Hemp: the versatile fiber

Many know Ashland resident Andy Kerr as an ardent environmental activist, but he is also on the board of directors for the North American Industrial Hemp Council.

"Most of my career I've dealt with the supply side of the timber economy," said the former executive director of the Oregon Natural Resources Council, who was active in the so-called timber wars of the 1980s. "I tried to constrict supply so we wouldn't be cutting down old growth forests. This is dealing with the demand side of the forest conservation equation."

In April, Kerr testified before the state Senate's committee on Environment and Natural Resource Committee about the possibility of using hemp to replace wood as a building material.

"Hemp has great potential because it has a very long fiber that can be mixed with agricultural waste to make paper and construction products that are stronger than wood," he said. "Is it a miracle fiber. Well, 'miracle' is overused, but it is superior in many cases."

He is also a proponent of a bill that has died several times in the state legislature to legalize growing hemp.

"Under the law it is legal to possess and you can import it," he said. "There is a customs code, but you can't grow it. The DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) thinks it is marijuana."

Kerr says hemp is a distant relative of its more controversial cousin. The difference lies in hemp's lack of Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that produces the high.

"As a matter of law they are the same," he said. "But as a matter of fact they are not."

The reason hemp legalization efforts often fail is because hemp often gets mis-identified as a drug. A bill similar to Oregon's passed in California legislature but Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it, and a similar bill recently passed in North Dakota.

"The political reasoning is people think this makes me look weak on drugs," Kerr said. "There are those who believe all forms of cannabis sativa should be illegal."

He added that if any group should be opposed to hemp growing it would be marijuana growers because the two plants could cross-pollinate, taking the THC out of the marijuana.

"If you are a marijuana grower you don't' want hemp anywhere around you," he said. "The pollen would cross-breed and next generation would have half the THC."

Kerr added that the NAIHC does not take a position on marijuana, and neither does he.

"I have no opinion on it," he said. "It's not my issue."

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