Hemp Truths



Hemp Truths

The U.S. Constitution was written on this fiber, yet it’s illegal to grow it here.

by Cynthia Thielen | Mar 20, 2013

Mauka to Makai / When I offered samples from a bag of hemp-seed tortilla chips–purchased at Whole Foods–to my House colleagues recently, some of them recoiled, asking, “Is that legal?” Others asked, only half-joking, “Will it get me high?”

Not for stoners

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Hemp is not a drug. Unlike its fun-loving cousin marijuana, hard-working, utilitarian hemp contains only trace amounts of the psychoactive ingredient delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). They’re different varieties of the species Cannabis sativa L. Hemp’s tall stalks, sparse leaves and budless branches immediately distinguish it from short, bushy, bud-laden pakalolo.


Nation-founding crop

“Hemp is of first necessity to the wealth and protection of the country,” Thomas Jefferson wrote. For centuries, hemp was a major crop in Asia, Europe and then America. It was, and still is, used in rope, textiles, oils, medicine, bedding, building materials and food. Confucius and Lao Tsu wrote on hemp paper. The painters of the Renaissance plied their craft on hemp canvas (a word derived from cannabis).

Luckily for Americans, when it came to hemp, the colonists who fought off British tyranny weren’t as quavering and timid as some of our leaders today. As the colonists showed increasing disenchantment with the Crown, England forbade them to process the hemp they grew. They had to ship the raw materials to England, which exported the finished products back, thus keeping the colonists dependent.

In preparation for independence, the colonists defiantly started turning hemp into the necessary materials for war: paper, clothing, rope, sails. How fitting that the Founding Fathers drafted the Constitution on hemp.

Growing prohibition

The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 applied to hemp as well as marijuana, effectively killing U.S. hemp production until World War II. Then, American farmers were encouraged to grow hemp as part of the war effort. When the war ended, hemp cultivation dropped off again as plastics, nylon and other petroleum-based materials flourished.

In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act made it illegal to grow hemp, lumping it in with marijuana under the umbrella of cannabis prohibition.

Cannabis conundrum

Today, as a result, while it’s legal in the U.S. to purchase and own consumer items made with hemp, it’s illegal to grow the hemp itself. Fortunately, a growing bipartisan movement is addressing this. U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R, Ky.) has joined forces with his state’s Libertarian Sen. Rand Paul and Oregon’s Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley to co-sponsor a bill that would legalize hemp cultivation in the U.S.

This mirrors Hawaii’s own bipartisan effort, House Bill 154 HD2 SD1, introduced by Speaker Joseph Souki, Representative Derek Kawakami, Representative Sylvia Luke, Representative Angus McKelvey and myself. The bill passed its first Senate hearing last week.


Hemp’s use in thousands of consumer items is well known, but some of its practical applications were discovered more recently. “Hempcrete,” a blend of hemp and lime, has a natural ability to repel termites that makes it ideal for Hawaii home construction.

Hemp also appears to be an efficient feedstock for biofuel. Providing hemp to Hawaii’s existing biodiesel producers would further reduce our reliance on imported oil.

As demonstrated after Chernobyl, the hemp plant, with its fast growth cycle and deep root system, has an uncanny ability to cleanse the soil through phytoremediation, drawing toxins in through its roots and storing them its stalks and leaves.

This soil-cleansing characteristic and hemp’s use in biofuel are the focus of HB 154 HD2 SD1, which would authorize the state Board of Agriculture to establish an industrial hemp pilot program in Hawaii.

Let’s get beyond the irrational opposition to industrial hemp and put Hawaii at the front of this national effort, heeding the advice of George Washington: “Make the most of the Indian Hemp seed, and sow it everywhere!”

Cynthia Thielen represents the 50th District (Kailua, Kaneohe Bay) in the state House of Representatives.

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