This Bud's Not For You

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The plan was simple, if naive: Andrew Graves would grow the hemp, then local companies would sell products made from it. Graves wouldn't have to go far to learn the horticulture. As a boy, his father Jacob had helped his father grow hemp on the same land. But there was a small glitch. The Federal Government began requiring permits to grow Cannabis sativa in 1937, when Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act. Some say Congress meant to exclude hemp from the law, but the regulators who have carried it out have rarely distinguished between psychoactive and nonpsychoactive cannabis varieties. Today winning a DEA permit to grow hemp is just as hard as getting one to grow marijuana.

Jacob thought the regulations were ridiculous, since in all his years on the farm, no one had done something so silly as smoke hemp. What's more, the U.S. government had been his biggest buyer of hemp in the '40s. Cannabis-growing permits were plentiful during World War II because imports of other fibers dried up. In 1942 the USDA even produced a film, Hemp for Victory, to encourage farmers to plant hemp to meet wartime demand for rope.

After the war, when the U.S. became concerned that the Mob and foreign governments were pushing drugs on Americans, hemp became anathema. That did have a certain logic at a time when the chemical line between the two crops was more blurred. THC wasn't identified as marijuana's active agent until 1964; it's likely that some pot and hemp plants back then were closer cousins than they are today. Even now, people caught with marijuana occasionally claim it's only hemp. Cops have complained that they can't tell the difference. And as recently as the mid-'90s, a few hemp-food products could trigger a false-positive result on a drug test.

Advocates say such concerns are out of date. Today hemp can be grown with its seeds closely monitored to keep THC negligible, and a recent scholarly study showed that today's hemp foods don't trigger false positives. What's more, in open fields, low-THC hemp is actually a threat to high-THC marijuana. Since hemp and marijuana are members of the same species, they will cross-pollinate, degrading the quality of any pot hidden in a hemp field.

The Graveses thought the U.S. could adopt a simple regulatory scheme of controlled seed markets and unannounced field inspections. After all, Britain, Canada and other countries had legalized hemp cultivation without major incident. And the U.S. made regulatory changes to accommodate poppy seeds, which contain opiate traces.

But the Graveses needed political help to do the same for hemp, so Andrew went to an old family friend, Louie Nunn, a former Governor of Kentucky. If you associate hemp only with Woody Harrelson, Nunn is a jarring figure. He's a lifelong Republican. He will be 78 in March, and his major indulgences are University of Kentucky basketball and dirty jokes. But for Nunn, hemp is about economics, not the drug war. He wants locally grown hemp to be used for parts in the 1.2 million cars built in Kentucky every year. Like his allies in other farm-state legislatures who favor hemp, Nunn opposes marijuana legalization.

But even with the ex-Governor on board, the state is scarcely closer to cultivating the plant. It did enact a law last year requiring the state agriculture department to grow and study hemp, but DEA regulations treating hemp as marijuana make such work expensive--high security is required around research plots--and Kentucky's plan isn't funded. "I wouldn't expect us to grow any hemp this year or even next," sighs majority whip Joe Barrows, a Democrat in the Kentucky house who sponsored the bill. Hawaii has a small plot where hemp cultivation is allowed, but research is going slowly.

Since the crack epidemic, drug-law enforcers have been granted huge budget increases ($19.2 billion this year, up from $3.1 billion in 1982). When the Ninth Circuit weighs the hemp case, a broader issue will be whether the DEA has overstepped the authority that accompanies so much cash. For its part, the agency is seeking to minimize the importance of its new rule on hemp foods. Last week DEA administrator Asa Hutchinson told TIME the rule could even change in light of recent objections from the public, though that may be small comfort to businesses that lose money until then.

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