SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — As a new year dawns on yet another attempt at legalization of industrial hemp production in Illinois, proponents are cautiously optimistic that opposition may be softening.

State Rep. Kenneth Dunkin, D-Chicago, introduced a bill last March that would allow growing hemp as an industrial crop, and it has picked up bipartisan support. The bill has languished in committee since, but there are hopes that hemp could one day be a major crop in the state.

While related botanically to marijuana, hemp contains only a tiny amount of THC — the active ingredient in marijuana that gives users their high. But opposition to its legalization has been strong for years, both at the state and federal level.

Dunkin, who is not on the agriculture committee and has no farmland in his urban district, nevertheless sees the potential of hemp production in the state. The plant’s strong fibers were used in the past for such products as tents, parachutes and rope before the development of synthetic materials.

“When George Bush jumped out of a plane, he had a parachute made out of hemp,” Dunkin said. “Five presidents had hemp plantations. One of the biggest hemp manufacturing plants in the world was here.”

This is the third go-around for hemp legislation in Illinois. Bills have passed twice before, but were vetoed by former Gov. George Ryan.

Winds Of Change

Illinois resident and agriculture advocate Jeff Gain, who has lobbied for years for legalization of hemp, has seen his share of disappointment. But he senses a change at the federal level.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is among those in Congress working on a change in the status of hemp, which is on the Schedule 1 drug list. The Schedule 1 list also includes heroin, ecstasy and Quaalude. The Drug Enforcement Agency and Food and Drug Administration are responsible for drug classification.

“There recently has been some movement in that direction on both sides of the aisle,” Gain said. “Mitch McConnell and a number of others have joined up behind a bill in the Senate that would simply remove industrial hemp from the Schedule 1 drug list.

“That’s the whole problem: The DEA has put industrial hemp on the drug list, and they’ve done it illegally. It is legal to grow according to Congress, and it’s not a drug. If that bill could be passed and the president would sign it, that’s all it would take.”

Federal law supersedes state legislation regarding cannabis. But legalizing industrial hemp in Illinois is still a necessary preliminary step for production. More than 15 states have passed laws legalizing hemp.

“In Illinois they have laws on the books that prohibit you from growing it,” Gain said. “We’ve tried to clear the books so that when the federal government approves it, the state is in a position to go ahead and grow it. Also, politically, that sends a message to Washington.”

The state did pass a medical marijuana law last year and is gearing up for its implementation. That places Illinois among 20 states that allow the growth and distribution of marijuana. In addition, Colorado is the first state to legalize recreational use of marijuana.

But the liberalization of marijuana laws doesn’t necessarily pave the way for hemp production. Gain, who has headed up national organizations such as the National Corn Growers and American Soybean Association, also serves on the board of the North American Industrial Hemp Council. Hemp advocates always have had an uneasy relationship with pro-marijuana forces.

“We have distanced ourselves from that,” Gain said. “We’re not against it or for it; it’s just not our issue. We’re supporting industrial hemp, which is an industrial crop.”

Growers of marijuana aim for THC levels between 18 percent and 22 percent. In contrast, industrial hemp has only about 0.3 percent THC, Gain said.

“It’s really kind of crazy to see the movement in the direction of legalized marijuana, even for recreational use in Colorado,” he said. “We just scratch our heads. Why can’t we approve a crop that’s not even a drug?”

The hemp council is no radical, hippie group. One of its board members is former CIA Director James Woolsey.

Ally In Drug War?

Ironically, widespread hemp production could actually be detrimental to marijuana potency.

“I’ve met with the DEA personally and with secretaries of agriculture over the years and even in the White House with (former drug czar) Barry McCaffrey,” Gain said. “I tell them that we’re their best friends in the drug war, because if you grow industrial hemp it will cross-pollinate with marijuana and each year it does that, it reduces the THC level by half.”

Hemp has a number of industrial uses, including as a component of fiberboard for automobile interiors. It is legally produced in Canada and used by U.S. automakers. Dunkin would like to see Illinois reap the benefits of its production and sale.

“Instead of being importers, we should make it,” he said. “I try to be perceptive. I’m a city boy. The idea of anything being grown, that’s connected to the earth, makes a lot of sense to me. We’re going to have it back in the agriculture committee and get our farmers rocking and rolling with a new industry so that Illinois can make some money.”

Gain also is looking forward to the day Illinois farmers can grow hemp. But it will take more than just a few politicians to push the agenda forward, he believes.

“I’ve always been optimistic, but I’ve been optimistic for 20 years, and it hasn’t helped,” he said. “It’s a matter of education. Once people understand what the issue really is, they’re supportive.

“There is always the concern among politicians that somehow it will hurt their chances for re-election, and they shy away from it. That’s the thing that has to be overcome. The key is education and some of the leadership of people like Mitch McConnell.”