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Is grass really greener?

Posted on November 1, 1995

Hemp, also known as Cannabis sativa, marijuana, grass, and by many other names, has not been a legal commercial crop in the United States for almost 60 years (except for a brief exemption during World War II). As common two centuries ago as cotton is today, by the late 1980s industrial hemp was being cultivated in only a few countries, such as China and the disintegrating Soviet Union and its satellites.

But in the past few years, hemp has been cleverly reincarnated as a hardworking, environmentally sound renewable resource. Hundreds of entrepreneurs — many referring to themselves as “hempsters” — are doing a brisk business selling shirts, jeans, sneakers, baseball caps, neckties, and lingerie made from imported hemp. Lately even big companies like Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, and Disney have begun testing the waters, introducing a few hempen goods in their new lines. (Disney sells Indiana Jones hats made of hemp, for instance.) Sales of hemp products in the United States-mostly clothing, but also paper, backpacks, candles, and foodstuffs like hemp cheese — have jumped from less than $1 million five years ago to an estimated $25 million in 1994.

And hemp is not just this season’s fashion fad, if you listen to proponents’ wildly enthusiastic assertions. Hemp, they claim, could reduce both deforestation and gasoline consumption by half. It can be grown without pesticides or herbicides, unlike chemically dependent, water-hungry cotton. Hemp, says Marilyn Craig of the Business Alliance for Commerce in Hemp in Buffalo, New York, “is literally capable of saving the planet.”

Behind the hype is a long history. Hemp fiber has been used over the centuries in rope, sails, paper, cloth, and a range of other products, from oil to birdseed. It was a major cash crop until the last century, when little by little it lost its market share to less expensive materials, primarily because of the labor-intensive process of “breaking” the fiber from the rest of the plant.

By the time an efficient breaking machine was introduced in the 1930s, hemp had become just a bit player in the economy-and the anti-marijuana hysteria then in full flame kept it that way. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 criminalized hemp farming, even though industrial hemp generally has less than .03 percent THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana (compared with the 3 to 11 percent in plants cultivated for getting high). Except for its recruitment into wartime duty, industrial hemp disappeared for 50 years, until the hemp revival got under way in the late 1980s.

Some of the hempsters’ claims, like the oft-repeated one that hemp was used for more than three-quarters of all paper until 1883, are simply groundless. Others are extravagant projections based on sources like a 1938 Popular Mechanics article stating that hemp could be used to make 25,000 products — everything from cellophane to dynamite — and a 1916 U.S. Department of Agriculture bulletin, which calculated that, over 20 years, one acre of hemp would yield as much pulp for paper as 4.1 acres of trees. There have been no more-recent studies to either confirm or discredit these reports.

Though overhyped, hemp certainly has the potential to be an environmental boon. Hemp grows just about anywhere; it is a tough and prolific plant with deep, erosion-controlling roots. It needs nitrogen, but little else, and could indeed be grown with virtually no pesticides or herbicides (though in practice this is seldom done).

“The question is,” says David Morris, founder of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, “will hemp be a niche crop or another soybean?” That will be determined, he says, not by the environmental benefits, but by price, which would undoubtedly be lower if hemp could be grown domestically.

“What if,” asks Morris, “we have one more iteration of exponential growth and hemp becomes a $200 million business? Then it will get increasingly difficult to explain to farmers why they can go to the store and buy pants made from hemp, but if they grow it themselves, they’ll be arrested.”

John Byrne Barry is the managing editor and designer of the Sierra Club’s activist newsletter, The Planet.

Copyright © 1995, Sierra. All rights reserved.

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