When U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) announced last week that he was going to introduce a bill to legalize industrial hemp, there was a sudden collective intake of breath among the nation’s journos, the likes of which hadn’t been heard since the last 4/20 celebration at CU Boulder.
Rand Paul, Kentucky’s other GOP Senator, will be joining McConnell as an original co-sponsor of the bill.
McConnell said his bill would “finally legalize hemp as an agricultural commodity and remove it from the list of controlled substances.”
He added that he was “optimistic that industrial hemp can become sometime in the future what tobacco was in Kentucky’s past.”
The journos’ surprise stemmed from the fact that the only two demographics in the country that still oppose the legalization of marijuana are Republicans and geezers.
But hemp and U.S. Senators from Kentucky go back a long way. All the way back to Henry Clay.
Clay grew hemp on his estate, Ashland, and was a leader in introducing the crop to the state, importing seeds from Asia.
In 1810, he favored legislation requiring the U.S. Navy to use domestically grown hemp for its rigging. And in 1828, he favored a tariff bill, known as the Tariff of Abominations in the Southern states, that imposed a $60-a-ton duty on imported hemp ($1,100 or $2,400 in today’s dollars, depending on how inflation is calculated).
During the 19th and first part of the 20th century, Kentucky was the country’s major hemp-producing state.
In the 19th century, hemp was mostly grown for fiber. It was used for ship’s sails — the word canvas derives from cannabis –— and lines (or ropes, as land lubbers would say). It was also used for clothing; a lot of the home-made clothing called homespun was made from hemp (as opposed to flax or cotton).
But as a fabric, hemp took a major hit from the invention of the cotton gin, which made the production of cotton fiber more economical.
The extraction of fiber from hemp stalks required them to be dried in the sun and then beaten to break the cellulose inner cores, or hurds, and loosen the fibers from them. Henry Clay had more than 50 slaves to do the job.
(Hemp did benefit from “King Cotton” in one surprising way; hemp cordage was used to bind cotton bales.)
The hemp equivalent of the cotton gin, dubbed the decorticator, wasn’t developed until the 20th century.
Just about the time hemp seemed poised to take off as a major 20th century crop — a 1937 issue of Popular Mechanics described a number of major uses and called it a “New Billion Dollar Crop” — the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed, and hemp became collateral damage from reefer madness. The war on drugs ensued and Cretans finally succeeded in declaring it a controlled substance and outlawing its production outright in 1970.
But it’s hard to keep a good plant down. In 2014, McConnell, with an eye toward resurrecting Kentucky’s hemp industry evidently, attached a rider to the Farm Bill that shielded state industrial hemp research programs from federal meddling.
It was the same year Colorado’s re-legalization of marijuana – and hemp – kicked in. Today 80 percent of U.S. hemp production, while tiny, occurs in Kentucky and Colorado.
Hemp producers usually make a point of saying that you absolutely, positively can’t get high from the hemp they grow. If so, it’s because they’re using strains that have been deliberately bred to have absolutely, positively no THC in them. Other than that, there is absolutely, positively no biological difference between marijuana and hemp.
The difference lies in how they are grown. Hemp plants are grown close together like grass. That way they’ll grow up tall and stringy. Marijuana is planted with the plants further apart, so they can bush out and produce more flowers (or buds as we call ’em). But the individual hemp plants will still produce flowers at the top.
Henry Clay’s hemp would probably get you high, but not very high, just like any pre-1970 hemp crop before the THC was bred out.
Speaking of Henry Clay, hemp is again being grown at Ashland, his estate.
Last October, the Kentucky Hempsters, an advocacy group, held their second annual “hemp-infused” fundraising dinner there, which featured a five-course meal with each dish incorporating hemp foods (sans THC, alas) and show-casing the hemp plant’s edible side.
Chef Jeremy Ashby’s Dinner Menu
Sour cream and hemp flour cornbread with honey butter
Hemp oil caesar dressing, hemp hearts, croutons, tomato-basil tapenade
Hemp seed crusted chicken, golden raisins, bourbon and sorghum glaze
Creamy smoked gouda and hemp heart risotto
Blueberry peach cobbler with hemp cake crumble