Authorities arrested David Bronner when he locked himself in a steel-bar cage in front of the White House last year and began using a hand-powered press to extract fresh oil from 12 large hemp plants, which he planned to put on French bread and serve to passers-by.
Bronner, a California executive, says there’s no good reason that growing hemp – the non-intoxicating sister plant of marijuana – is still illegal in the U.S.
On Monday, he came back to Washington, joining a group of 50 citizen-lobbyists who urged Congress to lift the federal ban, saying it would allow more domestic hemp to be used in food, clothing, body-care products, construction materials, even auto parts.
“It’s time to grow hemp,” Bronner said. “I mean, it’s been a long and ridiculous situation.”
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The issue gained traction in September, when California Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that would allow farmers in the state to grow hemp if the federal government lifts its ban. California joined nine other states with similar laws, but growers still never know if they’ll face federal prosecution.
“You have to be willing to bet the farm to find out,” said Tom Murphy, national outreach coordinator for a pro-legalization group called Vote Hemp.
Ryan Loflin, a Colorado farmer who joined the group at the Capitol, decided to take the risk, growing 60 acres of hemp and harvesting the crop last month. It was touted as the first acknowledged commercial hemp crop in the U.S. in more than 50 years.
“It’s a ridiculous policy, so I just challenged them on it,” Loflin said, adding that he so far hasn’t faced any threats of enforcement action.
Growers say the situation in the U.S. is complicated by the fact that it’s legal to buy and sell hemp products but not to grow and cultivate the crop. They’re out to sell legalization with economic arguments, saying the industry already has more than $500 million in annual retail sales.
“It’s not a drug. It’s purely about jobs,” Loflin said.
Not everyone’s convinced, however.
“Hemp is the forgotten child of drug policy, and for good reason: I have never heard a solid rationale for legalizing something with such little demand,” said Kevin Sabet, the director of the University of Florida Drug Policy Institute and a former adviser on drug issues to Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Sabet said the small demand for hemp was filled by foreign producers at little cost to the American economy but that legalizing it “might frustrate enforcement efforts, as people could be growing marijuana but hiding it under the guise of hemp.”
Hemp growers say their cause is helped by the growing popularity of the movement to legalize marijuana. A majority of Americans now say they want criminal penalties removed for possession, polls indicate. Two states, Washington and Colorado, voted last year to approve marijuana for recreational use for adults 21 and older beginning in 2014.
Hemp backers say they’ll secure another big win if they can convince House of Representatives and Senate negotiators to include language in a new farm bill that would allow colleges and universities to grow hemp for academic and agricultural research.
Bronner, the CEO of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, imports the plant from Canada and uses it in his line of natural soaps, saying it contains the popular omega-3 essential fatty acid and produces a smooth lather that’s less drying to the skin.
“It’s just a really good oil,” he said.
Bronner said “the most ridiculous part of the drug war” has been banning hemp at all, because it can’t be used for getting high. He said it never should never have been classified with marijuana as a controlled substance in the first place and that it now became “increasingly untenable” to maintain the hemp ban as states moved to legalize marijuana.
He and other hemp supporters said it was only a matter of time – perhaps a few years at most – before the federal government would give a green light to their industry.
“We’re just really excited,” Bronner said. “It’s been a long time coming.”