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WATSONVILLE - George Washington grew it. And so did Thomas Jefferson.
It's hemp, and now Watsonville organic strawberry farmer Vanessa Bogenholm would like to grow it as a profitable cover crop when her berries are not in season - and she took her case to Sacramento on Wednesday.
She tried to convince the Assembly's Agriculture Committee that nothing but fear and a lack of education stand behind the legalization of this controversial, yet misunderstood plant.
"People get this myth in their minds that (hemp is) dangerous or it's a drug, and that's what they run with - even if it couldn't be furthest from the truth," said the 39-year-old Bogenholm.
Unlike its genetic cousin marijuana, hemp, which is grown for its seeds and fibers, contains only minuscule amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, an ingredient that creates a sense of euphoria when smoked.
Yet hemp, while it is legally sold in the United States, cannot be grown here. Bogenholm's contention is if hemp is already being imported to the United States by Canadian farmers and they're making the money, why can't she and other U.S. farmers grow it for economic benefit.
The demand is there, and it's been there for decades. People make clothes and rope out of hemp. The oil, extracted from its seeds, has become very popular, and the sweet seeds themselves can be found in a few energy bars around town, Bogenholm said.
Bogenholm said Republicans in committee last week seemed accepting of her idea, with the exception of Nicole Parra, a Republican assemblywoman who represents the 30th District in Bakersfield - an agriculturally heavy area akin to the Pajaro Valley.
Mary Gutierrez, Parra's spokeswoman, said in a telephone interview on Friday: "We just think that it would be sending the wrong message to children. Although we recognize that hemp is not marijuana, there are a lot of people who don't make that connection, and we think it's better to just leave this issue alone and move on to issues that are more important."
Don't try telling Bogenholm and other Pajaro Valley farmers that it's not an issue. Not only would growing hemp as cover crop help replenish the soil for berries, it could add money to their pockets.
And farmers are always looking for ways to make more money, given the nature of their business and the tight profit margins.
"If we can grow it as a cover crop and then turn around and sell it as an industrial use, then I don't see why not," said Edward Ortega, a longtime Watsonville strawberry farmer.
Steve Bontadelli, a Brussels sprouts grower in Watsonville, noted that hemp is an easy crop to grow.
"It's basically a weed," he said. "It grows on the sides of the road in the Midwest, but the problem is there's this stigma with it, and it's associated with marijuana."
The only person to voice objection in Sacramento, next to Parra, was a man who feared that if hemp was allowed in the fields, then the plant might cross-pollinate with his legally grown marijuana, reducing the strength of its THC, Bogenholm said.
"I think we might have a shot at this," said Bogenholm, who grew up in Santa Maria and has lived in Watsonville for almost two decades. "But we've got a while to wait."
The proposed legislation is to be taken up again for consideration in January, according to the office of Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco.
He introduced the matter this past session after a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that the federal government did not have authority to regulate hemp under the 1970 Controlled Substance Act.
Nikos A. Leverenz of the Drug Policy Alliance Network, a nonprofit drug policy reform group in Sacramento, has entered the fray. And he's all for the proposed law.
"The uphill battle against legalizing hemp is ... unfortunate and illogical," said Leverenz, the group's executive director. "The use of hemp is legion, and farmers in Canada are making money off it, not in the United States. But it's because of the political powers to be."
-------------------- "Make the most of the Indian hemp seed, and sow it everywhere!" - George Washington