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The Hemp Hump

Hemp Plant
Photo by: Marc Fuya
Hemp Plant

What if Americans could buy cigarettes but were banned from growing tobacco? Buy bread but not allowed to grow wheat? That is the case with industrial hemp, a product in everything from car doors to milk...legally.

Hemp farming was banned in the U.S. decades ago as part of the earliest drug wars. Hemp contains THC, like marijuana. But hemp is not marijuana. "It's like a Chihuahua versus a Saint Bernard," says David Bronner, President of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, which sold $29 million in hemp-related products last year. The THC in industrial hemp is so minute that "the only thing you will get from smoking it is a headache," says Gregg Baumbaugh, CEO of FlexForm Technologies, which uses hemp in car doors for Dodge Vipers. Both companies import their hemp from Canada or France, adding 10 to 15 percent to costs.

"A classic overreach," says Rep. Ron Paul, the one-time Presidential candidate who has co-sponsored a bill to legalize domestic production of industrial hemp. "There's not another country in the world that prohibits the raising of hemp. Only in America...I mean, it's utterly ridiculous."

Meantime, sales of hemp products are experiencing something of a high.

Not only is the fiber strong, but the seeds are high in Omega 3. Inside the Full O' Life Foods store in Burbank, the aisles are packed with hemp bread, hemp candy, hemp soaps, hemp garden gloves. "American farmers are getting cut out from an amazing growth market," says Bronner, who claims that hemp is "greener" to grow than cotton, because it doesn't need herbicides and pesticides. "It just basically grows like a weed."

Gregg Baumbaugh of FlexForm Technologies agrees. "As the tobacco use declines because of the taxes assessed on it, farmers are going to need a replacement crop...industrial hemp is a perfect replacement for tobacco."

Rep. Paul is not optimistic the bill, HR-1866, will make it out committee. "Members of Congress don't really care about it," he says. "They (think), 'If you vote for hemp, you vote for marijuana. If you vote for marijuana, you vote for hard drugs. And then you're pro drug."

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Questions? Comments? Funny Stories? Email funnybusiness@cnbc.com

  • Based in Los Angeles, Jane Wells is a CNBC business news reporter and also writes the Funny Business blog for CNBC.com.

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