By Angela Starks
What if there was a plant that could be used
to make everything from durable clothes and paper to cars and the fuel
that powers them? What if the mere act of growing that plant was good
for the environment, and its seeds were one of the most nutritious foods
known to humanity? It sounds like a miracle botanical that would take
scientists years to genetically engineer, but actually it’s been
used for centuries throughout the world. In fact, it was the planet’s
largest agricultural crop from about 1,000 BC until the late 1800s,
producing the majority of the Earth’s fabric, lighting oil, paper
and medicines as well as being an important food source for humans and
animals. You’d think we’d be rushing to cultivate this wonder-plant
in the U.S. But no; that would be illegal.
Hemp has been labeled an offender as part of the government’s
fervor to rid the country of illegal drugs, their reason being that
hemp gets you high (should we outlaw caffeine too?). But what the government
seems to be ignoring is that even though hemp and marijuana come from
the same plant (cannabis sativa), the psychoactive substance in marijuana
is virtually non-existent in commercial hemp. If you tried to smoke
the latter, all you’d get is a headache, and if you tried to smoke
more of it, you’d just get an even bigger headache, a feeling
not unlike that of trying to reason with politicians who have already
set their agendas. Most hemp products currently for sale in this country
have to be imported from the 32 countries that allow its cultivation,
including England and Canada. The rest of the world doesn’t seem
to have a problem distinguishing between hemp and marijuana.
In the U.S., hemp cultivation was actively encouraged until it was outlawed
in the 1930s. It was permitted as legal tender throughout the Americas
from 1631 until the early 1800s in order to ensure its cultivation,
and you could even be jailed for not growing it during several periods
of shortage. The U.S. Census of 1850 counted almost 9,000 hemp farms,
and that doesn’t include the thousands of small family hemp patches.
The most commonly prescribed medicines in the U.S. during the 19th century
were frequently cannabis extracts, and their use continued legally in
both human and veterinary remedies until the 1930s.
Drafts of the Declaration of Independence were written on hemp paper.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew it on their plantations.
Henry Ford succeeded in using hemp and other plant materials to make
his original car that was also designed to run on hemp oil, but the
powerful petrochemical industries soon took over. Since petroleum is
not only toxic but also non-renewable, hemp is now being reexamined
as an ‘alternative’ fuel choice, but there’s still
the hurdle of the politically influential oil lobbies.
Hemp’s environmental benefits alone should ensure that it is reinstated
as a major crop. It is a member of the most advanced plant family on
Earth and utilizes the sun more efficiently than any other plant. It
can be grown organically with great success: it thrives in virtually
any climate, resists most plant diseases, and it is naturally resistant
to the usual pests. This is in contrast to cotton (again, a competitor
against hemp) whose growers saturate the land with tons of toxic pesticides.
Unlike most commercial crops that deplete the nutrients in the soil,
hemp even enriches the very earth that it grows in. Also, the fact that
hemp fiber is so strong means that its products last and last, which
may not be very attractive to manufacturers who want you to buy new
products over and over again, but it’s much better for preserving
resources. Manufacturers of synthetic materials such as nylon are thus
another adversary of hemp. Incidentally, for nylon read petrochemical;
nylon is basically a plastic, and plastic is made from oil.
In 1999, legislation was passed in nine U.S. states to allow research
(as if any was needed) and only limited production of hemp. Although
mainstream acceptance and cultivation of hemp may seem a far-off dream,
there are an increasing number of pressure groups and entrepreneurs
who are calling for its reintroduction. As the public becomes aware
of the truth about hemp, and with the combined efforts of pressure groups
and hemp industries, experts predict that hemp could once again grace
American soil within the next five years.
The Bush administration could ban any further progress—if we allow
it. People’s ignorance of the true facts made it easy for competing
industries, the corporate-sponsored media and a misguided government
to engineer its disappearance from farmlands (and even backyards) in
the first place. We have every reason to get hot under the collar about
what is, quite basically, a question of human rights. What right should
a government have to ban a plant that humans have evolved alongside
with and utilized since before the beginning of recorded history? It’s
even more unsettling when we learn of the mass aerial spraying of toxic
herbicides that places like Hawaii have been victim to, all in the name
of wiping out this God-given resource. Should we sit back and allow
the obliteration of hemp, whose extracts hold valuable medicinal properties
and whose seeds can provide all the important amino acids and fatty
acids required for health, just because a few powerful industries and
politicians have deemed it to be a source of evil? If any of this sounds
a little far-fetched, don’t take my word for it. Read the fascinating
and thoroughly researched The Emperor Wears No Clothes: Hemp and the
Marijuana Conspiracy by Jack Herer (AH HA Publishing, 2000).
For me, this is not a contentious issue, since the facts are clear.
It has been conveniently molded into a contentious issue by means of
misinformation and scare tactics, which have pit citizen against citizen
and resulted in parents worrying about their children getting high if
hemp becomes commonplace. Instead of being anxious about a marijuana
culture, we should be angry that we have been misled and treated like
fools for most of the past century in order to insulate the profits
of a few large corporations. Even if you don’t care about hemp,
please think about what this issue represents.
Angela Starks is a writer and nutrition counselor
who lives in New Paltz, NY. She is a former Assistant Editor of Satya.
This article originally appeared in the special “Contentious Issues”
issue (March 2001).