BY: Cuyler Gibbons
Most everyone is familiar with the 1937 anti-marijuana scare film, Reefer Madness, about the supposed deleterious effects of smoking the evil weed. Today, the political and societal landscape surrounding marijuana use has changed radically, becoming far more hospitable, at least on a state level. Nevertheless, when it comes to hemp, the reefer madness continues at the DEA.
Hemp, like marijuana, is a form of the cannabis plant, yet it contains only trace amounts of the psychoactive chemical THC. Marijuana, typically with THC levels between 5 percent and 25 percent—the drug demonized in the eponymous 1930s propaganda flick—is classified as a Schedule I narcotic by the federal government. The same as heroin and LSD. According to the FDA, Schedule I drugs “have no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Lately however, the science behind the efficacious medicinal properties of cannabis has begun to catch up with millennia of anecdotal information, raising serious questions about whether such scheduling is constructive and the real motivation behind it.
Hemp, marijuana’s less attractive, non-psychoactive cousin, is classified the same way, despite the lack of any mind altering properties. On a federal level, all cannabis is illegal to produce in the United States. Including hemp. However, within the scrupulous logic of the U.S. regulatory system it is legal to import hemp products into the United States, and many of the more than 30 countries where hemp is grown do so, to the tune of nearly $600 million worth of hemp stuff every year. Michael Bowman and the National Hemp Association think this really is madness.
The voice of industrial hemp in America is a bearded, middle-aged farmer from a conservative corner of Colorado, who now makes his home in South Pasadena. Michael Bowman is a passionate advocate, with a jones for social justice, who comes by his advocacy for the miracle plant honestly. That is, as president of the National Hemp Association, he’s not some amoral K Street hired gun, but is instead motivated by a genuine belief in his cause. It’s a David and Goliath story, but things look to be turning David’s way.
When I meet Bowman, he’s just returned from Washington, D.C., and is feeling cautiously optimistic about the future of industrial hemp production in America. Optimistic because, since 2012, things appear to be moving in industrial hemp’s direction, but cautious, because in the American system, political acceptance and support is often less about the quality of your proposal and the potential for public good, and more about the power of the entrenched interests that oppose you. Among the most influential lobbies clogging the halls of Washington today are those serving the energy, pharmaceutical and agricultural industries, and all can expect major disruption from the rise of industrial hemp production.
Despite the powerful competing interests, Bowman remains unbent. He believes hemp is perhaps on the brink of an historic breakthrough that has been a long time coming. Back in the late 1930s, on the precipice of war, America was at a cross-roads, and our adoption of a hydrocarbon based economy was not yet a fait accompli. In fact, Henry Ford himself had built the Iron Mountain Bio-refinery, to facilitate his vision of a bio-economy, with industrial hemp at its center, including plans to roll out, by 1942, a hemp composite car that ran on hemp based ethanol and methanol. Of course, J.D. Rockefeller had recently discovered big oil deposits in West Pennsylvania, Dupont was preparing to introduce America to new synthetic fibers, and Hearst had forests of trees waiting to be turned into paper.
Though it was arguably a more cost effective and ecologically superior alternative in all three cases, each of these visionary captains of industry saw only the competition represented by industrial hemp, and ignored hemp’s immense promise. Even more than ignored, they actively fostered a misinformation campaign demonizing marijuana in order to tar industrial hemp with the same brush. In 1937, hemp production was banned. Soon embroiled in a world war however, the U.S. was forced to acknowledge reality and actually sponsored a war-time push on domestic hemp production to address military needs. An effort dubbed “Hemp for Victory.” Immediately post war, however, political refer madness reigned, and the ban was resumed; culminating eventually in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which classified not just marijuana, but all hemp, as a Schedule I narcotic. Sometimes timing, as they say, is everything.
And, better late than never, Michael Bowman might add today. A fifth generation East Colorado farmer, Bowman grew up raising corn, wheat, alfalfa and occasionally sunflowers in a remote part of the state. The family ranch sat atop the Ogallala aquifer and Bowman had thought deeply about resource allocation issues. He’d been considering how to create another commodity—“wind, or solar, or bio-fuels. Anything along those lines,” he says, that his family farm could produce. Then in 2004, he got involved in a Colorado ballot initiative on renewable energy, seeking regulations requiring a small percentage of the state’s electricity to be produced at the point of consumption. When campaign co-chair and then Congressman Mark Udall asked Bowman to perform rural outreach on behalf of the initiative, Bowman got a real taste of the power of entrenched interests. He also got a taste of victory. Despite being outspent 10 to 1 by the coal industry, the renewable initiative passed, and Bowman, who also had past local planning and zoning commission experience, was firmly bitten by the policy bug.
He dove in and, with 11 others, formed 25×25, a “national organization focused on finding ways in the public policy channel so agricultural communities could build and generate renewable energy and get it into the system,” as he describes their work. In the course of his 25×25 renewable energy activity Bowman became aware of industrial hemp and was both intrigued and appalled by what he found. “I got interested basically from a resource issue, then I started looking at it from the perspective of jobs, and climate, and all the other things you can do with it—and then the fact that it’s banned—I just thought, ‘My goodness, how did we get here?!’”
Soon Bowman had partnered with a woman in Denver named Lynda Parker, an urban activist who had worked on a legalization bill in the early ’80s as a college student. Canada had legalized hemp in 1997 and working with the Canadian Consulate, Bowman and Parker began holding quarterly conferences for law enforcement, bar associations, legislators, and other stake holders to educate them on the societal value of industrial hemp, with the Canadian experience as example. Finally, in 2012, hemp production was legalized via state initiative, although the federal ban remained.
Bowman says, “Nearly every piece of federal legislation starts out with a good state or local program,” so he helped launch the National Hemp Association and set his sights on repeating his Colorado success on a national level. The first step was an amendment to the 2013 Federal Farm Bill authorizing “research, development and market research of industrial hemp in any state where it had been legalized.” With industrial hemp still classified on a national level as a Schedule One drug, Bowman hoped to provide the cover of federal law. He was, he says, “trying to find ways to start inching people into production with some sense of security that they’re not going to have the black helicopter raid in the middle of the night.” Bowman was once again successful and to mark the passage of that amendment in January 2014, a hemp flag was flown over the Capitol on July 4th of that year.
Hemp, however, still had powerful interests arrayed against it. Not least our own DEA. Possessed of a hefty cannabis eradication budget the DEA was loath to give up the effort, and thus the funding, and continued to cause trouble, seizing product and disrupting research efforts. In Washington however, sometimes even an old dog like Mitch McConnell can learn new tricks. Garnering conservative support like McConnell’s, Congress passed an omnibus act effectively defunding the DEA’s ability to do anything that interfered with the Farm Bill amendment.
The DEA continues to pout however, and is jousting with Congress and USDA over the ultimate legal definition of hemp and its attributes—a technical, but important point, particularly regarding products like CBD oil, which shows exceptional medical promise, and produces no psychoactive effects, yet is still regarded by the DEA as requiring their oversite. Nevertheless, with conservatives like McConnell and Rand Paul solidly on board, a congressional bi-partisan consensus has coalesced behind legal hemp production. Bowman believes the time is now. Well, 2017 actually. This is the American political system after all. Bowman expects to see a bill descheduling hemp pass next year, thereby restoring the reputation of “cannabis sativa l. with less than .3 percent THC by weight” and allowing its cultivation, and the production of hemp products, without DEA meddling.
And it’s about time, says Bowman. Thinking like a responsible farmer, not a huge amoral multinational corporation, he recalls how the light went on for him, and how he expects it will for many others as well. “If you’ve got any kind of feeling for social justice in you it bubbles up when you hear stories about the human and environmental destruction from things like GMO cotton. Those issues opened my mind and I said, wait a minute, this [hemp production] is a resource issue for us all. I can grow this crop, on a fraction of the land and use half the water I’m using on my corn, and create some jobs along the way while I’m doing it. That all seemed pretty exciting.” If Bowman and the coalition he’s fostered around the National Hemp Association have their way, the madness may finally be coming to an end.