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California farmers could be growing industrial hemp – not marijuana, mind you – by spring after Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that would permit California farmers to grow the long-banned distant cousin of the trippy herb.
But only if the federal government lifts its hemp cultivation ban.
The new law permits the growing of industrial hemp – which contains trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, the active psychoactive component in cannabis – for the sale of seed, oil and fiber. Nine other states have passed similar laws.
There is a potential agricultural windfall in California, where $500 million worth of hemp products were sold in 2012, according to industry figures – but all the raw hemp was imported from China, Canada and eastern Europe.
But that windfall won’t be realized unless the federal law is relaxed. Federal law regulates hemp in largely the same way it does its medicinal cousin. There hasn’t been a commercial industrial hemp crop grown in the U.S. since 1957, hemp advocates say.
In August, a memo from Deputy Attorney General James Cole clarified that the federal government would de-emphasize marijuana prosecutions in “states and local governments that have enacted laws legalizing marijuana in some form” and have “strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems.”
Leno believes his legislation sets up just such a structure in California.
It authorizes the California Department of Food and Agriculture and county agriculture commissioners to exercise oversight of hemp production, as they do with other crops.
On Monday, Leno will ask state Attorney Gen. Kamala Harris to seek clarification from the Department of Justice about whether its August memo gives a green light to industrial hemp crops now that the state has approved a regulatory process for them.
“I hope by next spring, this (planting) could be happening,” Leno said.
“For (the federal government) to say it’s OK for marijuana and not hemp would be ridiculous,” Leno said. “It seems a given that hemp would be included in (Cole’s) statement.”
Leno scoffed at the notion that the new law is a back door to legalizing marijuana for recreational use in the state. Colorado and Washington are the only states that permit adult recreational use of marijuana. Medicinal marijuana is legal in California, 19 other states and the District of Columbia.
“Anyone who says that just shows a lack of knowledge,” Leno said. “Unfortunately, hemp got wrapped up in the hysteria around marijuana decades ago.”
But John Lovell, a lobbyist for the California Narcotics Officers Association, which opposed the measure, said it “would take more than a letter signed by the Department of Justice to have weight. I’d like to see some legislative action” in Congress.
Two federal measures, one each in the House and Senate, tried to legalize growing industrial hemp this year, but got only a handful of co-sponsors.
Should Californians gain approval to begin planting industrial hemp, the retail market for hemp products could boom. It is used in everything from clothing to soap, and as a substitute for fiberglass in automobile parts.
“I think the market could double to $1 billion within five years,” said Tom Murphy, a board member of Vote Hemp, an industry advocate. “It could be hugely influential. California is the largest agricultural state, after all.”