It hasn’t gotten the attention of medical marijuana, but a growing number of states have passed laws authorizing the growth of hemp and are attempting to get the federal government to make it legal nationwide.

Hemp can be cultivated for fiber or oilseed, and it is used to make thousands of products worldwide including clothing and auto parts. From 1999 through last year, 17 states have enacted measures that would either permit controlled cultivation or authorize research of industrial hemp, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

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Colorado was the most recent to authorize research in 2010. Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont and West Virginia have passed laws authorizing cultivation, according to NORML.

Hemp and marijuana are different varieties of the same species of plant, Cannabis Sativa. Industrial hemp has lower THC content, the primary psychoactive component of marijuana.

Hemp can be cultivated for fiber or oilseed, and it is used to make thousands of products worldwide including clothing and auto parts.

The federal government classifies all cannabis plants as marijuana and places strict controls on the cultivation of hemp. Industrial hemp was an American staple in colonial times. The output peaked during World War II.

Advocates say American farmers are being shut out of a lucrative market. More than 30 countries grow hemp as an agricultural commodity, and hemp-planted fields in Canada — which legalized cultivation in 1998 — increased to 26,815 acres in 2010, according to “Industrial Hemp Production in Canada,” a report issued by Alberta’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. Opponents say the arguments in favor of hemp-growing represent little more than a smokescreen for legalizing marijuana and other illegal drugs.

Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, has introduced a bill that would effectively legalize hemp-growing by excluding low-THC cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act each of the past four legislative sessions, including this year, but the measure has not yet progressed to a a committee hearing.

In October, Democratic California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a measure that would have created a pilot program for cultivating industrial hemp in four counties. In his veto statement, Brown criticized Washington’s position on hemp and called for the law to allow cultivation nationally.

“Products made from hemp — clothes, food and bath products — are legally sold in California every day,” Brown wrote. “It is absurd that hemp is being imported into the state, but our farmers cannot grow it.”

Rep. Dan Lungren, R.-Calif., wrote in a June 20 letter to a constituent that he supported the Drug Enforcement Administration’s argument that commercial cultivation would increase the likelihood of covert production of high-THC marijuana and send the wrong message to the American public concerning the government’s position on drugs.

North of the Vermont-Canada border, Christian Boisjoly says he is growing 23 acres of hemp in Lanoraie, Quebec, northeast of Montreal. Some farmers in his region are switching from tobacco to hemp, he says.

The crop is regulated closely there. The government checks growers’ criminal records and mandates that hemp cultivars test for less than 0.3 percent, according to a fact sheet issued by Health Canada. A minimum of 10 acres is required for a permit, according to Canada’s Department of Justice.

In Burlington, Vt.. the Hempest sells a range of clothing, footwear and body-care products, store manager Dana Begins says.

By some estimates, he says, hemp is used in more than 25,000 products worldwide. “There are so many uses for it, it seems silly we’re not taking advantage of it,” Begins says.

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Author: Tim Johnson and Adam Silverman
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Website: More states want federal government’s OK to grow hemp