Hawaii Plants Hemp Hopes

Hempsters ended the century on a high note in December, when political, business, and spiritual dignitaries gathered in Hawaii to ceremoniously plant the first sanctioned hemp crop on U.S. soil since 1957. But because of financial limitations and biological frustrations, the tiny plot–a quarter of an acre in Oahu’s Whitmore Village–will hardly satisfy hemp proponents’ dreams.

The project is funded by Alterna Applied Research Laboratories, Los Angeles, which has used hemp seed oil in its hair-care products since 1998. Because the Drug Enforcement Administration insists that the crop be treated as a Schedule I narcotic–its term for any plant containing even a hint of marijuana’s active ingredient, THC–$25,000 of the $200,000 had to be spent on security, including a 10-foot-high barbed wire fence, round-the-clock guards, and infrared surveillance cameras.

That the DEA sanctioned the effort at all was a major coup, testament to the tenacity of Hawaii state representative Cynthia Thielen, who spent three years pestering officials. Although Hemp Industries Association spokesperson Mari Kane says Thielen’s legalization efforts are as much pro-family as pro-business (Thielen’s son owns the Hawaiian Hemp Company), the growth of industrialized hemp could help reduce the state’s 5.4 percent unemployment rate and reverse the downturn caused by the loss of its largest export, sugar cane, to Caribbean and Central American competition.

But that isn’t likely to happen soon. For one thing, the project is short-term, entirely dependent on the funds allotted. Alterna may be participating “just for the publicity,” suggests Kane. Indeed, the company, which now obtains hemp ingredients from France, acknowledged that the planting event “helped get the word out to Americans about hemp’s vast environmental and economic benefits,” thus boosting its own hemp education campaign, said Alterna’s Kimberlee Mitchell. No future funding is promised.

Nor will there really be a crop. Because Kentucky Hemp, once hemp’s most prolific strain, is now extinct, the plot will be used for seed trials in an attempt to recreate its genetic information. “All that remains of this genetic resource is [the ‘ditchweed’ that grows throughout the Midwest],” says David West, the plant geneticist overseeing the project. “It is a long way from ditchweed to an agricultural crop.” The main goal now is to cultivate a viable strain of Cannabis sativa L through ongoing plantings–and to continue legalization efforts. “Hemp’s progress has been made by a series of domino effects,” says West. “This is another domino.”

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