Tue, 28 Sep 1999
Charleston Gazette (WV)
Copyright: 1999 Charleston Gazette

Author: Howard Peeks
(Note: Peeks is a retired business -labor editor for the Gazette.)

Hemp production as a new industry is a burning issue in some states, but it has yet to catch fire in West Virginia. "I use hemp oil on my skin like baby oil, hemp lotion and hemp balm for my lips," said Deborah Angel of Belva.

 "There are so many uses of this product. I'm surprised no one is lobbying for this industry." She expressed a view shared by other residents in Southern West Virginia for new industry to replace fading jobs in the coalfields. 

Some see hemp as a new farm crop to be grown on reclaimed land, not the least of which are reclaimed mountaintop mine sites.

Advocates also envision the manufacturing of hemp for various products ranging from cosmetics to furniture. Its value runs from field to factory. Manufacturing jobs emerge in the picture of possibilities. But there's one big catch, I know. It's against the law to grow and sell hemp, a cousin to marijuana but without THC, marijuana's intoxicating chemical. "You could not get high off industrial hemp even if you smoked an acre," said Joseph Oliverio, a Clarksburg painting contractor who is off and running for the Republican nomination for governor in 2000. 

It has been shown that hemp can be grown on reclaimed mine sites, Oliverio says. Hemp is favorable to the environment and doesn't deplete the soil. Besides, it grows wild in some parts of the state, as he and others have seen. 

But that doesn't wash with Federal Drug Enforcement agents. They say the cultivation of hemp would make it more difficult to find and destroy marijuana because of the striking similarity of the plants. 

Marijuana thrives and is called the best cash crop in West Virginia. The same is true in other states. But the weed goes untaxed and states get no revenue from it because it's an underground industry. That fact is part of the growing national argument to make marijuana lawful for tax revenue as well as for its medicinal value and its low addictive qualities. Hemp has been illegal for about 60 years. West Virginia and most states have their own laws against cultivating and selling it. 

They class hemp with marijuana, despite known and practical differences. Canada legalized industrial hemp last year. Now hemp fiber and yarn imports come into the United States from Canada and from China, Poland and Romania, where it's legal to grow and sell hemp. In this country, a growing number of farmers are advocating the cultivation of hemp to ease the squeeze on tobacco crops. The anti-smoking climate has cut tobacco as a longstanding cash crop in West Virginia and sister states.

Farmers in Lancaster County, Pa., for instance, recently joined others across the country advocating industrial hemp to make up for dwindling income from tobacco. Advocates say an acre of hemp can bring up to $500 compared to $375 from an acre of feed corn. They further maintain that the plant has 50,000 legal uses like those familiar to Deborah Angel. 

I see what advocates mean when they say laws against hemp penalize farmers and consumers, and prevent a whole new industry from springing up in West Virginia. Plainly, hemp has a hard row to hoe to make it.  

From: Media Awareness Project: Richard Lake