Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the much-publicized Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 and then vetoed a law that actually provides “solutions” to reduce emissions and not just new mandates.
The California Industrial Hemp Farming Act, a bipartisan effort co-authored by Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and Chuck Devore (R-Irvine), would have lifted the ban on industrial hemp, creating a licensing procedure for researchers and farmers that would allow one of the world’s most useful agricultural crops back in California.
The return of industrial hemp farming and research cannot come soon enough, especially in light of the Schwarzenegger’s ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the state.
Though decades of hemp prohibition have certainly set back industrial hemp technologies, industry is familiar with the benefits. Biofuels like ethanol were the “fuel of the future” back in the 1920s when Henry Ford engineered a light-weight passenger car utilizing plant-based plastics instead of costly steel for the body of the vehicle. Hemp was a key ingredient in both the plastics and the fuel for Ford’s “futuristic” car, and it was more than just a public relations stunt. Ethanol derived from plant cellulose in crops like hemp or wheat (even as a secondary product, after the seed or grain is harvested) has advantages over traditional sources like corn; advocates claim this cellulosic ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below those of gasoline as compared to only a 20 to 30 percent reduction from corn-based ethanol.
Today, millions of cars on the road in this country have components, such as interior panels, made of hemp composites which are lighter and cheaper than their fiberglass or petroleum-based alternatives. Other hemp composites are being used in tree-free building materials, such as pressed boards and concrete, utilizing hemp’s light weight and strength.
Hemp industry representatives estimate the current U.S. hemp market at more than $270 million in annual retail sales. But all of the hemp fiber, oil, and sterile seed that goes into U.S. products must be imported from Canada, China, Romania—or virtually any other industrialized nation besides our own.
California has some of the most fertile agricultural land in the world, and irrigating that land is not only the state’s single largest water commitment, it also accounts for 5 percent of our energy use. Replacing some of our water-intensive California crops like cotton, rice and alfalfa with industrial hemp would make more competitive use of our water and energy resources, lowering greenhouse gas emissions in the process.
You won’t read about hemp in the U.S. Department of Energy’s reports on agricultural feedstocks for the biofuels industry, nor will you hear of any promising new cultivars or cropping techniques developed in the University of California’s top agricultural science programs, because the federal Drug Enforcement Administration currently maintains the same controls over hemp as it does over the physically and chemically dissimilar drug, marijuana.
Industrial hemp doesn’t have the delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to appeal to smokers any more than the California poppy contains opium. In North Dakota, where similar hemp legislation is in the works, the state’s agricultural commissioner recently explained, ”It [industrial hemp] would take a joint the size of a telephone pole to have an impact.”
Nevertheless, Schwarzenegger said he vetoed the hemp bill because it would violate federal law. But California Industrial Hemp Farming Act would not have changed the DEA’s jurisdiction over drugs and the bill would have actually required farmers to have their crops tested to prove the hemp they were growing was non-hallucinogenic.
We won’t fully understand the unique potential of industrial hemp in California for use in textiles, as a feedstock for biofuels and plastics or in use with other applications without putting it on the market. As the state faces climbing energy costs and increasingly strict environmental regulation, low-input carbon-sequestering crops like hemp-which requires less water, herbicide, and fertilizer than many of the crops grown in the state-will be a valuable option.
The Governor’s team insists that their new greenhouse gas emission law will produce economic opportunity and environmental benefits in California, despite the significant cost to business—so why not give the green light to industrial hemp, which would have done that but cost nothing?