Our Opinion: Hemp pilot program an early success for Tar Heel agriculture

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North Carolina marked a historic harvest this month as more than 50 volunteers converged on a farm outside Dunn to haul in a bumper crop of hemp on Sept. 9.

It’s the first hemp harvest in the Tar Heel State for at least 80 years, according to Hemp, Inc., a pioneering manufacturer that built a 70,000-foot processing plant — the largest-such facility devoted to hemp in North America — just up the road in Spring Hope.

“This is going to be the new cash crop for North Carolina,” grower Keith Dunn Jr. told The Daily Record newspaper of Dunn. “I believe the most lucrative crop in North Carolina is tobacco at about $5,000 per acre. I’m looking at beating that; it’s a plant that can be sold for four or five times that before the day is over with.”

Tony Finch, a Nash County farmer with 170 acres of kenaf — a relative of the hemp plant — agrees with Dunn’s assessment. He told The Wilson Times for a story last week that hemp “will take the place of tobacco” — at least in his fields.

State lawmakers approved an industrial hemp pilot program in 2015, and formal rules for hemp cultivation were adopted this February. While state officials will want more time to study the newly reintroduced crop, all early indications point to a clear success for North Carolina agriculture.

Hemp never should have been plucked from farmers’ fields in the first place. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew the versatile crop, whose fibers form paper, rope, building materials and clothing.

While the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were written on parchment, historians note that “some working drafts of the documents might have been composed on paper made from hemp, which was widely used in that time period,” according to the National Constitution Center.

Hemp is at least as American as apple pie — colonists brought the wholesome dessert from Great Britain, after all — but its association with marijuana resulted in the vastly different strains of the cannabis sativa plant being lumped together in the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which began the federal government’s push for pot prohibition.

Industrial hemp has a maximum concentration of 0.3 percent THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana. Smoking hemp “won’t do a thing for you,” Finch explains.

Linking hemp and marijuana was a knee-jerk reaction based on misinformed public sentiment rather than science. Allowing industrial hemp cultivation corrects that mistake.

Hemp is not, as some would suggest, a Trojan horse that will inevitably lead to the wholesale legalization of marijuana. It is a cash crop grown throughout the world, and struggling farmers throughout North Carolina deserve the opportunity to see it sprout in their fields.

As the number of American smokers dwindles and demand for tobacco declines, we’re rooting for hemp to take its place. It’s remarkably good for the environment, growing without the use of chemical pesticides and even filtering out toxins already in the soil.

Whether hemp succeeds as a commodity in North Carolina should be for farmers and the free market to decide. Bureaucrats shouldn’t be limiting or tightly regulating its production based on the plant’s cultural confusion with a cannabis cousin.