pot..”

    I don’t think this is right: you plant high grade pot seeds, you get high grade pot. If you try and save seeds from those plants and plant again, they will not be good, because they have one fiber-not-resin parent. You need to bring in more seed from Mexico, or Mendocino, or where-ever, for your second year.

    1. Since the crop will be pollinated it will, by definition, not be sensimilla. Better than the brickweed sold today would be an easy target.

      Since the Latin American varieties were selected out from hemp rope stock left by the Spanish, I would be very surprised if some dual purpose plants weren’t developed if the opportunity presented.

      1. No, the crop will not be pollinated. Cotton must be pollinated because the harvested fibers are located in the plants’ fruits (the bolls), but hemp’s fibers are in the stems. You don’t have to pollinate hemp if all you want are the fibers.

        Dave Schutz is correct.

        (BS: Horticulture)

  6. Keith, it’s very simple. The production ban harms the credibility of the Federal government, reduces some potential economic activity, raises costs of some marginally desirable products, and in return provides no benefit. That is not a good deal.

    Lets say it were not banned and perhaps it employed only 100 persons. What would be your argument for putting 100 people out of work, and forcing hemp product producers to import the material?

    It’s clearly culture war relic that needs to go.

    1. 100 jobs is a rounding error in the M.J. wars. Hemp should be legal, but if Keith’s sources are correct, it won’t make a noticeable effect at all.

      Except for culture war posturing. Joi.

  7. Dear Keith,

    If all you have spent on the subject of industrial hemp is an hour perhaps you need a little more time and a good, third-party source of information to help round out your view. I would read the Congressional Research Service report “Hemp as an Agricultural Commodity,” which is available here:

    http://www.votehemp.com/download_center.html#CRS

    I also wrote a review of the hemp chapter of “Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know” last month. Please find the review here:

    http://www.votehemp.com/marijuana_legalization.html

    Thanks,

    Tom

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