What's Matt Smokin'?

A state assemblyman explains why our columnist is wrong about legislation that would legalize the cultivation of industrial hemp

I enjoy Matt Smith's wit and humor as much as he seems to enjoy my legislative work. His unique perspective is not always one that I share but is consistently intriguing, intelligent, and bemusing. At times, Matt is perfectly confounding. Take for example his piece "Dumb as a Potted Plant" (April 6). One has to chuckle at Smith's incessant use of the terms "reefer freaks," "potheads," and "memory-impaired losers" in what purports to be a critique of my bill to allow for the production of industrial hemp in California. Though Matt clearly articulates his accurate understanding that marijuana and industrial hemp are distant biological cousins, with hemp having only trace amounts of THC, he misses no opportunity to confuse the issue throughout his article. Relax, Matt, we all know how you feel about pot.

Matt makes the supposition that "the most ardent advocates of the claim that the legalization of hemp cultivation is an 'important issue' happen to be people who also believe, passionately, that they should be free to smoke pot recreationally." In fact, the most ardent national advocates for the legalization of hemp production are the children and grandchildren of hemp farmers who are presently desperate to get out of farming the killer weed tobacco. Yes, white, middle-class, Christian folk from Kentucky, Virginia, and other points southeast have hired lobbyists in Washington, D.C., to have Congress take action. No "reefer freaks" there -- just good ol' boys and gals who are looking to make an honest living working the land without the blood of cigarette tar on their hands.

What "memory-impaired" Matt forgets to share with his readers is that hemp farming is nothing radical or new for America. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were hemp farmers, and our Constitution was written on hemp paper. The crop has been used historically for so many purposes because it is a multifunctional, very useful, sustainable crop.

Industrial hemp grows pesticide, fungicide, and herbicide free. Hemp renews itself every 90 days and grows with less water than most other crops. From it can be manufactured over 25,000 products. Imagine growing a plant from which can be produced food, clothing, shelter, paper, and fuel. Just about anything that can be made using petrochemicals can be made from industrial hemp -- all biodegradable. Since the United States banned hemp production in the 1930s in the midst of its Reefer Madness era, the crop has had a tough time finding respect. The good news is that things are beginning to change. Over 30 countries are now growing hemp, including almost all of our Western trading partners. The international markets reflect its ever-increasing demand.

Case in point is Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, based in Escondido for over 50 years. Since adding hemp oil to their list of product ingredients in 2000, retail sales doubled to over $20 million a year. Today Dr. Bronner's is the top-selling natural soap in North America and Japan. This single company, one of 50 hemp companies in California, spends over $350,000 a year importing hemp oil from England for soap and hemp seed from Canada for their Alp Snack, an organic hemp seed energy bar. That is revenue from just one company that could be going directly to California farmers. Has Matt not yet heard of our nation's growing half-trillion-dollar trade deficit?

The global market for hemp has come a long way since Canadians first legalized growing the plant. This year over 13,000 acres of hemp will be farmed in Canada, 5,000 more than in 2004. Demand for hemp fiber is increasing and being used in a variety of products, including interior parts in cars made by Ford, DaimlerChrysler, and BMW. Over 40,000 acres of hemp was grown in the European Union in 2004, primarily to supply the auto industry and other fiber markets. Canadian farmers make $200 to $250 (Canadian) per acre growing organic hemp for the food and body care industries. Farmers in the U.K. garner $350 per acre when they harvest seed and fiber simultaneously.

Thirty years ago soy farming was considered strange when the market was just emerging. Today, it's a staple crop used in thousands of food products. Hemp might seem to be a niche market today, but why should we stifle development of this crop because it's popular with vegans and health food consumers and unpopular with Matt Smith? In total the Hemp Industries Association conservatively estimates more than $200 million in hemp products is sold in the United States each year. The potential for growth is enormous. At the very least, why is our government preventing our farmers from growing this incredible plant?

My bill, AB 1147, simply legalizes agricultural production of hemp so California farmers can benefit from this already-established market. With any luck, we may create a new career option for Mr. Smith.


Assemblyman Mark Leno represents the 13th District, which encompasses the eastern half of San Francisco.

 
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