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.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.