Dumb as a Potted Plant

Why is someone as smart as Mark Leno sponsoring genuinely stupid legislation to legalize hemp cultivation?

I like Mark Leno. He has the straight-laced disposition of a mortician, which juxtaposes nicely with his role as one of the California Assembly's maverick legislators. He's the governmental champion of underdogs, tenants, orphans, parolees, recovering heroin addicts, artists, foster children, and gay rights, to name a few.

Even though his issues resonate in San Francisco, like so many local officials who leave for Sacramento, Leno has been largely ignored by constituents.

He deserves a higher profile. And in San Francisco there's apparently no more direct route to public acclaim than aligning oneself with potheads. Last week, for example, members of the Board of Supervisors struggled to outstoner one another, even while they testified on behalf of a 45-day moratorium on new “medical marijuana” stores, a move designed to fend off law enforcement as supervisors write new regulations to protect these pot clubs from federal and state prosecution. During the 1990s, San Francisco's stunningly inept district attorney, Terence Hallinan, managed to stay in office for eight years in large part on the basis of his reputation as a marijuana fan.

In San Francisco, a city whose political culture still receives far too much guidance from 1970s potheads, you can't go wrong by carrying the ball for reefer freaks, no matter how absurd the cause, no matter how disastrous the results. As a journalist, I know the best way of pushing Leno toward local sainthood is to criticize him for advancing an especially idiotic item on the pothead agenda.

So — because I like Leno and want to make sure his political career prospers — I've decided to point out that he is sponsoring a truly stupid and specious bill that would create special agricultural licenses allowing farmers to grow industrial hemp that no one really needs.

In his previous job as a San Francisco supervisor, Leno was the city's go-to politician for medical marijuana.

Since then, medicinal-pot clubs — which in practice sell to potheads and street dealers of pot, along with the occasional legitimate patient — have sprouted across the city like Starbucks, to the point that even our pot-addled city fathers feared for marijuana purveyors' reputation a month ago when a pot shop nearly opened in a city-run hotel inhabited by drug rehab patients. The Board of Supervisors last week passed a 45-day moratorium on new pot-club licenses, as it considers a way to regulate this scourge.

Leno has moved on to Prong 2 of the potheads' dream of advancing the cannabis cause: legalized hemp.

As with medical marijuana, there is a legitimate, if limited, use for the hemp plant. But 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. Although supporters often deny it, the underlying idea of both the medical pot and cultivated hemp movements is that incremental steps to make marijuana — the plant and the product — accepted within society will, one day, lead to the full legalization of recreational pot.

I sympathize with the logic of the potheads' arguments: If marijuana were legal, those who grow and sell the stuff would be identified, audited, and regulated just like any other corporate profiteer, a far better situation than the criminal marijuana underground currently fostered by prohibition.

The logic of the reefer freaks' unspoken cause, however, doesn't hide a couple of unfortunate facts: Long-term pot users wind up, by and large, as memory-impaired losers. And the rhetoric that potheads spew around foot-in-the-door issues like industrial hemp is easily disproved bullshit.

Industrial hemp is an ordinary cash crop that, if grown using the proper strains, can't get you high, no matter how many bales you smoke. The plant simply does not contain enough of the psychoactive drug tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, to get a human being off. And the plant has a number of uses that have nothing to do with altering the mind.

Just the same, growing the stuff is illegal in the United States because of fears that farmers might secretly mix intoxicating pot plants in with identical-looking industrial hemp varieties. I agree with the potheads when they say this prohibition is silly. I part ways, however, when they claim this is an important issue. And potheads, along with their political hangers-on, make the mind-blowing claim that hemp is a really, really important issue.

Changing the status of nonsmokable industrial hemp could change the world, Leno and his fellow reefer freaks say. “There's great potential for an economic bonanza as a result of this new crop,” Leno said during a recent conversation. “It's a remarkable plant. And it's time to reintroduce it to the local economy.”

To this end, Leno last month sponsored a press conference during which people such as David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps (you know, the ones with the 3,000-word “the whole world is our Fatherland” inscriptions on the bottle), repeated the false pothead claim that there's a chronic shortage of industrial hemp in America, and that we therefore have a need to create special licenses for California farmers to grow the stuff.

Manufacturers of hemp products “can't guarantee the needed raw materials for requests they already have for their products,” said Leno, who insists his hemp bill, his first-ever political foray into agricultural law, has nothing at all to do with medical-marijuana activism.

“They're different issues, and I'm a multifaceted person, and I recognize medicinal benefits of medical marijuana and the potential of industrial hemp,” Leno said. “We have a growing trade deficit, and our farmers are in great need of a new crop right now. I can't tell you how many thousands of jobs this is going to create.”

These are clearly the words of a man under the delusional influence of marijuana.

In 1998, Canada passed a law similar to Leno's; it allowed farmers to apply for licenses to grow industrial hemp as long as they submitted to inspections to make sure they only grew the nonintoxicating variety of cannabis. Since then, Canadian farmers have learned that the utopian claims of hemp advocates are false, that growing hemp is a great way to lose lots of money, and that — after decades of blather from new-hope-for-dope types to the effect that hemp would revolutionize the motor fuel, textiles, and paper pulp industries — the most lucrative markets for the world's legal hemp crop remain birdseed and horse bedding.

“The market is so small for hemp products that it is not going to be a bonanza for a large group of individuals,” says hemp grower Lorne Hulme, owner of Agra Products Inc. in MacGregor, Manitoba. Hulme has spent the past six years leading a local farm co-op in its efforts to empty its silos of a 1999 glut of Canadian hemp seed.

It seems that in 1998, Canadian farmers were hearing the same line of hype Leno's now mouthing. To make matters worse, this was the middle of the dot-com craze, when hype was king in North America. A California-based, venture capital-funded start-up sought to ride pothead-inspired hemp hype to dot-com-style riches.

“They had growers all hyped up,” recalls Nabi Chaudhary, senior economic analyst for crops with Alberta's provincial government. “Their main thing was they were going to separate fiber from the hemp stem and then also use the rest of the plant for making strawboards, wood panels for construction purposes.”

The company, called Consolidated Growers and Producers, or CGP, persuaded Canadian farmers to plant some 35,000 acres of hemp plants. It hired Gero Leson, a Berkeley-based environmental scientist, as president of the firm. The next step, presumably, was to change the nature of American commerce à la Pets.com — and make a fortune in the process.

“It was the worst time of my life,” Leson recalls. “I only talk about CGP with friends that lived through it with me.”

Leson, a specialist in technological uses for natural fibers, lent a touch of legitimacy to the CGP enterprise. To his dismay, however, he soon learned that the company's backers were more interested in the pothead's version of hemp's prospects — that it'll make the world an ecotopia by replacing everything we touch, burn, or eat — than the industrial horticulturist's, which recognizes hemp's potential as a niche product with applications in foodstuffs, textiles, structural materials, and paper. And specialists with a real technical and economic expertise about the crop see many of these uses as uncertain, and at best years from economic viability.

“As you know, there's a lot of hype in the U.S. to save the world through hemp,” Leson notes. “Like the dot-commers did, CGP tried to show they had capacity. They did this by putting a crop in the ground for which they had no market. They made farmers believe there would be buyers for that crop, which wasn't the case.”

Leson quit after nine months, sick of the hype and the lies, he says. The company went bust within a year, leaving Canadian farmers holding the bag. Canadian growers only last year finished selling their 1999 crop of hemp seed, mostly as bird food, Leson says.

Some Canadian farmers still plant hemp — Canada, after all, is where U.S. manufacturers of hemp clothing and hemp granola bars currently get their seeds and fiber. Last year's crop was 8,800 acres, about a quarter of the acreage of hemp's 1999 Canadian heyday. In 2000, U.S. Department of Agriculture economists estimated the total U.S. demand for hemp fiber could be satisfied by four average-size, 500-acre farms. Even if hemp were to live out its promise better than the USDA predicted, the potential market for the crop would only be enough to sustain about a dozen average farms.

Because of this market reality, farmers in Canada won't put seeds into the ground unless money first crosses their palms.

“There are plenty of farmers who don't want to touch it. Others will plant if they are paid up front, or if they have contracts that are enforceable,” Leson notes. “Nobody's dumb enough to grow hemp on spec and hope it will sell.”

So when people at Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, or at Nutiva, a brand of hemp-based food, lined up at Leno's recent hemp press conference to say an industrial cannabis shortage is limiting their production, what they were really saying was that they don't want the expense of guaranteeing payment in advance to Canadian farmers.

Would they instead like to dupe and burn California planters, à la CGP, ensuring years of dirt-cheap hemp?

When Mark Leno says passing a Canadian-style hemp bill will create an economic revolution in California, he's either high, or blowing smoke for the benefit of voters back home.

As a fan of Leno's work — the work that steers clear of marijuana, that is — I wish him the very best by insisting that his hemp bill is so lame, it could have been designed by a stoner.

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