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North Carolina Farmers Want To Cash In On Hemp

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DURHAM — It is one of the world's oldest cultivated plants, but farmers in the U.S. are not allowed to grow it. Industrial hemp is a distant cousin of marijuana. Some North Carolina farmers are anxious to cash in on the controversial crop.

Hemp looks a lot like marijuana, but supporters say comparing the two is like comparing 80-proof liquor with non-alcoholic beer. It is used to make a variety of products -- everything from clothing to building materials to car parts.

"Thirty-eight percent of the new Mercedes that are produced in Europe are produced from hemp plants," says hemp supporter R. James Woolsey.

At the first-ever industrial hemp forum, experts from all over the country are trying to dispel some of the myths about hemp. Thirty countries use it, but in the U.S., the government has not allowed farmers to grow it since the late 1950s.

In Minnesota, farmers are currently getting $25 an acre for wheat. Across the border in Canada, farmers are getting $250 an acre for hemp. Supporters of the crop say North Carolina farmers could also see a big benefit if the government would allow it.

"The markets will be different," says Ruben Carbonell, Director of theKenan Institute. "Instead of tobacco for smoking, we are looking at pulp for paper, textiles, composite materials and generating oils that might produce other chemicals."

Farmers say hemp also makes good environmental sense since it is biodegradable.

"If we don't change the way we are doing things with the use of chemicals and the use of other disposable materials that are not good for us like fiberglass, metal- and petroleum-based products, we are going to destroy what sustains us," says Jeffrey Gain, director of the Hemp Council.

The biggest obstacle to hemp growth in the U.S. is existing drug laws. Hemp supporters at the conference are working with theDrug Enforcement Agencyto change those regulations.

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Christine Rogers, Reporter
Adrienne Traxinger, Photographer
Kamal Wallace, Web Editor

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