Editor’s note: this article originally appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of the Michigan Cannabis Industries Report.
Speaking Truth To Power
But getting there highlighted the absence of integrity among elected officials
by Malcolm MacKinnon
The phrase “speaking truth to power” is often used to describe the task of the activist. It means standing up and demanding a moral response to a problem. It connotes a sense of bravery. And while speaking truth to power may take courage, it certainly doesn’t guarantee a logical or sensible outcome—or sometimes even a response from those in power.
By 1985, the mid-point of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the War on Drugs had been escalated to draconian heights. But it was also the year that the legendary Jack Herer published The Emperor Wears No Clothes. The book documented mankind’s long husbandry of hemp and that America’s history is interwoven with the plant. It also revealed strong evidence regarding the medical benefits of cannabis use. At that time, marijuana activism was virtually nonexistent, but Jack’s book inspired literally millions of activists and birthed the modern cannabis movement.
Now, more than three decades later, we’re able to rejoice in a victory. Just before Christmas, President Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill. At long last, industrial hemp—defined as a cannabis plant with under 0.3 percent of THC—will be legal. The crop will be under the supervision of the Agriculture Department, rather than the DEA.
But a lingering, bitter aftertaste remains. Why did it take so long?
The essential truth about hemp is unassailable. It’s non-psychoactive—harmless. Every activist can cite the undisputed facts of America’s hemp history. They’ll tell you that the first settlers in Jamestown were hemp farmers. Or that the government asked Kentucky farmers to grow hemp for wartime needs during World War II. Or they’ll offer this gem of our heritage: the Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper.
But history was willfully ignored. So, too, were examples of the nations that had successful reintroduced hemp into their agriculture. As a journalist who has covered the cannabis industry since 1991, I was able to witness Canada’s historic decision to legalize industrial hemp. I stood in the sprawling hemp fields of Ontario and Manitoba twenty years ago. I visited high-tech, hemp product manufacturing facilities. I was especially impressed upon seeing towering silos of harvested hemp seed ready to be processed. I figured that the U.S. would be following its northern neighbor’s example almost immediately.
Truth be told, America shirked its oft-trumpeted role as “world leader.” By the time Trump signed the Farm Bill, 26 nations had already legalized hemp crops, led by China. Hemp has been part of Chinese culture for thousands of years and the country never banned its production. Today, China dominates the world market in cultivation, processing, manufacturing and exports.
But for years, even the specter of a chief competitor getting the jump on America failed to sway politicians. It didn’t matter when they were informed of the staggering number of products that could be produced from hemp—the food, fuel and fiber argument—or how American farmers could benefit from a new cash crop. They didn’t listen. It was almost Orwellian: ignore truth, dismiss history.
Safe? Effective? Patients at risk? I sure do wish the FDA had addressed these issues before enabling the widespread use of opioids. Speaking the truth to power is a noble pursuit, but it’s ultimately frustrating- and often depressing.
The arguments against legal industrial hemp were mind-blowingly inane. “It would send the wrong message to our children” or “Even an tiny amount of THC is too much.” Or you’d hear warnings about the impending “domino effect“—if hemp is legalized, pot will be next! Even worse, law enforcement dutifully chimed in to express its unfounded opposition: “Officers would have difficulty distinguishing between hemp and marijuana plants”—ignoring the simple fact that a massive hemp crop growing on a farm in the countryside would be clearly marked as such and would be widely known to the community.
Clearly, what moves politicians is cash. It’s obviously more effective than truth. Colorado’s soaring tax revenues accrued from recreational cannabis sales persuaded other states to legalize.
What energized Congress to support the Farm Bill and legalize hemp is the burgeoning demand for products containing CBD, a non-psychoactive cannabinoid found in cannabis, which has proved to have a slew of medical benefits. It’s hard to dismiss a potential multi-billion dollar market into which major corporations like Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola and Molson Coors Brewing are making forays, companies that contribute generously to their favorite politicians.
The Farm Bill is far from perfect. States can continue to write their own laws related to CBD and industrial hemp, which could result in a hodgepodge of differing statutes. Furthermore, the Food and Drug Administration maintains the authority to regulate products containing cannabis or cannabis-derived compounds.
Following the Farm Bill’s signing, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb warned that CBD is a drug ingredient and therefore illegal to add to food or health products without FDA approval. “Selling unapproved products with unsubstantiated therapeutic claims is not only a violation of the law,” Gottlieb wrote, “but also can put patients at risk, as these products have not been proven to be safe or effective.”
Safe? Effective? Patients at risk? I sure do wish the FDA had addressed such issues before enabling the widespread use of opioids. Speaking truth to power is a noble pursuit, but it’s ultimately frustrating—and often depressing.
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Malcolm MacKinnon is the former editor-in-chief of HIGH TIMES. MalcolmMacKinnon.com