Monday, June 4, 2012

It's Hemp History Week!

How much do you know about industrial hemp?

Hemp is not Pot

First, let's get one common misconception out of the way. Marijuana and industrial hemp are not the same thing. Let's hear from Dr. David P. West, who holds a Ph.D. in Plant Breeding from the University of Minnesota. (There's lots more information on the myths and realities of hemp and marijuana at the link.)
Botanically, the genus Cannabis is composed of several variants. Although there has been a long-standing debate among taxonomists about how to classify these variants into species, applied plant breeders generally embrace a biochemical method to classify variants along utilitarian lines.

Cannabis is the only plant genus that contains the unique class of molecular compounds called cannabinoids. Many cannabinoids have been identified, but two preponderate: THC, which is the psychoactive ingredient of Cannabis, and CBD, which is an antipsychoactive ingredient. One type of Cannabis is high in the psychoactive cannabinoid, THC, and low in the antipsychoactive cannabinoid, CBD. This type is popularly known as marijuana. Another type is high in CBD and low in THC. Variants of this type are called industrial hemp.

The conflation of the word "marijuana" and the word "hemp" has placed a heavy burden on public policymakers. Many believe that by legalizing hemp they are legalizing marijuana. Yet in more than two dozen other countries, governments have accepted the distinction between the two types of Cannabis and, while continuing to penalize the growing of marijuana, have legalized the growing of industrial hemp. The U.S. government remains unconvinced.
As Dr. Dave goes on to point out, industrial hemp and marijuana are as diverse as field corn and sweet corn, or opium poppies and breadseed poppies, yet legislators have much less trouble distinguishing those diversities.

Hemp History

Hemp has been in use for thousands of years. In the 1700s, farmers in some colonies were required by law to grow hemp. Old Ironsides, the USS Constitution, carried 60 tons of hemp sales and rigging.

The history of federal drug laws clearly shows that at one time the U.S. government understood and accepted the distinction between hemp and marijuana. Founding fathers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams grew hemp and advocated for its use. Abraham Lincoln used hemp seed oil to fuel his household lamps. It wasn't until the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act was passed in 1970 that industrial hemp farming became illegal in the United States.

During World War II, industrial hemp was so important for the war effort that the United States Department of Agriculture produced a 14-minute film to encourage farmers to grow the crop. Although it goes into considerable detail for farmers, the opening few moments are informative for anyone. An explanation of the myriad uses of industrial hemp in the '40s starts about 11 minutes into the video.

The Hemp Conspiracy Theory

Some scholars argue that the conflation of industrial hemp and psychoactive marijuana, and the demonization of both, was intended to destroy the hemp industry, a threat to the growing empires of the Hearst, Mellon and Du Pont families. Hemp provides a cheap substitute for paper pulp, threatening the value of the massive timber holdings of the Hearst family. Andrew Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury and the wealthiest man in America, had a major investment in nylon, a synthetic fiber produced by the Du Pont dynasty, also threatened by the hemp industry.

Uses of Hemp

The hemp stalk provides fiber for textiles. Its bast fiber is among the longest and strongest of plant fibers, making it useful for everything from clothing to canvas and cordage.

Hemp provides substitutes for many petroleum-based synthetic fibers as well as an excellent, sturdy base for paper products, offering opportunities for reducing our reliance on petroleum products and slow-growing trees. Hemp produces four times more paper per acre than do trees. Biocomposite molding offers an alternative to plastic and wood products, further reducing our reliance on those resources. Hemp can even be used to produce ethanol as a biofuel.

Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper, and Crane & Company, Inc, the producer of U.S. currency paper, now blends hemp fibers into their papermaking process for additional strength. Kimberly Clark has a mill in France which produces hemp paper for bibles because it is long-lasting and doesn't yellow.

A 1938 article in Popular Mechanics, New Billion Dollar Crop, details the advantages of an industry that died aborning thanks to the conflation of industrial hemp and psychoactive marijuana by our rulegivers.
American farmers are promised a new cash crop with an annual value of several hundred million dollars, all because a machine has been invented which solves a problem more than 6,000 years old. It is hemp, a crop that will not compete with other American products.

Instead, it will displace imports of raw material and manufactured products produced by underpaid coolie and peasant labor and it will provide thousands of jobs for American workers throughout the land.

The machine which makes this possible is designed for removing the fiber-bearing cortex from the rest of the stalk, making hemp fiber available for use without a prohibitive amount of human labor. Hemp is the standard fiber of the world. It has great tensile strength and durability. It is used to produce more than 5,000 textile products, ranging from rope to fine laces, and the woody "hurds" remaining after the fiber has been removed contain more than seventy-seven per cent cellulose, and can be used to produce more than 25,000 products, ranging from dynamite to Cellophane.

Machines now in service in Texas, Illinois, Minnesota and other states are producing fiber at a manufacturing cost of half a cent a pound, and are finding a profitable market for the rest of the stalk. Machine operators are making a good profit in competition with coolie-produced foreign fiber while paying farmers fifteen dollars a ton for hemp as it comes from the field.

Currently, industrial hemp must be imported from other countries, among them Canada and China, and farmers are shut out of the marketplace thanks to shortsighted government policy, a fine example of unintended consequences run rampant.

The story of industrial hemp is the story of legislative ignorance, anti-drug fearmongering, and, if one believes the analysis, crony capitalism run rampant. In other words, business as usual in the hallowed halls of our fearless leaders. It's one story that's run far beyond its time. Even that minority of Americans who still believe that marijuana should be illegal should have little trouble understanding the case for bringing industrial hemp back into the fields and factories of commerce.

...and that's all I have to say about that.

The official Hemp History Week video:

Reason Magazine interview with Eric Steenstra, president of the nonprofit advocacy group Vote Hemp.

1 comment:

  1. I've used hemp rope to raise a tipi, and I've used that splintery crap most places sell. There is NO comparison. Spend the extra and get hemp rope. You won't regret it!