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Hemp, hemp, hooray!

Posted on March 1, 1996

The Hemp RevolutionThe Hemp Revolution, produced and directed by Anthony Clarke. 77 min.

The Hemp Revolution is a new documentary film that tells the complete story of the hemp plant (marijuana, cannabis sativa) from its ancient roots to its modern potential to solve major environmental, economic, medical, and social problems.

It was filmed over a four year period by Anthony Clarke, who also worked on Cover-Up: Behind the Iran-Contra Affair and Panama Deception, which won the 1993 Academy Award for Best Documentary. These earlier films investigated the CIA’s attempts to use the huge profits generated by the illegal drug trade to fund arms smuggling and covert military operations around the world.

The Hemp Revolution features interviews with scientists, doctors, environmentalists, forestry officials, and business people in the United States, Europe, Australia, and Nepal, all promoting the legalization of hemp. They explain the plant’s history and its thousands of uses world-wide as a food, fiber, fabric, fuel, paper, and medicine, in addition to a psychoactive drug.

Clarke’s film explores how, despite its cultural and economic significance, the mere mention of hemp has been stricken from history books and museums in the United States. Hemp was the first plant known to be cultivated and was among the world’s largest agricultural crops until the end of the 19th century. The United States first marijuana law was enacted in 1619 ordering all farmers to grow hemp. Indeed, cannabis hemp was legal tender in most of America from 1631 to the early 19th century, and could even be used to pay taxes. Hempstead (Long Island), New York; Hempstead County, Arkansas; Hempstead County, Texas; and Hemphill, North Carolina were all named after the main crop in those regions.

The United States’ quintessential patriots, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp on their plantations, and George Washington was known to take an occasional toke. Thomas Jefferson was perhaps the country’s first hemp activist, encouraging farmers to grow hemp instead of tobacco. Benjamin Franklin started one of the United States’ first paper mills using cannabis hemp. The original Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights were written on hemp paper.

Hemp was the earliest known woven fabric, first used about 8,000 B.C. Most of mankind’s textiles and fabrics were made from cannabis fibers until the 20th century. Ships’ sails from the 5th century B.C. to the late 19th century were made from hemp, in addition to the rigging, nets, rope, flags, sealant, maps, logs, and bibles on the boat. Most of the world’s great surviving paintings were done on hemp and the paints were derived from hemp seed oil. In fact, ‘canvas’ is the Dutch pronunciation for ‘cannabis.’ In the United States, hemp was used for the original U.S. flag and for the uniforms worn by the rebel army during the Revolutionary War. Half a century later, the covered wagons that traversed the west, as well as the original Levi pants worn by gold diggers were made of hemp.

Hemp also provided most of the world’s paper until the late 19th century, including books, money, stocks and bonds, and newspapers, which were printed on hemp pulp from recycled sails and rope. U.S. government papers were, by law, written on hemp paper until the 1920s.

In 1850, the U.S. census counted 8,327 hemp plantations (minimum 2,000 acres), not including the millions of hemp patches on family farms. Even so, 80 percent of the hemp used by the United States had to be imported from other countries. Both the War of 1812 and Napoleon’s invasion of Russia the same year were fought partially over access to Russian hemp, which was thought to be the best in the world. You’ll never read that in U.S. history books.

Clarke includes the observations of Australian forester turned hemp activist Eugene Collins who says, “there is no need to be flattening the world’s forests. We could be making paper with alternative fibers. Hemp and kenaf are just two of them.” The film stresses that hemp is in many ways more efficient then the fibers commonly used to produce a variety of goods. For example, hemp produces four times more pulp per acre than trees, and takes months instead of years to grow. As a building material, hemp fiber board is two to three times stronger than fiber board made from wood, according to William Conde of Conde’s Redwood Lumber in Oregon.

Hemp is softer, stronger, warmer, and more durable than cotton, and produces twice as much yield per acre, according to Dr. Andrew Katelaris of Bio-Logical Products, which produces hemp clothing. While cotton requires many chemicals for a successful crop, hemp requires no fertilizer, pesticides, or herbicides, and has no natural enemies except the U.S. government.

As a seed oil, hemp is both edible and combustible. It is second only to soybeans as a source of complete vegetable protein, and has been used for a millennium as a staple food by people around the world. And as a lighting oil, it lit the lamps of everyone from the biblical Abraham to Abraham Lincoln.

The Hemp Revolution also explores the medicinal history of the plant, looking back at least 3,500 years ago when marijuana, or cannabis extract, was one of the most widely used medicines in the world. In the 19th century United States, it was the second or third most prescribed drug, and made up one half of all medicines sold. Current research shows the therapeutic value of marijuana for chemotherapy, glaucoma, MS, paraplegia, asthma, epilepsy, anorexia, AIDS wasting syndrome, depression, pain relief, and more.

In all that time it was used as a medicine, there was not one reported death from marijuana use, compared to 27,000 U.S. deaths per year now from legal, prescribed medicines (not to mention 400,000 deaths from cigarettes, and 125,000 deaths from alcohol, both of which are legal). Dr. Andrew Weil, professor of the University of Arizona College of Medicine says “the great advantage of the medical uses of marijuana is that it is nontoxic. Doctors and pharmaceutical companies are threatened by people having direct access to substances that really work.”

Given all this, how then did hemp come to be illegal? The answer, in a word, is capitalism. In the 1930s synthetic fibers — plastic and nylon — had just been invented, and DuPont held the patents on them. Meanwhile, W.R. Hearst, of the newspaper chain, had vast timber holdings. A series of secret meetings was held among DuPont, Hearst, and Secretary of the Treasury Mellon, of the Mellon Bank, resulting in a campaign of industrial sabotage instigated by the petrochemical industries to suppress competition from hemp.

At the time, most people didn’t know that the hashish they smoked was from the same hemp plant that had thousands of everyday uses. So a racist, anti-drug campaign was whipped up (see Reefer Madness), which implied that blacks and Mexicans were the main users of marijuana. By 1937, hemp was essentially outlawed.

If it had not been made illegal, much of the world’s forests might still be standing, and 80 percent of DuPont’s business would never have come to be, nor the pollution from the petrochemical industry that replaced hemp.

Hemp was still imported from other parts of the world, but when Japan cut off the U.S. supply during the Second World War, the government, which needed hemp for rope, thread, fire hoses, parachute webbing, tents, and backpacks for the war effort, made a 180 degree turn. It distributed tons of hemp seeds to farmers, gave them draft deferments, and required them to see the film Hemp for Victory. The government even asked kids in 4-H clubs to grow hemp, which five years earlier had been excoriated as the “Assassin of Youth”. So much for the government’s having a rational policy regarding hemp.

More enlightened countries, including England, France, Spain, Holland, Chile, China, and others have either large-scale production of hemp or government financed research projects to study hemp’s potential as a fiber crop. Much of the hemp grown for paper in France is in fact shipped to the United States where it is used for bibles and cigarette papers.

This country was founded on the “inalienable rights … to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” all of which are abrogated under the current marijuana laws. The government estimates that one third of Americans have tried grass, including our esteemed president, who claims he didn’t inhale. (Can’t that man do anything right?) Last year, a half million people were arrested in this country for the “crime” of expanding heir horizons, deepening their perceptions, and relaxing. And yet, only one hundred years ago, there were hashish smoking parlors in every U.S. city — over 500 in New York alone.

In Congress there is currently a bill pending — H.R.2618 — that would legalize the medical use of marijuana if prescribed by a doctor. It is similar to a bill co-sponsored by Newt Gingrich (!) in the early 1980s. In California, where marijuana is the largest cash crop in the largest agricultural state in the country, hemp activists are trying to take the issue of medical marijuana directly to the voters, because presidential candidate Gov. Pete Wilson has vetoed it three years in a row. Polls show it has overwhelming support.

“Marijuana” according to producer/director Clarke, “promotes values that are not welcome in capitalist society,” and so the U.S. government has poisoned peoples’ minds in the service of the same petrochemical industries that are poisoning the environment.

The Hemp Revolution educates people about hemp’s potential to replace fossil fuels, timber, and petrochemicals in the transition from a petrochemical based economy to a sustainable, plant based economy. It is hoped that the film catches fire and we turn over an old leaf in examining the 25,000 products that international experts claim can be made from the most versatile plant on the planet.

So … Just Say Yes! Fire up a joint and go see The Hemp Revolution. It will expand your mind.

Joyce Stoller is a longtime political activist.

Copyright © 1996, Monthly Review. All rights reserved.