Separating industrial hemp myths from reality

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer has made it his top priority to win general assembly approval for the cultivation and production of industrial hemp in Kentucky. Addressing a federal ban enacted in the “Reefer Madness” atmosphere of 1937, Comer recently called on Congress to “get out of the way and let the private sector create jobs in rural communities manufacturing this product.”

Legislation now before the U.S. Senate would exclude industrial hemp from the legal definition of marijuana. Noteworthy is the level of bi-partisan support for this change. The bill’s sponsors run the political gamut from Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky to Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont. A House version has 36 sponsors including Kentucky Republican Congressman Thomas Massie, and Louisville Democrat John Yarmuth has stated that he supports the effort to legalize industrial hemp.

The following is a collection of “myths and realities” concerning industrial hemp and marijuana, excerpted from a white paper by David P. West, a commercial corn breeder who holds a Ph.D. in plant breeding from the University of Minnesota. West has served as an advisor to the emerging hemp industry regarding industrial hemp germplasm. His work, Fiber Wars: the Extinction of Kentucky Hemp (1994), a pioneering discussion of the functional difference between hemp and marijuana, and his other writings on hemp and agriculture are available online.


Myth: United States law has always treated hemp and marijuana the same.

Reality: The history of federal drug laws clearly shows that at one time the U.S. government understood and accepted the distinction between hemp and marijuana.


Myth: Smoking industrial hemp gets a person high.

Reality: The THC levels in industrial hemp are so low that no one could get high from smoking it. Moreover, hemp contains a relatively high percentage of another cannabinoid, CBD, that actually blocks the marijuana high. Hemp, it turns out, is not only not marijuana; it could be called “antimarijuana.”


Myth: Hemp fields would be used to hide marijuana plants.

Reality: Hemp is grown quite differently from marijuana. Moreover, it is harvested at a different time than marijuana. Finally, cross-pollination between hemp and marijuana plants would significantly reduce the potency of the marijuana plants.

Hemp grown for fiber is planted in narrow row spacing (4 inches apart), branching is discouraged, and plants are not allowed to flower. The stems are kept small by the high density and foliage develops only on the top. Hemp plants crowd out weeds and other hemp plants not equal to the competition.

Marijuana plants, on the contrary, are spaced widely to encourage branching, and the flower is the harvested product. Marijuana is a horticultural crop planted in wide spacing to minimize stand competition and promote flower production. It branches thickly like a Christmas tree. In contrast, hemp selected for fiber has only a few branches.


Myth: Legalizing hemp while continuing the prohibition on marijuana would burden local police forces.

Reality: In countries where hemp is grown as an agricultural crop, the police have experienced no such burdens. The key to a regulated hemp industry is seed certification, a common practice in the international seed industry. The burden for producing hemp varieties compliant with the prescribed THC threshold falls on the seed producer and breeding operation. As mentioned, THC content is genetically determined.

Numerous low-THC varieties have been produced by European hemp breeders and these are certified by the appropriate government agency that publishes the approved list.

In countries that have recently legalized industrial hemp, individual farmers and manufacturers are licensed and registered. Field locations are recorded with local authorities. Only when there is probable cause does law enforcement need to concern itself with individual farmers.

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