Bingham brings hemp study to North Carolina

by Amy Kingsley

About a year ago, Republican state Senator Stan Bingham went looking for new potential energy sources for his soybean oil-fueled car. After some research, he concluded that hempseed oil might generate the type of gas he was looking for.

“Hemp is great for alternative fuel,” Bingham said.

As it turns out, fuel isn’t the only use for industrial hemp, although it is the one favored by actor Woody Harrelson, who drove a hemp-fueled car up the West Coast. Hemp seeds and stalk can be used in the production of a number of goods including clothes, paper, carpet, food, soaps, lotions and medicine. Adam Eidinger, the spokesman for Vote Hemp in Bedford, Mass., pegged the current market for hemp products at $275 million annually and growing.

Tobacco farmers looking for a new crop might benefit from planting hemp, Bingham said, because it thrives in Southern climes, particularly in places where corn also grows.

The only problem with Bingham’s plan was hemp’s legal status as a Schedule 1 controlled substance.

Earlier this year the legislator sponsored a bill authorizing a commission to explore the beneficial uses of industrialized hemp; Gov. Mike Easley signed it into law in August. The 15-member commission outlined in the bill will study the economic impact and feasibility of authorizing industrial hemp as a farm product in North Carolina.

With the passage of the bill, North Carolina became the 25th state to authorize or complete a study on the potential economic impact of industrial hemp, Bingham said. Federal law prohibits the cultivation of Cannibis sativa, the plant from which both industrial hemp and marijuana come from.

A US Department of Agriculture (USDA) report on industrial hemp stated that the plant cannot be visually discerned from marijuana. But a chemical analysis of marijuana reveals that the drug contains between 3 and 15 percent mind-altering THC, compared to a paltry 0.3 percent for industrial hemp.

“Serious marijuana growers don’t want industrial hemp legalized because it crossbreeds with their plants,” Bingham said. “If you smoke industrial hemp it will make you sick.”

Some law enforcement agencies have said that hemp fields might provide cover for marijuana farmers, but Eidinger said that is unlikely to happen because of cross pollination.

“The last place someone would want to grow marijuana is in a hemp field,” Eidinger said.

Despite the differences between the two substances’ chemical makeup, Bingham faced opposition from legislators who were uncomfortable with the idea of legalizing a controlled substance.

“Everybody assumes I want to legalize marijuana,” Bingham said.

The USDA report combined the findings of several state studies similar to the one approved for North Carolina, including studies in North Dakota, Oregon and Kentucky. Researchers concluded that the market for hemp in the United States is and will likely remain a small, thin market. One of the main challenges facing the industrial hemp market is competition with other, more established raw materials and manufacturing practices. The states that studied potential economic impact of hemp farming found that the crop was profitable only at the higher end of estimated yields and prices, according to the report.

Much of the hemp sold and processed in the United States comes from Canada, which legalized the cultivation of Cannibis sativa plants with less than 1 percent THC in 1998. According to the Hemp Industries Association, a trade group for hemp manufacturers, the United States is the only industrialized nation that does not permit the farming of industrialized hemp.

Politicians in Kentucky authorized their economic feasibility study of industrial hemp in part because of the state’s history. During World War II, a shortage of other raw materials forced US Navy suppliers to turn to hemp. Much of the manufacture of hemp products occurred in Kentucky and other parts of Appalachia.

For Bingham, hempseed oil is a potential alternative to the foreign oil that fuels many American cars. In addition to making cars go, the crop can help make the cars themselves, he said. Daimler-Chrysler uses hemp fibers as a biodegradable alternative to plastics for door paneling and trunk liners, according to the USDA report.

Eidinger said that no commercial biofuel is currently being made from hemp, but that it might be a viable option if enough of the crops were grown.

“We need to be growing millions of acres of hemp,” he said.

Although the NC House of Representatives approved the study, Bingham said the representatives’ support for the commission has cooled. The commission might proceed as a Senate study, he said.

Appointees have not yet been named to the group, which is scheduled to release its findings in December. If the study shows that industrial hemp might have a positive economic impact, farmers who want to break into the business will find their hands tied by federal regulations. Obtaining a permit to grow hemp from the Drug Enforcement Agency is notoriously difficult.

“We’re doing what the state can do,” Bingham said. “Hopefully the Congress and Senate will see the benefits of this and change the law. It’s such a politically charged issue, if someone brings it up in Congress they drop it like a hot potato.”

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