Four years ago, Michelle Obama picked up a shovel and made a powerful symbolic statement about America's food and farm future: She turned a patch of White House lawn into a working organic garden.
That was a great move, earning kudos from just about everyone this side of Monsanto and the pesticide lobby. But now, as she begins another four years in the people's mansion, the first lady is probably asking herself: "How can I top that? What can I do this time around to plant a crop of common sense in our country's political soil that will link America's farmers, consumers, environment and grassroots economy into one big harvest of common good?"
Thanks for asking, Ms. Obama, and please allow me to intrude into your thoughts with a one-word suggestion: hemp. Plant a good, healthy stand of industrial hemp next to your organic garden!
This would, of course, drive the anti-drug zealots up the wall (a good place for them, I think). "Holy J. Edgar Hoover," they'd scream, "hemp is a distant cousin of marijuana!"
Well, yes, but the industrial variety of cannabis lacks the psychoactive aspects of pot, so their hysteria is misplaced. Industrial hemp won't make anyone high, but it certainly can make us happy, because it would deliver a new economic and environmental high for America. Plus, hemp production is firmly rooted in American history. Question: Besides being founders of our republic, what did Thomas Jefferson and George Washington have in common? Answer: Both farmed hemp. Most of America's founders were strong promoters of this extraordinarily useful agricultural crop, with Jefferson declaring it to be "of first necessity ... to the wealth and protection of the country."
The first draft of our Constitution was written on hemp paper. "Old Ironsides" was powered by sails of hemp cloth. As late as World War II, the government urgently pushed farmers to grow the crop as part of a "Hemp for Victory" program.
So why are American farmers today prohibited from producing this patriotic, profitable, pesticide-free plant? Political nuttiness. Most recently, in a frenzy of reefer madness, U.S. drug police decided that President Dick Nixon's "Controlled Substance Act of 1970" not only outlawed marijuana, but also its non-narcotic cousin, industrial hemp.
If ignorance is bliss, they must've been ecstatic, yet their nuttiness remains the law of our land today.
While our nation is the world's biggest consumer of hemp products (from rope to shampoo, building materials to food), the mad masters of our insane "drug war" have lumped hemp and marijuana together as "Schedule 1 controlled substances" — making our Land of the Free the world's only industrialized country that bans farmers from growing this benign, profitable, job-creating and environmentally beneficial plant. Thus, the U.S.A. is consuming millions of dollars' worth of products made from hemp, that hemp comes from producers in other countries, because our farmers aren't allowed to grow it in the U.S.A. and reap the economic benefits here at home.
The good news, though, is that a wave of sanity is now wafting across America. In Colorado, for example, farmer Michael Bowman and Denver hemp advocate Lynda Parker helped pass Amendment 64 in last fall's election. While it legalizes personal pot use, which got all the media attention, it also directs the legislature to set up a program for "the cultivation, processing and sale of industrial hemp."
Bowman now hopes to be the first American farmer in generations to plant a legal crop of it. Appropriately enough, he hopes to do so on April 30 — the 80th birthday of family-farmer hero and hemp champion Willie Nelson.
Even red states like Kentucky are on the move. Its Republican ag commissioner, backed by its Chamber of Commerce, is campaigning to legalize hemp farming there, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is cosponsoring a national bill with Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden to take hemp off the controlled substance list.
As Bowman puts it: "Can we just stop being stupid?" To help move us in that direction, he's seeking 100,000 signatures on a online petition requesting that President Obama include the words "industrial hemp" in his Feb. 12 State of the Union speech. I'm sure the president would appreciate my advice on this, so I suggest he say: "First thing tomorrow morning, Michelle and I are going to give a symbolic jumpstart to the development of a thriving hemp industry in America by planting a stand of it on the White House lawn."
To sign Bowman's petition, go to the White House website: petitions.whitehouse.gov.
(Jim Hightower has been called American's most popular populist. The radio commentator and former Texas Commissioner of Agriculture is author of seven books, including "There's Nothing In the Middle of Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos" and his new work, "Swim Against the Current: Even Dead Fish Can Go With The Flow".)