Joint Agriculture Subcommittee Studying Industrial Hemp

July 15, 1997, Richmond

The joint subcommittee, comprised of members of the House Committee on Agriculture and the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources, is examining the potential benefits of, and barriers to, the production of industrial hemp in Virginia. At the joint subcommittee's first meeting, three individuals with expertise in the history, cultivation, processing, and marketing of industrial hemp provided members with a broad range of information.

Background and History

The history of hemp is a long one, going back centuries in Europe and Asia and to the Colonial era in this country. Both Washington and Jefferson, for example, cultivated hemp on their plantations for use in making rope, and at various times in U.S. history, notably the Civil War, hemp was a highly valued crop.

Hemp, however, is cannabis sativa, the same plant that produces marijuana. Since 1937, therefore, it has not been legally cultivated in this country (with the exception of a few years during World War II). The psychoactive ingredient in cannabis sativa is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and in varieties of hemp grown for commercial purposes, the THC content is so low (less than one percent) as to render the hemp useless as a drug.

The potential value of industrial hemp, for production of fiber, pulp for paper, and hemp seed, among other uses, has sparked renewed interest in the cultivation and processing of hemp. In several other states (e.g., Kentucky, Missouri, Colorado, Wisconsin, and Vermont) a variety of initiatives to study, and in some cases to cultivate on an experimental basis, industrial hemp have been considered. Because of strong opposition from law-enforcement, most prominently the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), other states, like Virginia, are currently limited to studying industrial hemp.

Other Countries

Industrial hemp is currently grown legally in many countries, and in some countries has been for many years. China, Russia, eastern European countries, and France have long histories with industrial hemp, and they have been joined lately by the United Kingdom and Canada. These nascent initiatives in the UK and Canada are of particular interest in that they are so recent and are closely regulated by their respective governments.

Reports from both countries indicate success with the cultivation of the crop, albeit on a limited basis, and very little problem with a misguided public stealing the hemp for illicit purposes (for which it is essentially useless). Potential markets for hemp and the infrastructure needed to process the raw material remain areas of concern, especially when compared to countries with a longer history of cultivating, harvesting, and processing hemp.

Potential Markets for Hemp

One of the founders of Ecolution, a Northern Virginia company specializing in the wholesale market for hemp-related products, addressed the joint subcommittee concerning the potential markets for hemp in this country. Ecolution successfully markets hemp clothing made from eastern European hemp. A Maryland micro-brewer is experiencing surprising success with a beer made with hemp seeds, legally imported from China. A large potential market exists with American paper companies, widely rumored to be interested in industrial hemp as an easily renewable source of pulp.

The American market for hemp, while tiny, is growing. The extent to which this market could be served by legal American hemp producers is at present unknown and will likely remain so until experimental cultivation of the plant can begin. Reliable scientific data concerning the cultivation and processing of hemp in this country are old, in many cases pre-World War I. While of some value, this information necessarily omits widespread advances in agricultural technology over the past 70 years, and updated experimental data are badly needed.

Next Meeting

The members of the joint subcommittee agreed to explore the possibility of establishing an experimental program to cultivate industrial hemp, probably at an experimental station at Virginia State University or at Virginia Tech. They further agreed to seek information from paper companies about their reported interest in industrial hemp as a source of pulp. Finally, the joint subcommittee will invite a representative of the DEA to explain the agency's position on the experimental cultivation of industrial hemp.

The next meeting of the joint subcommittee is tentatively scheduled for late August.

The Honorable Mitchell Van Yahres, Chairman
Legislative Services contact: Ken Patterson