Industrial hemp debated in Pa., country

Farmers turn to marijuana kin to boost their fortunes

May 13, 1999|By William R. Macklin | William R. Macklin,Knight Ridder/Tribune

MOUNT JOY, Pa. -- Call it a pipe dream, but when farmer M. Jane Balmer imagines the future of agriculture in Lancaster County, Pa., it is filled with tall, sturdy fields of hemp.

Burned by sagging tobacco sales and worried over sluggish prices for other crops, Balmer has joined a small but increasingly vocal group of farmers in Lancaster County and elsewhere who are looking to boost their fortunes by raising industrial hemp, the nonintoxicating cousin of marijuana.

It would fit right in as a replacement for tobacco, says Balmer, 60, a widowed mother of two who raises corn, barley, wheat, alfalfa, soybeans and chickens on two 200-acre farms in this pastoral borough 10 miles from the Susquehanna River.

A major obstacle

But farmers high on the idea of raising hemp face a major obstacle: Growing the plant, which looks like marijuana but contains much lower levels of the intoxicating chemical THC, has been illegal in this country for much of the last 60 years.

Federal officials argue that allowing hemp farming would create problems in enforcing pot laws. In addition, they say, it has little commercial value.

Hemp advocates insist that farmers would find a ready market. Plants and seeds legally imported from China, Canada and elsewhere are already sold as components of pretzels, sneakers, nutritional supplements and toy flying disks. They argue that paper products made from hemp are environmentally friendly because they don't kill trees. Some stores even sell lingerie made from soft, silky hemp fibers.

So when Balmer considers the uses of hemp, she can't help but see dollar signs. A lifelong farmer and county representative for the American Farm Bureau, she has grown tobacco for 40 years but says cigarette makers, facing massive settlements for government and private lawsuits, no longer pay what they used to for her crop.

"Twenty years back, we had 30,000 acres of tobacco raised in Lancaster County," she says. "This year, we will see 12,000. Twenty years ago, it was a $20 million industry. This year, it may be $7 million. Most of us are selling tobacco at a loss."

Though some farmers, especially those in Western agricultural states, have been working with entrepreneurs -- and even with activist/actor Woody Harrelson -- to push for the legalization of industrial hemp, government officials say lifting the weed ban would intensify problems in the policing of pot and would send the wrong message.

Possible side effect

A potential byproduct of hemp production would be a de facto legalization of marijuana cultivation, says Terry Parham, a spokesman for the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, He says fields of industrial hemp could conceal marijuana plants. "We don't consider it prudent to change the status of hemp as a controlled ... drug," Parham says.

Advocates of industrial hemp scoff at such arguments. They say the plant has 50,000 legal uses and suggest that the restrictions are unfair to law-abiding farmers and a hindrance to entrepreneurs looking to turn the stalks, seeds and oil into products and profits.

Hemp advocates say that an acre of the plant can fetch upward of $500, compared with the $375 that Lancaster County farmers get for an acre of feed corn.

Drug-enforcement officials dismiss those numbers as unrealistic because they are based on the unproved assumption that demand for hemp products will quickly expand if the plant is legalized.

"The market is there, and we need to start growing," insists Shawn House, a Lancaster businessman. House, a Libertarian Party member who opposes most government regulations, operates Lancaster Hemp Co.

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