Energy & Environment
10:25 am
Wed February 12, 2014

Is Texas Ready to Get Kinky About Hemp?

From StateImpact Texas:

He's run for office three times and lost. But here he is again, the novelist and troubadour that made a name for himself by turning country clichés into satiric social commentary, running for office. Richard "Kinky" Friedman (he got the nickname for his hair) is running as a Democrat for Agriculture Commissioner, and he has a plan to make Texas "greener." He wants to make hemp and marijuana legal in Texas.

“I’m not a dope smoker, okay?” he says with a point of his trademark unlit cigar. “Except with Willie [Nelson]. More as a Texas etiquette kind of thing.” First, his argument for hemp, which is in the same family as marijuana but in its industrial form doesn’t have the medicinal or recreational uses of marijuana. Friedman argues that if cotton farmers in Texas were allowed to grow hemp instead, the trade-offs would be attractive.

"Hemp requires half the water that cotton does, while producing two and a half times the fiber. All with zero pesticides needed," he says. "Now if you were to pitch that as a pilot program to a cotton farmer, they'd take it."

Bringing hemp production back to the U.S. would also help reduce imports, Friedman says, and that's seconded by a recent Congressional Research Service report. Right now, the U.S. doesn't produce any hemp commercially. It's imported, mostly from China. The just-passed federal farm bill gives states that choose to legalize hemp the authority to do research projects to see if resurrecting the crop makes sense.

Friedman's claims on the water and environmental benefits of hemp are echoed in a 2005 report by the Stockholm Environment Institute. Hemp had the lowest ecological footprint when compared with cotton and polyester, and used about a third less water. The report calls hemp a "robust crop," noting its low maintenance. "Hemp grows rapidly, faster than weeds," it says, "and it has to date not been plagued by pests."

Hemp is used in food as seed or oil, and its fiber can be used in fabric, paper, construction and other forms. But it hasn't been grown commercially in the U.S. since the 1950s, after the criminalization of marijuana began.

One report from 1901 on the hemp industry in the U.S. notes that in those times Texas had mixed results with the crop. "In Texas, good crops of hemp have been produced on rich dark prairie soil, but on upland soils, subject to drought, the crop has proved a failure," wrote Lyster Dewery, as assistant botanist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture who farmed hemp on government land. In recent years, agricultural groups like the National Farmers Union have advocated for making hemp cultivation legal again, to at least give farmers the opportunity to experiment with the crop as a potential substitute for cotton. 

The arguments Friedman has for marijuana legalization in Texas are familiar ones: more revenues for the state (and the potential for lower taxes for Texans), a fairer and more efficient criminal justice system, and a strategic blow to drug cartels in Mexico. "The people of Texas would become the new cartel," he says.

While he believes that hemp could be legalized without swinging the door wide open to marijuana, Friedman argues the state is ready to do both. Polls, however, are mixed on this. It depends on the wording. One recent poll commissioned by a pro-legalization group found a majority of Texans favor marijuana legalization, while a different, earlier poll worded differently found the opposite.

Governor Rick Perry recently made headlines when he indicated support for the decriminalization of marijuana, saying at the World Economic Forum in Davos that his policies in Texas "start us toward a decriminalization and keeps people from going to prison and destroying their lives."

But in the same remarks, Perry also said that he was against legalization and "full step" decriminalization. Perry believes the choice on pot should be up to states.

The Democratic candidate to replace Perry, Wendy Davis, told the Dallas Morning News editorial board this week that she would support the legalization of medical marijuana and decriminalization. But she also thinks "it’s important to be deferential to whether the state of Texas feels that it’s ready for that."

Her Republican opponent, state Attorney General Greg Abbott, hasn't made his position on marijuana or hemp known.

Efforts in recent years to legalize or decriminalize marijuana through the legislature have failed, and there's been zero movement on hemp. So Friedman's plan, if elected, is to use the state agriculture commission to do it. Basically, he would allow Texas farmers to break the law.

"My plan would simply be to use some of the agriculture department's budget, which is pretty big, and start [hemp] pilots project of our own, even though they may be seen as illegal by the Governor or the legislature," he says. "Let them sue, or whatever they're going to do."

Several states have also passed laws legally allowing the industrial production of hemp, but only one of them is in the South, Kentucky. Hemp cultivation has to be permitted through the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), an expensive and arduous process for the time being. The changes in the recent farm bill are a step towards industrial hemp in the U.S., albeit a small one.

Two states have already made recreational marijuana legal. And nearly half of the states in the U.S. have legalized medical marijuana, with more states considering it. “We’re not talking about long-haired hippies smoking dope here,” Friedman says. “We’re talking about the future of Texas. Is it good for Texas, both hemp and pot? The answer is yes, but Texas needs to decide. Cause if you’re gonna wait fifteen or twenty years, we will be the caboose on the train.”

Texans will have the opportunity to decide if they’re up for a marijuana-friendly Democrat as their Agriculture Commissioner starting next week, when early voting in the primary begins.