Is hemp (nonpharmacological marijuana) the answer to our environmental problems?

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Dear Cecil: What’s the scoop on hemp? Is it true that in earlier days of our country over 90 percent of paper was made of hemp? Is it true hemp is one of the strongest fibers known to man? Why is it illegal to grow it, since it is only about 1 percent THC? In fact, it is only a relative of the plant that is cultivated for smoking, is it not? It just seems that cultivation of hemp would be such an easy solution to the deforestation problems we are having. Tyler Hartley, Lincoln, Nebraska


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Our deforestation problems! Yes, absolutely, hemp is a perfect solution. I myself can recall thinking as a youth (puff) that we’ve got terrible deforestation problems these days (puff). What can we do about them? (Puff. Long pause.) What was I just talking about?

One of the nuttier developments of recent times is the sudden interest in nonpharmacological hemp cultivation among people who’ve never grown so much as a radish. It’s true that prior to criminalization hemp was grown commercially for paper, cloth, rope and twine, and other products. It grows pretty much anywhere, doesn’t require much tending, and produces plenty of strong fiber.

During World War II the government relaxed the antihemp laws and encouraged midwestern farmers to grow the stuff for the war effort. It’s said that a parachute rigging made of hemp saved the life of George Bush when the young bomber pilot bailed out of his burning plane.

What with the renewed interest in natural fibers, there’s a good case to be made that hemp farming should be promoted rather than suppressed. What the hell —we might as well legalize the stuff altogether, since we know perfectly well that cannabis smoking doesn’t cause insanity or any of the other horrors that federal narcotics authorities feared when they clamped down in the late 1930s.

But let’s not get goofy about this. Hemp cultivation isn’t going to save the planet, as some claim. It won’t halt deforestation, which is driven mainly by the demand for lumber and agricultural land.

Hemp wasn’t a mighty industry in the U.S. prior to passage of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. Only about 1,300 acres of hemp —about two square miles —were under cultivation. It was cheaper to import the stuff than grow it.

Even so, total U.S. consumption was only about 2,000 tons, and most of that was used for rope and such. Textile manufacturers had long since abandoned hemp for cotton, which was easier to process. An improved hemp-processing technology had been invented, and the industry might have rebounded had it not been for the antihemp crusade. But nobody knows for certain.

The suppression of hemp wasn’t, as some have alleged, the result of an unholy conspiracy between federal narcotics commissioner Harry Anslinger, the Du Pont corporation, and William Randolph Hearst. No question, Anslinger was a zealot who thought marijuana was a menace to society, and Hearst’s newspapers had done their best to whip up antihemp hysteria. But so had everybody else in the press. Lurid antimarijuana stories appeared in the New Yorker, for God’s sake.

The hemp industry didn’t pose a significant threat to Du Pont and its new synthetic product, nylon. The most widely publicized early use of nylon was for women’s stockings. Hemp wasn’t used for this purpose.

Getting back to the present, let’s not pretend that hemp and marijuana are two different things. They come from the same plant, Cannabis sativa. The “industrial hemp” variety, which is useless for recreational purposes, is tall and spindly, while the stuff prized for high-potency smoke is short and bushy. It’s reasonably easy to tell the two apart when you’re up close, but they can’t be readily distinguished during aerial surveillance. Federal drug officials are probably right when they say legalization of hemp cultivation would greatly complicate enforcement.

Given the unlikelihood of total decriminalization of cannabis, Cecil can appreciate that proponents of the weed might want to sneak partial decriminalization in through the back door. On the one hand I think, hey, whatever works. But on the other hand I think, this is just the kind of hypocrisy we 60s types used to try so hard to avoid.

Put this in your pipe and smoke it

Dear Cecil:

I enjoy your usually well-researched columns but am sorely disappointed at your lack of depth on hemp cultivation. You said it “won’t halt deforestation, which is driven mainly by the demand for lumber.” Uh, if hemp becomes a source for cellulose, won’t the demand for lumber ease? I heard of a bumper sticker in a rural area last Sunday: “If you don’t like logging, wipe your ass with plastic.” Hemp makes paper. Those hurting loggers could sorely use a new commodity to make a living from.

You dismissed the Hearst conspiracy claim with nothing but your assertion that “everybody else” did it. Just why and how was hemp suppressed? Why did the press do their best to whip up antihemp hysteria? I had my suspicions about the conspiracy theory and had hoped you would be the one to clarify it. A simple denial does not cut it.

“Hemp wasn’t used for [nylon stockings.]” No it wasn’t, but it certainly could be. Why isn’t it just as good as the petroleum and wood pulp the companies use now? Maybe it is control of the oil wells and tree plantations? Hmm? If it was good enough during WWII, why is it goofy now?

If my current profession goes belly-up, there ain’t much call for my specialty. I might need a subsistence crop. You’re not helping my survival. There is a growing number of people who think the government should not be enforcing their brand of oppression and indeed the laws should be scrapped as a monstrous waste and enemy of liberty. Denying Americans the potential of this plant (whether it will save the planet or not) while the rest of the world passes us by and continues to enjoy its bounty is folly. In Russia they grow huge fields of …[impassioned plea truncated, no room.]

— William Hathaway, via the Internet

Cecil replies:

William. Kick back. Have a toke of this. Feel better? Look, I’m the first to concede that the gentle weed is harmless and ought to be legalized. But the day I start believing this dope-will-save-the-planet stuff is the day I switch to Kool-Aid. To address your claims and some of the dozens of others that flooded my mailbox:

Hemp is ideal for paper, cloth, and a thousand other products. Don’t be ridiculous. Even hemp advocates concede the stuff has a lot of drawbacks. It makes a fairly coarse cloth (OK for jeans, though) and, given current technology, doesn’t lend itself to high-volume, low-cost paper production. (Granted, research in this area is continuing.) Many proposed uses are speculative or farfetched. Check out back issues of HempWorld magazine, available on-line at Amid the rah-rah stuff you’ll find some clear-eyed assessments of hemp’s pros and cons.

By the way, William, “lumber” is usually understood to mean “construction lumber.” There’s been talk of using hemp in particleboard and such. But take it from someone who’s been there, there’s still no substitute for a wood two-by-four.

Cecil has been duped by the antimarijuana conspirators. If somebody tells me he was abducted by aliens, it’s not my job to prove he wasn’t. It’s his job to prove he was. I’ve yet to see any credible evidence for the alleged Anslinger/Hearst/Mellon/Du Pont antidope cabal. Most historians of U.S. drug laws say the outlawing of cannabis was the work of narcotics commissioner Harry Anslinger, a formidable figure who persuaded Congress that this little-known weed was undermining the republic. What exactly motivated Anslinger is a matter of debate, but it seems silly to blame a fat-cat conspiracy —as I said earlier, hemp was a minor crop in the 1930s and posed no competitive threat.

The legalize-hemp-cultivation movement isn’t simply a backdoor attempt to legalize marijuana. I’m sure many of the agribusiness types in the hemp coalition have never smoked a joint. But for a much larger crowd, your eco-green-save-the-whales types, hemp has become a kind of alternative vegetable. (Literally — I’ve even seen hemp recipes.) No doubt many of these people have persuaded themselves that hemp is mankind’s last hope, but don’t tell me it hasn’t occurred to a lot of them that legal hemp might be a step toward legal marijuana. One hemp shoemaker has a product out called H.I.G.H. Tops. Another, U.S. Hemp, stamps a marijuana leaf on its shoes, and owner Cathy Troutt was quoted in HempWorld as saying, “we aren’t going to lie about our feelings on marijuana.” Good for you, Cathy. Wish everybody else were as upfront.

Cecil Adams

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