If Chris Boucher has learned anything during the decades he’s spent working to legitimize—and legalize—industrial hemp in America, it’s that one should never doubt the power of persistence, or of taking legal action. As the vice president of product development at US Hemp Oil, a division of CannaVest Corp. (San Diego), says, “The quickest, fastest way to get industrial-hemp laws implemented correctly in this country is to sue the DEA.”
He almost makes it sound easy. But that persistence part still helps, and Boucher has it in spades, which probably came in handy during the 20 years that passed between the day in 1994 when he dropped some hemp seeds into the ground at a USDA research station in Southern California and this past May, when a field at Murray State University in Kentucky became the first planted with legal industrial hemp since the 1950s. Making that day a reality, Boucher says, only took “some maverick Kentucky politicians stepping in, refusing to back down and litigating.”
Well, that plus the ongoing efforts of Boucher, US Hemp Oil, and CannaVest.
First, some context: The status of industrial hemp in the United States is complex. On one hand, coming from the same Cannabis sativa plant that brings us marijuana, industrial hemp falls into the notorious class of Schedule I controlled substances that includes heroin, Ecstasy, and mescaline. On the other, the 2014 Farm Bill grants universities and state departments of agriculture the legal right to research industrial-hemp farming, production, and marketing if the states already legalized the growth or cultivation of industrial hemp themselves.
It’s a classic states’-rights issue, Boucher believes, “and according to the law of the United States of America, industrial hemp is legal as long as it’s 0.3% THC and below,” he says, referring to delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana its high. However, and despite the new Farm Bill, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) doesn’t always distinguish between industrial hemp and old-fashioned pot, and so it’s been known to confiscate seeds destined for innocent research purposes.
And that brings us back to the legal actions of states like Kentucky, and to the role that CannaVest—not to mention Boucher himself—had in shepherding them along. Boucher and colleagues founded CannaVest and its subsidiaries not just to bring hemp-based supplement, food, and consumer products to the American mainstream, but to “support, invest in, and develop America’s industrial-hemp industry for producing seed oil, protein powder, grain, fiber—basically the whole nine yards,” he says. “We’re investing in the research, equipment, and everything we need” to revive the cultivation of a crop that our Founding Fathers tended. “That’s our goal.”
It’s a goal that Boucher’s been pursuing “nonstop” since the last century. Having started one of the country’s first hemp-products companies in 1990, as well as having been a founding father himself of the Hemp Industries Association of America (HIA) in 1992, he’s familiar with the industrial-hemp business. He also has experience with its legal side, having helped write “some of the first industrial-hemp legislation in the United States in 1994,” he says, and, as part of HIA, having sued DEA in 1999 for threatening action against businesses that sell hemp-based products.
That experience came in handy as CannaVest guided Kentucky in taking on DEA’s resistance to industrial-hemp agriculture. And in light of everything, “It was a miracle that we were able to get the first seeds in 50 years into the ground in Kentucky,” Boucher says.
Once they were there, CannaVest’s involvement continued in its assistance with technical issues, importing and donating seed for research, and bringing in expertise “to teach the farmers and the university the best ways to grow hemp,” he says. And that’s really what industrial-hemp research is about. With the field dormant for so many years, the industry has a lot of intellectual ground to recover, and Boucher says they’re eager to learn how best to make the crop marketable.
For example, “We want to determine how many pounds of seed per acre the hemp plant will grow,” he says. “And just because a seed grows well in Canada doesn’t mean it’ll grow well in Kentucky or Southern California.” With some 100 varieties of industrial hemp out there—“some designed just to produce seeds; others designed just to produce fiber”—farmers will need to know which best suits their target product. After all, says Boucher, “That’s your bottom-line economic factor.”
And while developments in Kentucky are getting the spotlight, it’s not the only industrial-hemp hotbed that CannaVest’s efforts reach. In Colorado, the company supplied seeds and consultation services to universities for their own hemp-cultivation research. It also helped one of the largest farms in that state’s San Luis Valley embark upon planting industrial hemp—until DEA seized the seeds. “Imagine the investment and job creation we’d have if we’d gotten those seeds in the ground,” Boucher says. “How do you calculate that?”
Whatever the figure, he believes it’s only a matter of time before we arrive at a more rational approach to growing, using, and overseeing industrial hemp. And when we do, he predicts, “we’ll see tens of thousands of acres of hemp being grown in the next five years, and factories producing fiber, seed oil, protein.”
The demand is surely there. “The consumer’s informed at this point,” he says. “They know it’s a quality crop, it’s safe, it’s one of the most digestible proteins that we know of. Heck, our first flag—the Betsy Ross flag—was made from hemp! We used to salute the United States of America with a hemp flag!” And you can’t get more American than that.
Read more about the emerging hemp-supplements industry: