Hemp used to be one of the United States’ staple crops. But all that changed in the 1930s, when attitudes toward cannabis changed dramatically. All of a sudden, marijuana became the scapegoat for a number of society’s ills. The economy of the southern US has always been chiefly agricultural. And for a while, hemp played a central role in that economy. The industrial and commercial uses of hemp are numerous and diverse. However, the long war on drugs brought severe stigma to cannabis sativa, and made hemp guilty by association. But not today. Not in Virginia. For the first time since the 1930s, Virginia is harvesting hemp again.
Virginia Harvesting Hemp Again
Glenn Rodes has a family farm in Rockingham County, Virginia. It’s a farm Rodes’ father started back in 1949. Tucked away behind rows of corn in a nondescript field, however, you will find a crop that hasn’t been grown there for decades.
It grows up to a towering 8 feet, is rich in strong fibers, and has been part of human ecology for thousands of years. When the Rodes’ farm begins harvesting hemp this fall, they’ll be one of dozens of farms participating in the first hemp harvest in Virginia in 70 years.
Rodes and his family members, who also work on the farm, are in charge of cultivating a wide range of crops and livestock on their 900-acre farm. They’re super interested in growing hemp for its use in making biofuels. If the Rodes can power their farm equipment with fuel made with their own hemp, that’s real sustainability. Rodes is glad that the state of Virginia has finally excepted what his family has known for generations: that “hemp is not a drug.”
The Unknown Story of Hemp Law
Legal barriers still stand in the way of hemp cultivation. But in 2014, Congress passed a farm bill that allowed farms to get licensed growing hemp for research purposes. That change in federal law affected 30 states, including Virginia. The state began passing its own laws on hemp research programs in 2015.
However, the irony that a state like Virginia had to legalize research on a former staple crop, isn’t lost on lawmakers. “It’s funny that we had to pass legislation just to do research, given hemp’s history in the state,” said Republican lawmaker Joseph R. Yost. Yost sponsored one of those bills in 2015.
During the Colonial era, the British Navy actually required Virginia farmers and slaves to grow hemp to make ropes for their ships. As Jason Amatucci, founder of the Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition, explains, “People think it was tobacco that started this colony, but it was also hemp.”
Reviving the Commercialization of Hemp
This year, Virginia’s general assembly passed another set of bills expanding the commercial production of hemp. Now, the state waits for federal restrictions to loosen up. The problem is that industrial hemp falls under the definition of “marijuana.” Advocates want to change that. They point out that hemp has a THC concentration of less than 0.3 percent. Compare that to the THC in medical cannabis, which can range from 15-25 percent on average.