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Hemp hemp, hooray: Old crop is new again

If it was good enough for George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, it ought to be good enough for Oregon farmers.

We're talking about hemp, an ancient fiber crop used for everything from clothing to auto parts to food. Washington and Jefferson grew it in Colonial times, when the law actually required farmers to produce it. During World War II, the U.S. government subsidized it.

But because it is a variety of cannabis sativa and therefore a relative of marijuana, it falls under U.S. drug laws and is severely restricted by the Drug Enforcement Administration. This despite industrial hemp containing only minute amounts of the psychoactive chemical found in marijuana plants. 

Oregon legalized hemp growing 1997, but did not write rules for its production for fear the federal government would crack down. Even now, with recreational marijuana legalized in three states and medical marijuana in many more, industrial hemp, which is not usable as a drug, is not widely grown because of federal red tape.

Oregon is one of 18 states that have legalized industrial hemp, but the federal government has not caught up with the trend. Growers cannot obtain hemp seeds without a permit from the DEA. An Eagle Point farmer has obtained the first state permit to grow hemp on property in the Applegate Valley, but can't get started until clearing that regulatory hurdle.

Besides being a very versatile crop, hemp is a good fit for this area for other reasons. It is resistant to most agricultural pests, so it can be grown without pesticides, and its canopy inhibits weed growth. Hemp produces more pulp per acre than timber, and hemp paper can be produced using less acid and safer bleach, making it an environmentally friendly alternative.

The U.S. is the only industrialized nation that does not permit hemp growing on a national basis. Federal law should stop treating the crop as a dangerous drug and recognize its value to the agriculture industry.