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April 1996
Whatever Happened to Hemp?

By Max Friedman


Too Good to Be True?
Hemp seems too good to be true: it has the potential to solve many environmental problems, boost the economy and provide relief from certain illnesses. Growing it as an agricultural commodity could alleviate deforestation, reduce pesticide use and abate soil erosion. The trouble is, growing it could also land you in jail.

Cannabis sativa, marijuana, pot, grass — call it what you will — the hemp plant’s seedy reputation as a mind-altering drug has eclipsed its beneficial uses, largely unknown to the general public. As one of the fastest-growing annuals in the world, it can produce great quantities of fiber, fuel and food, causing less damage to the environment than conventional sources.

Take paper, for example. Studies by the Dutch government in 1993 confirmed what the U.S. Department of Agriculture discovered 80 years ago: an acre of hemp produces four times as much paper as an acre of trees. Hemp is good in building, too. Researchers at the Wood Materials and Engineering Lab at Washington State University have used the plant to develop medium-density fiberboard that is stronger than wood.

Degradation of soil and water through pesticide use could be greatly reduced by making cloth from hemp instead of cotton, which, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, required 39 million pounds of pesticides last year. In contrast, the hemp plant is naturally inhospitable to pests and grows well without pesticide use. And unlike cotton, hemp’s taproots penetrate the earth nine to 14 feet — as deep as the plant is high — bringing subsoil nutrients to the surface, while protecting land from erosion.

Based on experience producing biomass fuels from plants such as corn, soybeans and sugarcane, researchers say that fuel from the fast-growing hemp plant could replace some of the non-renewable fossil fuels from oil, coal and natural gas. And the hemp seed — used whole or ground like flour — is second only to soybeans in protein content, and is high in essential fatty acids.

Hemp in the United States
Hemp’s value and versatility was not lost on America’s founders, who brought the plant over from Europe. "Make the most of the hemp seed, and sow it everywhere," exhorted George Washington in 1794. Farmers took advantage of incentive programs established by the colonial governments; hemp became a key cash crop and a foundation of the economy of the young United States.

By the early 1800s, dense fields of hemp had taken over the hills and riverbanks of Kentucky and surrounding states, and the hemp industry was thriving. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin changed all that. Invented in 1793, it made cotton fabric so cheap to produce that, as its use spread, cotton gradually replaced hempen fibers in clothing manufacture. By the Civil War, cotton, sisal and jute (all cheaper than hemp to process), diminished hemp’s leading role in the marketplace. Timber replaced hemp when new processes for papermaking were introduced in the 1850s. The plant just couldn’t keep up with the competition as long as its fibers had to be broken out of the stalk by hand.

But in the 1920s, the cotton gin met its match. The decorticator, a new machine that stripped hemp fiber from the stalk, promised to revolutionize the industry. Popular Mechanics (February 1938) called hemp a "new billion dollar crop" that would "displace imports of raw material and...provide thousands of jobs for American workers throughout the land."

Banning Hemp
This prediction proved to be outdated by the time it hit newsstands. According to Chris Conrad’s Hemp: Lifeline to the Future (Creative Xpressions, 1993), an alliance of business moguls whose products competed with hemp banded together to kill the plant for good. They were led by William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate who spawned sensationalist "yellow journalism" and owned vast timber tracts; he colluded with DuPont Co., which had just patented chemical processes for producing plastics and paper from petroleum and wood.

The tycoons launched a smear campaign just as the decorticator was coming into vogue. Scare stories about "marihuana" began to appear in Hearst newspapers, tinged with racist slurs about dope-crazed "Mexicans" and "negroes" attacking white women. Films like "Reefer Madness" contributed to the hysteria by portraying teenagers who took one puff of marijuana and were instantly on the road to crime and depravity.

The strategy worked. In 1937, with virtually no warning, Congress announced a prohibitive tax on hemp, effectively ending the production and sale of the plant in the U.S. The growing of hemp was outlawed the same year. The effects of the ban on growing hemp were widespread. Polluting, non-renewable petroleum products replaced hemp in lubricants, paints and oils. Producing paper from trees became a matter of course. Hemp was viewed solely as an illegal drug; its role in constructing our national economy was forgotten.

Fighting for Legalization
Ironically, the strains of hemp best suited for industrial use would be lousy to smoke, containing little of the compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that causes the "high" from marijuana. But the 1930s smear campaign had far-reaching effects; today, the government simply will not discuss exploring the agricultural and industrial uses of hemp. "There’s a certain segment of the body politic that just wants to hoot and jeer and holler about reefer madness," says Mark Floegel, a paper expert with Greenpeace’s Chlorine Campaign. "There has to be a good deal of public education before we see laws permitting the agricultural production of hemp."

The task of educating the public has been undertaken primarily by a loose coalition of activists and entrepreneurs, some of them graduates of the 1960s counterculture. Jack Herer, founder of the modern hemp movement, emerged from the smoke and haze of the ’60s convinced that marijuana, including the smoking of it, should be made legal. Hobby turned to obsession, as he spent years digging through archives to come up with old newspaper articles, forgotten government documents and corporate memoranda on marijuana.

Although Herer’s research on hemp’s uses is painstakingly documented, his bohemian image makes him unlikely to win over policymakers or the broad American public — especially in a political climate that is moving toward prohibition for drug use, not more tolerance.

Nevertheless, research by Herer and others has inspired a few dedicated entrepreneurs to open small businesses that use hemp within legal confines. (Federal law defines "all parts of the plant Cannabis sativa" as a controlled substance and bans the growth of hemp. The sale of hemp stalks, fiber and oil is legal, as is that of sterilized seeds, which contain practically no THC and cannot be used to grow new plants.)

Business in Hemp Grows
In 1989, Christopher Boucher founded the Hempstead Co., in Costa Mesa, Calif., one of the first hemp businesses to open in the U.S. in 60 years. With his partner, Brian Ambrose (the grandson of a former Kentucky hemp farmer), Boucher began importing organic raw hemp fiber from China and Hungary, where hemp grows wild and is used for papermaking and food. A cottage industry of home workers in Southern California stitched the cloth into shirts, backpacks and baseball caps; you can now find Hempstead clothes in some 600 stores nationwide. Hempstead also sells to customers in Germany, England and Japan. The Walt Disney Co. contracted the Hempstead Co. to produce its line of clothing modeled after that worn by its Indiana Jones character because the material is the most authentic reproduction of the hempen clothing explorers wore in the 1930s. Boucher would love to have a reliable, domestic supply of material for his growing business but, of course, one doesn’t exist.

For Paul Stanford of Tree Free Eco-Paper in Portland, Ore., the problem isn’t supply, but demand. Stanford had read about hemp’s advantages in papermaking: no rapidly disappearing trees to cut down, and no need to use toxic chlorine or dioxin, powerful bleaching agents that whiten the brown lignin in wood pulp. Though hemp is not naturally white, it contains little lignin and can be whitened using harmless hydrogen peroxide. An added bonus is that hemp doesn’t turn yellow or brittle with age.

Stanford learned that China produces 70 percent of the world’s non-tree paper, about half of it from hemp. Intrigued, he studied Chinese and, in 1988 and 1990, traveled to China to learn papermaking techniques. He started his company in 1990 using a mix of imported hemp fiber and cereal straw, and has had customers ranging from Bank of America to Greenpeace. But not enough have signed up to create an economy of scale. His paper costs about two and a half times the cheapest price for regular paper from trees, and 25 percent more than recycled paper. Stanford is convinced: should the laws change, the future of papermaking lies with hemp.

Educating and Producing
Both Boucher and Stanford say they steer clear of the politics of legalizing hemp, leaving that up to their friends in the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws. They say that because the political view of hemp is so hostile, they have chosen not to waste their energy lobbying and instead are trying to educate people about hemp’s merit through company literature and the quality of the products they produce.

Boucher has had much more success in talking to farmers about a new cash crop for fiber and paper than in preaching the virtues of marijuana as a drug. "Rural unemployment around here is about 35 percent, so these guys are real interested," he says. Boucher recently won permission from state and federal authorities to start a test field of hemp, the first of its kind.

In yet another move to reap the commercial benefits of hemp, Donald Wirtshafter gave up his law practice in Athens, Ohio, to devote himself full-time to his Ohio Hempery. Using hemp seems to be hip: selling edible hemp seeds that have been sterilized, as the law requires, along with lip balms and salves made from hempseed oil, the Ohio Hempery has become a million-dollar business, largely through mail-order. The seeds taste vaguely like sunflower seeds; they can be ground and substituted for up to one-fourth of the flour in any recipe, or simply roasted and munched by the handful like popcorn. Wirtshafter calls hemp "acre for acre, the greatest protein producer on the planet" because its growth rates outstrips the soybean, and he’s backed up his claim that hemp oil offers a good balance of the essential fatty acids — linoleic, linolenic and gamma linoleic — by having several batches analyzed in European laboratories.

Responding to the Negativity
None of these products — Boucher’s clothes, Stanford’s paper, or Wirtshafter’s seeds and oils — contain any appreciable amount of THC, which is present mostly in the leaves and flowers. But you can’t grow a plant without leaves and flowers, so hemp cultivation remains illegal. It may be possible to breed a strain that contains even less THC, something the Dutch government is pursuing. But unless attitudes change radically, hemp is likely to remain illegal. There is no high-level political conflict over reviving the hemp industry because it is simply not on the agenda.

The best response to the official negativity toward hemp, and the strongest indication that attitudes may slowly be changing, can be found in the steady success of hemp products. "We just can’t keep up with demand," says Boucher. "People are becoming more aware of the production issues involved in what they’re buying, and they realize [hemp’s] benefits: it’s historical, it’s environmental, it’s political."

Herer stands by his claim that hemp is "the Earth’s No. 1 source" for environmentally friendly paper, fiber, fuel and food. He offers a $30,000 reward to anyone who can disprove his claim. "If I’m right, then that’s the miracle we need for the Earth to survive," he says. "And if I’m wrong, then it should be easy to prove."

So far no one has stepped forward to collect.

Max Friedman is the co-author of The Vegan Guide to New York City. He is a freelance writer currently based in Berkeley, California. This article is based on an article that first appeared in Vegetarian Times, August 1994, and is reprinted with permission of the author.

Medicine from Marijuana

Imperial court documents from the Han Dynasty in China record hemp’s use as a treatment for pain, rheumatism and fevers and to ease childbirth as far back as 2737 BCE. By the early 20th century, pharmaceuticals containing cannabis extracts were commonly used to relieve pain.

The listing of marijuana as an illegal drug put an end to over-the-counter and clinical use of cannabis derivatives until 1976, when the U.S. government allowed people suffering certain diseases to apply for permission to use marijuana. Over the years, approval came in only a handful of cases, mainly to ease nausea and appetite loss among cancer and AIDS patients, and to calm muscle spasms for people with multiple sclerosis.

Currently, only eight people still receive marijuana legally; they were included in a grandfather clause when the Bush administration, fighting its war on drugs, banned even the restricted medical use of marijuana in 1992. One of these eight is Washington, D.C. glaucoma patient Robert Randall. He smokes 10 marijuana cigarettes a day to relieve the eye pressure that leads to blindness in glaucoma sufferers. Randall, who heads the Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics, is suing the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for refusing to allow doctors to prescribe marijuana to others.

In the early 1980s, Thomas Ungerleider, M.D., of the University of California, Los Angeles, studied cancer patients who smoked government-provided marijuana cigarettes to combat nausea and vomiting brought on by chemotherapy. "It was equal to or better than Compazine, which was the standard drug in the field," he says. According to a 1991 survey published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, half of the nation’s cancer specialists would prescribe marijuana if it were legal, and a staggering 40 percent have advised patients to break the law and use it anyway.

Scoring on the street will continue to be the way most of these patients can obtain marijuana, at least in the near future. This method carries the obvious risk of arrest, and other risks as well: Ungerleider points out that marijuana that is not sterilized to remove bacteria could bring devastating new problems to patients with depressed immune systems, including those who have AIDS or have had cancer therapy. — MF


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