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|Thursday, May 20, 2010|
By Brandon Sawyer
Tuesday evening while other politicians watched returns and rehearsed election party speeches, Portland’s well-regarded former mayor Bud Clark was waxing eloquent on another subject: “Industrial hemp is not marijuana,” he declared. “You can’t smoke hemp. It’s like smoking rope… It’s a good thing and it can be made here in America.” Clark was enumerating the economic virtues of industrial hemp as co-emcee of the first annual Hemp History Week, marked by almost 200 events in 31 states and the nation’s capital.Portland’s event kicked off in the historic Northwest industrial district at Bridgeport BrewPub, which happens to occupy the site of a former ropewalk, circa 1887. Bridgeport even named a brew Ropewalk to honor the heritage of the narrow building, perhaps a thousand feet long, where spun hemp was once twisted into rope. Nineteenth-century sailing ships sometimes used more than 20 miles of hemp rope. That and the prevalence of hemp paper in the early American republic naturally required a lot of hemp farming.
Oregon was never a major commercial hemp producer, though the USDA did conduct experimental trials in Corvallis with various Cannabis strains in the 1930s. Now that Oregon and 16 other states have passed laws granting farmers the right to grow industrial hemp, the event organizers, Hemp Industries Association, a trade group, and Vote Hemp Inc., an industrial hemp lobby, hope the federal government signals will not prosecute farmers for growing hemp. They have launched a postcard and letter-writing campaign to bombard the Obama administration and Attorney General Eric Holder with the message that the opportunity to supply an estimated $360 million domestic retail market for hemp products is being missed by American farmers whose forbears once grew the stuff in abundance.
Lisa Sedlar, President and COO of New Seasons Markets, opened her remarks with a reference to the movie Network: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Sales of hemp products at New Seasons, Sedlar pointed out, from body care to hemp ice cream have been growing like a weed. Most are made by U.S. manufacturers, yet these firms still can’t source their raw hemp from local farmers. With the quality of soil in the Willamette Valley and the loss of hundreds of family farms each year, she said, “there’s just no good reason why we shouldn’t grow industrial hemp in our state. Let’s create some jobs. We know we can grow this in Oregon and also know that we have a lot of pent-up demand in our stores.”
Hemp is easily digestible and a complete protein, Sedlar noted. Among the hemp products sold at New Seasons, a number are made by Oregon companies, as covered before on this site. Some also sponsored Hemp History Week, including Living Harvest, a hemp milk and ice cream producer headquartered in Portland; The Merry Hempsters, a Eugene maker of balms and salves; and Green Solutions Printing, and eco-friendly printshop with offices in Eugene and Portland.
Besides food, body care, textiles and biofuel, hemp can also be used as a biocomposite and building material. David Madera of Hemp Technologies in Asheville, N.C., showed slides of a home he had built out of “hemcrete,” a material consisting of large particles of hemp fiber cemented together with a lime binder. As it ages, hemcrete gets harder and harder, he says. “These are really the greenest houses in the world.” The material for a single house, Madera claimed, would sequester 20 tons of CO2 and continue to absorb carbon as it aged. He thought Oregon would set new green building standards building with hemp products.
Fresh on my mind was our May cover story by Ben Jacklet on the growing medical marijuana industry in Southern Oregon, so despite Bud Clark’s warning, I broached the subject of current efforts to expand medical marijuana and even legalize the drug in California. But it was as if I were talking about an alien species of plant. In fact, industrial hemp uses the male gender of Cannabis sativa, with no psychoactive effects, while marijuana focuses on the female plant, bred to enhance it’s psychoactive compound, THC. Anyway, the conversation went all skunky and it seemed clear that the drive to grow American hemp and the movement for marijuana legalization are necessarily akin to, as one attendee put it, “the separation of church and state.”
Brandon Sawyer is research editor of Oregon Business.
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