Part-time farmer Jerry Fuentes has spent the last 15 years championing industrial hemp as the perfect crop for drought-ridden New Mexico and corporate America.
Hemp is used to make auto dashboards, briefcases, carpeting, insulation and an array of other products. Even so, Fuentes’ attempt to legalize industrial hemp seemed like a fool’s errand or a cause for rebels, not button-down businessmen.
Industrial hemp is a cousin of the marijuana plant. So no matter how straight-laced industrial hemp production is, and no matter how many captains of industry import products made of hemp in other countries, it could not shake outlaw status in the United States.
Fuentes, 61, of Truchas, remembers it being impossible to convince those in power that hemp is a crop capable of strengthening the economy. One year, a headline in an Albuquerque newspaper announced: “Hemp bill goes up in smoke,” another punch line after yet another political defeat.
So far, 2015 has been different. Still to be seen, though, is whether it provides a breakthrough, or if it was just a tease.
New Mexico legislators this month overwhelming approved state Sen. Cisco McSorley’s bill to import industrial hemp seeds and allow research of the plant at New Mexico State University.
Congress has authorized states to study hemp’s uses as an industrial product. McSorley says the federal government soon will take the next logical step by legalizing the growing of hemp for commercial and industrial purposes. He wants to make sure that New Mexico farmers are positioned to take advantage of this sea change in public policy.
His bill is on the desk of Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, who recently had harsh words for McSorley, D-Albuquerque. He happened to be filibustering in the last 10 minutes of this year’s legislative session while Martinez’s favored bill for capital construction projects died in the Senate.
McSorley’s role in killing the governor’s capital construction proposal was minimal. All 24 Democrats in the Senate were unanimous in saying they would not accept her plan, dooming it from the start.
Still, Fuentes and other advocates of the hemp bill wonder if Martinez just might veto it, given her displeasure with McSorley in particular and Democratic senators in general.
Martinez won’t say. Her press aide did not respond to a question about whether she would sign McSorley’s industrial hemp bill.
Fuentes said a powerful Republican from Kentucky was McSorley’s greatest ally in this year’s hemp debate in New Mexico. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is sponsoring the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2015.
McConnell’s proposal is the one that McSorley and other New Mexico lawmakers are tracking because it would allow American farmers to grow hemp.
“Mitch McConnell is the shining light in this whole thing,” Fuentes said.
Like McSorley, McConnell knows farmers who could use a good cash crop that doesn’t require enormous amounts of water. Industrial hemp fits the description.
Plus, American companies last year imported $640 million in products made with hemp from Canada, India, Turkey and China. Homegrown industrial hemp would create jobs in American manufacturing plants.
Joe Rael is president of a company in Santa Fe called BioDesign Labs. He is helping run a 40-acre industrial hemp farm in Antonito, Colo.
Farmers in Colorado have a head start on hemp production because voters in their state have legalized marijuana. McSorley’s bill proposes nothing so radical. It’s all about business, not recreational drug use.
Rael says industrial hemp is a green product, and he’s not just talking about the money it would make for farmers.
“Plastics are filling up the ocean. Hemp biodegrades,” he said.
Today, New Mexico is in the midst of a bitter political confrontation, even as officeholders say that they want bipartisan efforts to put people to work and expand the economy. The first small step would be the governor signing the bill for industrial hemp.
What a sight that would be: old foes Martinez and McSorley sitting next to one another, the hatchet buried for a minute, as they find common ground through industrial hemp.