By Chase Dittmer
On Wednesday, May 20, 2015, Rhode Island’s legislature held a hearing for House Bill 6177, a bill proposing to legalize the growth and sale of hemp within the state. This hearing was scheduled to clear up any misconceptions regarding industrial hemp.
Hemp doesn’t have a simple etymological history. For medieval Europeans, “hemp” was the generic word used to describe fiber. With European expansion, fiber plants encountered during colonization were often identified as hemp. Accordingly, a variety of plants include the word hemp in their common names: Mauritius hemp (Furcraea gigantea), New Zealand hemp (Phormium tenax), Sunn hemp (Crotalaria juncea), Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), among others.
The bewilderment began with the introduction of a new word to describe hemp: marijuana. In an 1894 edition of Scribner’s Magazine, the word mariguan, an etymological variation of the word marijuana, is often cited as the earliest published use of the word marijuana.
When the Mexican Revolution of 1910 prompted an influx of Mexicans to immigrate to the United States, Mexican vernacular infused the English language, with the word marijuana alluding to recreational cannabis consumption. By the 1930s, the word had become fairly common and with Henry Anslinger at the helm of the Bureau of Narcotics, the agency began using the word as a pejorative term to describe all forms of cannabis.
Since that time, the distinction between the word marijuana and hemp has been clouded by a miseducation in etymology, complicating the American political system and public perception. There are still those that believe hemp legalization equals marijuana legalization; however, a quick study of biology reveals that hemp is not an intoxicant and that it can be a great source of agricultural opportunity for the United States.
Rhode Island’s Hemp Bill
In Rhode Island, the currently proposed bill, sponsored by Burrillville Democrat Rep. Cale Keable, would legalize the growth and sale of hemp products, including oil, cloth, lotion and paper, among others. This bill would also legalize CBD-rich hemp, a product that numerous states use in conjunction with their medical marijuana programs. CBD-rich strains have been featured by national news media, including CNN’s WEED series with Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
CBD-rich hemp is derived from the stalks and seeds of industrial hemp plants with high levels of cannabidiol, an ingredient in cannabis that some advocates claim has medicinal value. CBD-rich hemp plants contain a low concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive element responsible for creating cannabis’ high. Additionally, CBD-rich hemp is specifically bred to contain high concentrations of the naturally occurring cannabinoid, cannabidiol. In Rhode Island’s proposal, CBD-rich hemp is defined as having less than 1 percent THC, but more than 15 percent CBD.
Rhode Island’s hemp bill would also enact specific registration requirements for those who want to apply for hemp cultivation licenses. Applicants would be required to register with the state’s division of agriculture. Applications would need to include a certificate of analysis for the seeds intended for cultivation, as well as an explanation of the applicant’s seed-to-sale tracking, product testing and product labeling systems. Currently, the House Health, Education & Welfare Committee has recommended House Bill 6177 be held for further study.
Operating under states’ rights, several states have enacted hemp programs similar to the one proposed in Rhode Island. However, hemp can contain small amounts of THC, which has caused it to be banned by federal law, except for those who are qualified to grow it under the current federal Farm Bill. In 2014, Colorado, Kentucky and Vermont grew hemp research crops in compliance with this bill.
Hemp’s proponents say the crop can boost our nation’s agricultural economy and help struggling farmers. In 2014, according to the Hemp Industries Association, $620 million worth of retail hemp products were sold in the United States. With more states considering hemp cultivation, annual retail sales of hemp products should increase, proving a sustainable crop can be profitable.