A Colorado corn farmer who serves in the state Legislature, Republican state Sen. Greg Brophy, suggested hemp's commercial potential could be hampered by high prices for corn, wheat and soybeans. Growing corn right now is "like owning your own ATM," he said.
For most of U.S. history, hemp was an important agricultural product used for rope, fabric and even the paper Thomas Jefferson used to draft the Declaration of Independence.
But competition arose, first from the cotton gin, which made cotton easier to process, and then from synthetic fibers in the early 20th century. Americans became more concerned about the availability of marijuana, and the federal government imposed severe restrictions on hemp.
There was a brief resurgence during World War II, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched a "Hemp for Victory" campaign to replace Southeast Asian fiber sources cut off by the Japanese, but there has been no commercial hemp production in the U.S. since the 1950s, according to a January report from the Congressional Research Service. Technically, the DEA is authorized to grant farmers special permits to grow hemp. It just never does.
At least 30 countries produce hemp commercially, and most of the hemp imported into the U.S. is grown in China, Canada and Europe.
Rough industry estimates suggest that a few hundred million dollars' worth of hemp products, such as soaps, body lotions and hemp granola, are sold in the U.S. every year.
All of it is imported, which maddens David Bronner, chief executive of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap based in Escondido, Calif. His company uses 20 tons of hempseed oil in soaps every year and has contributed $50,000 to Washington's campaign and $50,000 to Colorado's.
"The Canadian farmers are laughing at us all the way to the bank," Bronner said. "We give $100,000 a year to the Canadians. If American farmers could grow industrial hemp here, we'd recognize 25 percent savings, for sure."
That kind of talk intrigues farmers like Ted Durfey, who has a seed press at his Sunnyside, Wash., farm to help turn the canola and flax he grows into biofuel.
"If it's sanctioned, it would lend itself pretty well to enhancing our local economy," Durfey said. "But I'm definitely not going to grow a commodity that's illegal under federal law."
Another central Washington farmer, Tom Stahl, said that if the initiative passes, he'd likely grow it until federal authorities caught on and warned him not to.
But even some farmers interested in experimenting with hemp aren't necessarily planning to vote for the ballot measures. They include Rob Jones, a southern Colorado potato farmer who has unsuccessfully lobbied the Legislature to permit industrial hemp.
Told the marijuana measure on ballots this fall would do the same thing, Jones scoffed. "It's going to be legal to smoke it in this state before we can grow it for legitimate purposes," Jones said.
Johnson can be reached at https://twitter.com/GeneAPseattle. Wyatt reported from Denver and can be reached at https://twitter.com/APkristenwyatt.