Can HBCUs Capitalize on the Hemp Rush?

The landscape for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) is rapidly changing amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and new proposals on the horizon at the national level from the Biden administration. It will be incumbent on institutions to adapt their programming to meet the changing needs of the economic environment. They will need to be economic engines as well as learning institutions.

The future progress for HBCUs will hinge on them being at the cutting edge of creating opportunities to help students make money, earn credentials, and build an economic base for their communities.  One emerging opportunity is industrial hemp and the derivatives and products associated with it like hempcrete, biodegradable hemp-based plastic, rope, clothing, building materials, and fiber. There is major enterprising potential for institutions that have the foresight to position themselves to be able to take advantage of what is in large part an industry that is still taking shape in the United States.

The chance to participate in an emerging market like this is rare. Those who play major roles in shaping and giving definition to this industry will have first dibs on the spoils from both an economic and environmental point of view. HBCUs can be involved in every step of the process from cultivation to research to product development to distribution to sales.

Dr. Marcus BrightDr. Marcus Bright

It is important to make a clear delineation between industrial hemp and marijuana. It is a new and confusing area for many people and making clear distinctions will be vital for advancements to take place. There is a clear difference, and this writing is strictly referring to industrial hemp and its potential possibilities for HBCUs. Industrial hemp is differentiated from marijuana because of its low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Hemp and marijuana both come from the cannabis plant, but the biggest differentiator is the amount of THC that is present. THC is the component that propels people to “get high” and is illegal in most states. Plants that exceed the 0.3 percent threshold are illegal in the United States according to the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) except for some states that have outlined specific measures pertaining to marijuana.

Hemp is a version of the plant that contains less than 0.3 percent of THC and marijuana is a version of the plant that contains more than 0.3 percent of THC. Cannabis is a term that encompasses the broader genus of flowering plants that is inclusive of both marijuana and hemp. The 2018 Farm Bill opened the door for a historic expansion of the cultivation of the cannabis plant. The legislation altered the Controlled Substances Act by removing hemp from its previous status of being deemed as a dangerous controlled substance. This ushered in a new area of agricultural, economic, and educational opportunity.

The bill set forth regulations related to who was licensed to grow hemp and punishments for growing the cannabis plant at levels that were beyond the 0.3 percent THC threshold and thus no longer considered hemp. The bill ultimately gave the power to individual states to decide their own hemp approval processes and plans for cultivation and sale.

The ability to cut through all the cultural and media narratives that are attached to hemp will be imperative for institutions that have an interest in engaging in the hemp space. Breaking through the taboo and educating people on the clear differences between hemp and marijuana will be key to garnering the collective buy in needed to take advantage of this unique window of opportunity on a large scale.

As the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793 lead to an agricultural revolution with the cotton plant, HBCUs can create a similar revolution that can spur innovation and further expand processes to develop the wide range of products that can come from hemp. Many of these products can be eco-friendly alternatives to existing products and processes that are currently in place and have detrimental effects on the environment. There is a need to find alternatives like hemp that can fulfill similar roles.

Hemp can be used to produce an alternative to concrete called “hempcrete”. “Hempcrete is a bio-composite made of the inner woody core of the hemp plant mixed with a lime-based binder. The hemp core or ‘Shiv” has a high silica content which allows it to bind well with lime” according to American Lime Technology. The environmental benefits of building with hempcrete are vast including its great ability to absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Shifting to more carbon neutral hemp-based materials would be a major step towards reducing the carbon dioxide emissions that are generated from the construction industry.

Additionally, biodegradable plastic that is largely derived from hemp can be an alternative to petroleum-based plastic. There is an environmental need to move away from the widespread use of petroleum-based plastics. Hemp can be a big part of this shift. With additional research, development, and innovation, biodegradable plastic that is derived from hemp can be a viable option that is environmentally sustainable. There is an opportunity for HBCUs to be at the forefront of being a part of a process that produces a variety of bioplastics.

Fabric that is derived from hemp can be used as an alternative to cotton. Hemp takes a small fraction of the water that cotton does to grow. According to an article from slate.com, “the cotton plant needs about 50 percent more water per season than hemp, which can grow with little irrigation.” These are just a few roles that the development of hemp can play in advancing both economic development and environmental sustainability. HBCUs can evaluate each possibility and develop a plan to bring it to fruition.

Why should HBCUs engage in this space and be given a disproportionate competitive advantage? One reason is because Black communities were disproportionately targeted for incarceration at historic rates for involvement with the version of the cannabis plant that has a THC level above 0.3, otherwise known as marijuana.

According to the ACLU research report Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform, “Black people are still more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people in every state, including those that have legalized marijuana” and “on average, a Black person is 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though Black and white people use marijuana at similar rates.”

The systematic targeting of Black people for marijuana arrests for over 40 years should be answered with a systematic targeting of Black people for economic opportunity. The same plant that was used to incarcerate can be used to liberate.

There is an opportunity to rewrite the rules and reimagine what this industry will look like and HBCUs are well positioned to be able to capitalize on the “Green Rush” for the benefit of their students and communities.

Dr. Marcus Bright is a scholar and educational administrator.