"Hemp is of first necessity to the wealth and protection of the country." - Thomas Jefferson

Amercian farmers may soon see the return of hemp as a viable crop alternative, the first time since 1957 the plant could be legally grown.

H.R. 525, a House resolution that would amend the Controlled Substances Act to exclude industrial hemp from the definition of marijuana, was introduced by Representatives Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.). The Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2013, as the resolution is titled, carries with it the signatures of twenty-eight original co-sponsors.

The measure has been referred to House Committee, the Committee on Energy and Commerce, and in addition to the Committee on the Judiciary, for a period to be subsequently determined by the Speaker of the House.

Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are expected to introduce a Senate companion bill to H.R. 525 later this month. If passed, the bills would remove federal restrictions on the cultivation of industrial hemp, the non-drug oilseed and fiber varieties of Cannabis, a plant most often associated with marijuana. Supporters of the bill are quick to point out that industrial hemp and marijuana plants are not one and the same.

Hemp refers primarily to Cannabis sativa L. (Cannabaceae), although the term has been applied to dozens of species representing at least 22 genera, often prominent fiber crops. Hemp is one of the oldest sources of textile fiber with remains of hemp cloth dating back nearly 6,000 years. Hemp supporters point out there is a great deal of difference between hemp varieties used for industrial purposes and Cannabis varieties used for cultivation and harvesting of illegal resins, such as marijuana plants.

(See related: California’s growing marijuana business impacting agriculture)

In recent years, new processing technologies have arisen to commercialize "cottonized" hemp, hemp concrete, high-tech hemp composites and other novel hemp applications.

If the bill submitted last week is passed by Congress, it would strike down a 1957 decision by the U.S. Justice Department that lumped industrial hemp with marijuana as a drug. But whether the bill passes or not, it won’t be the first time the federal government has been involved with hemp issues.

Hemp farming history

According to Purdue University researchers, the hemp industry flourished in Kentucky, Missouri, and Illinois between 1840 and 1860 because of the strong demand for sailcloth and cordage. Indeed, following the 1776 revolution, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and George Washington reportedly cultivated hemp as a crop on their farms.

From the end of the Civil War until 1912, virtually all hemp in the U.S. was produced in Kentucky. During World War I, some hemp cultivation occurred in several states, including Kentucky, Wisconsin, California, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Kansas, and Iowa. The Second World War led to a brief revival of hemp cultivation in the Midwest, as well as in Canada, because the war cut off supplies of fiber.

Until the beginning of the 19th century, hemp was the leading cordage fiber. Until the middle of the 19th century, hemp rivaled flax as the chief textile fiber of vegetable origin, and indeed was described as “the king of fiber-bearing plants,—the standard by which all other fibers are measured.”

The U.S. Marihuana (marijuana) Tax Act applied in 1938 essentially ended hemp production in the United States, although a small hemp fiber industry continued in Wisconsin until 1958.

(See related: California’s growing marijuana business impacting agriculture)

Supporters of industrial hemp as an agriculture crop point to a number of hemp-related facts involving use of the plant in past U.S. history. For one, the U.S. Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper. In addition:

  • The U.S.S. Constitution is outfitted with 60 tons of hemp sails and rigging.
  • Abraham Lincoln uses hemp seed oil to fuel his household lamps.
  • In 1916, a USDA Bulletin (No. 404) shows that hemp produces four times more paper per acre than do trees.
  • In 1938, a Popular Mechanic’s article, "New Billion Dollar Crop," explains that new developments in processing technology could use hemp to manufacture over 25,000 different products, "from cellophane to dynamite."
  • Henry Ford builds an experimental car body made with hemp fiber, which is ten times stronger than steel.
  • Between 1942-1946, U.S. farmers from Kentucky to Maine to Wisconsin harvest over 150,000 acres of hemp through the USDA's Hemp for Victory program.

Bill has wide support

While similar hemp bills have been offered in years past, supporters of the issue, including Agricultural Commissioner James Comer, say more lawmakers are apparently on board this time around.

"Industrial hemp is a sustainable crop and could be a great economic opportunity for Kentucky farmers," says Rep. Massie. "My wife and I are raising our children on the tobacco and cattle farm where my wife grew up. Tobacco is no longer a viable crop for many of us in Kentucky, and we understand how hard it is for a family farm to turn a profit these days. Industrial hemp will give small farmers another opportunity to succeed."

Massie is picking up where former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who introduced the previous four versions of the Industrial Hemp Farming Act in Congress, left off. Rep. Massie's home state of Kentucky is currently embroiled in a heated debate, as momentum grows to bring back hemp farming and processing in the state.

Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the minority leader in the US Senate, endorsed pending legislation in his home state that seeks to reintroduce industrial hemp cultivation there. The bill already has the support of the state's other U.S. senator, Rand Paul, and Agricultural Commissioner James Comer, who were instrumental in bringing McConnell on board.

H.R. 525 was introduced by chief sponsors Rep. Massie (R-KY) and Rep. Schrader (D-OR), with twenty-eight original co-sponsors: Rep. Schrader (D-OR), Rep. DeFazio (D-OR), Rep. Ellison (D-MN), Del. Holmes Norton (D-DC), Rep. Clay (D-MO), Rep. Cohen (D-TN), Rep. Moran (D-VA), Rep. Bonamici (D-OR), Rep. Pingree (D-ME), Rep. Yarmuth (D-KY), Rep. Peterson (D-MN), Rep. Polis (D-CO), Rep. Blumenauer (D-OR), Rep. Hanna (R-NY), Rep. Rohrabacher (R-CA), Rep. Farr (D-CA), Rep. Grijalva (D-AZ), Rep. Amash (R-MI), Rep. Benishek (R-MI), Rep. McClintock (R-CA), Rep. Campbell (R-CA), Rep. Lee (D-CA), Rep. Pocan (D-WI), Rep. Schakowsky (D-IL), Rep. Nadler (D-NY), Rep. Miller (D-CA), Rep. McDermott (D-WA) and Rep. Yoho (R-FL).