In the battle over the federal government’s unconstitutional drug laws, marijuana always gets the publicity. But there is an overlooked aspect to Washington’s unconstitutional ban on cannabis: industrial hemp.

The case of hemp is curious. It was lumped in with marijuana during the drug prohibition rage of the 1930s (and ongoing today), and yet there was no reason for this to be the case. While hemp and marijuana are different species of the same plant, the chemical THC, which supposedly gave marijuana its bad reputation, exists only in tiny levels in hemp.

Furthermore, hemp has a long history of use throughout American history. Several of the founding fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, are said to have grown the plant. Up through the first decades of the twentieth century, it was used in a wide variety of products from ropes to paper. But when the federal government unconstitutionally banned marijuana, it threw hemp in for good measure.

But almost eighty years later, states are beginning to tell farmers to ignore federal prohibitions on hemp, effectively nullifying the federal ban in practice.

Growers in Colorado began registering their intention to grow the crop, legally, with the state’s Department of Agriculture this weekend. Of this development, author Doug Fine told The Daily Camera,

“It is no exaggeration to say that Colorado will be leading the nation, and even the world, in the hemp revolution. Colorado…is going to be the vortex of a major agricultural industry in this country.”

In covering the developments in Colorado, reporter John Aguilar writes that

(Hemp is) an industry that is virtually limitless, given the numerous products hemp — the non-drug variant of the marijuana plant — can be added to or turned into, including paper, coffee, shampoo, salad dressing, building materials and paint.

These developments cap off the efforts of farmers and activists who have increasingly been bucking the federal government’s so-called laws outlawing hemp for at least a year. In October 2013, Fox News reported that at least a dozen farmers grew hemp last year.

The Fox News story noted that, “Emboldened by voters in Colorado and Washington last year giving the green light to both marijuana and industrial hemp production,” and with the Justice Department’s new stance of deference to state laws, these farmers didn’t even wait for the crop to become officially legal in Colorado.

The story also noted, importantly, that demand for these crops was extremely high, as users of industrial hemp look to replace hemp imported from Canada and China.

What is happening in Colorado is a classic case study of what we are constantly saying, that state non-compliance with federal laws makes those laws essentially unenforceable. This became clear when the Justice Department admitted defeat on the issue, which is what it did when it announced it would defer to state laws.

Let’s face it, Eric Holder would never have willingly chosen to curtail prosecutions under the federal drug laws. But as more states have begun resisting the federal government’s prohibitions on marijuana and hemp, even the feds have seen the writing on the wall. This has created an environment where farmers can feel comfortable growing a crop that should never have been banned, especially not by the unconstitutional exercise of federal power.

As Colorado farmers begin to reap the benefits of growing and selling industrial hemp, it will only create more pressure on other states to legalize it as well, a process which at least ten other states have begun. As more states legalize hemp, they will be able to thank Colorado for taking the first steps and building the momentum.

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