ANNAPOLIS – Farmers in southern Maryland have been choosing some unusual crops to grow in place of tobacco as part of the state’s conversion program, ranging from wine grapes to kosher beef.
Yet one alternative crop’s reputation is as bad or worse than tobacco: the hemp plant, from which the drug marijuana is derived.
The plant will be grown in Maryland this spring as part of a study to determine if hemp can be grown for profit.
The tobacco crop conversion program has been in place only about a year and already 80 percent of the tobacco grown in Maryland in 2000 will not be planted in 2002.
Because of the willingness of southern Maryland farmers to convert their crops, Delegate Daniel Morhaim, D-Baltimore County, introduced a bill to fund the hemp crop study.
The hemp plant, called “industrial hemp” to distinguish it from the similar plant that is used to produce marijuana, will be grown on federal property at an undisclosed location by William Gimpel, a Maryland Department of Agriculture scientist.
Labeled as a raw material with an image problem by advocates, industrial hemp’s potential as a crop is hindered by its association with marijuana.
“I think there is a very distinct line between industrial hemp and its product and its uses,” Gimpel said.
The biggest problem advocates face is that the hemp plant, cannabis sativa, is still considered a drug by the Department of Justice, and as such it can be grown only on federal property.
However, the industrial version contains so little delta-9- tetrahydrocannabinol, the active drug, that is impossible to get high off it.
“The purpose of this is to diversify the Maryland agriculture economy,” Morhaim said. Some farmers in southern Maryland have told him they are very interested in growing hemp as an alternative to tobacco.
Planting these seeds will help answer the questions Maryland farmers have about the plant as a crop, Gimpel said. His goals for the study are to see if hemp can be grown in Maryland’s climate and to determine if it would be profitable.
In fact, advocates of the plant say it has the potential to be used in many different products.
“Anything that can be made from wood or petroleum can be made from hemp,” said Eric Steenstra with VoteHemp Inc., based in Northern Virginia. “You could be employing farmers to grow a crop instead of cutting down trees.”
The carmaker BMW, for example, uses hemp fibers in sound deadening materials for car stereos. Hemp fibers also are used in many paper companies’ paper products.
Crane & Co. Paper Makers in Massachusetts uses 50 percent hemp fibers in some of its paper product lines because it’s a trendy way to protect trees.
“There is no compelling reason to use hemp for structural and technical reasons,” said Sam Smith, head of Crane’s hemp fiber product line. “The hemp does have some sex appeal because of the groups that are out there and getting recognized.”
Crane imports hemp fibers from the United Kingdom. It is not illegal to import industrial hemp, but any imported seeds must be infertile.
But making it legal to grow is only one step in the process of making it a profitable crop, Gimpel said.
“If we have to truck all this stuff to Canada to process it, that might eat up the profits,” he said. Canada allows farmers to grow hemp and sell it for profit, but Gimpel said more farmers are abandoning the crop than are planting it.
Regardless, funding for studies like this is exactly what is needed, Smith said.
“We’re trying to do the right thing,” he said referring to Crane finding alternatives to making paper out of trees. “I think it has great appeal. I think (the market) will open up substantially.”
Steenstra agrees. “The potential for hemp isn’t going to be known until farmers actually grow it.”