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Hemp clothing has come a long way from the shapeless duds that made the rounds in hippie circles years back. Today, it comes in colors other than oatmeal and in styles from brands like Patagonia, Eileen Fisher, and Good Studios that won’t make people think you’re on your way to play hacky sack. A durable fabric, hemp makes for great outerwear, but it’s also available in linen and sheer varieties that give it a feminine allure.
Although the look of hemp has been updated, the federal government’s drug laws have not. The United States classifies hemp as a Schedule I drug simply because it’s part of the cannabis family. As a result, the nation largely bans industrial hemp production, which means the hemp in those stylish clothes for sale in the US is actually imported. But hemp advocates are counting on California to shake up the industry.
Fourteen months ago, Californians passed Proposition 64 to legalize recreational pot. And on New Year’s Day 2018, they awakened with the newfound opportunity to legally buy marijuana just for fun. No more feigning vague health complaints to score medical marijuana, which California legalized in 1996. (Seriously, many people legit depend on pot to manage their health.) Prop. 64, however, does more than legalize recreational weed. It also allows growers in the Golden State to cultivate hemp.
Before California can become the nation’s hemp capital, it must first contend with a federal government that takes a “reefer madness” approach to all things cannabis. (A 1936 propaganda film, “Reefer Madness,” exaggerates the dangers of marijuana to an absurd degree.) Unfortunately, the feelings behind the film still fuel paranoia about the drug today.
US Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a case in point. Last Thursday, he announced plans to roll back Obama-era regulations that led states to legalize marijuana in the first place. Additionally, the Drug Enforcement Agency oversees hemp production and requires growers to go through a rigorous process to cultivate the crop. Only state agencies and academic institutions growing hemp for research purposes aren’t required to get permits to grow hemp, but even they’ve run into roadblocks put up by the DEA. In 2014, the agency intercepted a 250-pound shipment of hemp seed that the University of Kentucky ordered for research purposes.
If smoking your hemp clothes could actually get you high, the federal government’s approach might make sense. But hemp and marijuana, though related, are genetically distinct. Think of hemp as marijuana’s half-brother: It comes from a different strain of cannabis than marijuana does and contains just a fraction of THC — the chemical in pot that gets you stoned. The retailer Patagonia, which has a hemp collection, laments the fact that it has to import hemp due to our nation’s outdated drug laws.
“Industrial hemp is illegal to grow in most parts of the world,” Patagonia states on its website. “Activists, businesses and farmers alike are working hard to get the laws changed, but government agencies continue to associate it with marijuana. We currently import our high-quality hemp fabric from China and continue to hope this remarkably useful plant will one day grow without restrictions once again.”
The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 led to the criminalization of cannabis, and the Controlled Substance Act of 1970 classified the plant as a Schedule I drug, along with substances like heroin, LSD, and peyote. But the United States, as Patagonia hinted, has a long history of hemp production. In the 18th century, President George Washington grew hemp on each of his five farms for clothing, rope, sail canvas, and to repair fishing nets, according to his estate. He seriously pondered whether he could make it a cash crop as well.
The fact that nearly all hemp in the US is imported has economic as well as environmental ramifications. The $600 million US hemp industry is growing, with hemp textiles and beauty products driving demand. In addition to its clothing and industrial uses, hemp can be found in lotions, oils, and hair dressings. The Body Shop and Shea Moisture both use hemp in their goods. According to the Hemp Industries Association, textiles make up 17 percent of hemp imports, and beauty products make up 26 percent. By 2020, the Hemp Business Journal predicts that the hemp industry will grow to $2.1 billion. And even a federal government entity, the Congressional Research Service, described hemp as “an economically viable alternative crop for some US growers.”
Currently China is the largest global supplier of imported hemp, while Canada has that distinction in North America. Both countries will provide stiff competition if California sets out to produce industrial hemp. In many ways, though, the Golden State is uniquely suited to be a hemp producer. Five other states — Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Colorado, and Alaska — have legalized recreational marijuana, but California is the most populous state to do so and has the sixth-largest world economy. It specifically made provisions in Prop. 64 about hemp cultivation and has a climate conducive to hemp growing. There, the eco-friendly plant flourishes, requiring just a third of the water that cotton does during cultivation, and less land, too. Plus, Patagonia praises hemp because it doesn’t require pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or GMO seeds to produce. Hemp can even stop erosion and make soil healthier, the retailer notes.
So why does the DEA make it so difficult to grow the textile? Evidently, hemp’s benefits don’t outweigh the perceived threat of marijuana. Of course, states like California are overturning marijuana convictions and lifting bans on recreational use precisely because reefer madness proved to be just that. Public officials now widely acknowledge marijuana’s benefits for the chronically ill, the devastating consequences of criminalizing the drug, and the racial disparities in marijuana arrests.
As the movement to decriminalize pot spreads, it makes little sense for the federal government to pose barriers to would-be hemp growers. Banning hemp because it’s related to pot has deprived the country of revenue and consumers of the chance to buy a versatile textile that doesn’t tax the environment. That’s the real crime.