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Rethinking hemp

Posted on July 1, 1996

Its use predates Christopher Columbus, but this easy-to-grow plant fiber is capable of replacing wood as the raw material in paper, grows without the use of pesticides or herbicides and is one of the most versatile alternative resources of our time. And, in certain forms, it’s also highly illegal. It’s time to get reacquainted with hemp.

Hemp’s history goes back 10,000 years, when paper made from it was used for Chinese documents. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson recommended that the early colonists grow “the abundant weed” and cultivate it into such products as lamp oil, flour and fabric for uniforms and clothing. Hemp is now making its way as an alternative resource for building materials, food products, health and beauty aids, fabrics, paper and car fuel. It’s equally impressive as an agricultural crop because it doesn’t need bleaching, is hardy, and serves as its own biological weed controller.

But what may be keeping hemp from earning its mark as an environmental savior and as a major agricultural crop is its association with marijuana. A vocal contingent of pot smokers advocates alternative uses for hemp as a backdoor path to drug legalization.

“The general public is quickly realizing that we can grow hemp without the danger of increasing the drug problem,” says Donald Wirtshafter, founder and owner of The Ohio Hemperty in Guysville, Ohio. “It’s the politicians who don’t understand.”

Long History

Hemp cultivation in the U.S. ended after the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which placed a tax on hemp manufacturers, distributors and all hemp transactions. Prohibitive costs, a new association with the drug culture, and an industrial shift from plant-based to chemical-based products like vinyl, polyester and silicon, forced the hemp market into involuntary retreat. The last hemp crop was harvested in 1957. Today it’s illegal to grow hemp without a government permit — something advocates have found difficult to obtain.

Allen St. Pierre, deputy national director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), says that marijuana and hemp legalization should stand together as one issue, despite many other groups’ need to separate them. “The recreational use of marijuana will keep all the other issues at bay, but if hemp farming is legalized, the other uses will follow suit,” says St. Pierre. “We just believe that the plant should be legalized.”

According to the Ohio Hempery in Guysville, Ohio, more than 25,000 products were made from hemp at the time it was restricted in 1937. Only during World War II did hemp make a brief comeback. In a “Hemp for Victory” campaign sponsored by the U.S. Army and Department of Agriculture, patriotic farmers were asked to grow hemp to offset war shortages of fibers needed for rope, uniforms and other products. But then hemp went back into obscurity.

The confusion between hemp and marijuana stems from the fact that both are by-products of the plant cannabis sativa, and both contain a psychoactive chemical called tetrahydracannabinol (THC). Marijuana, the psychoactive form of cannabis, can contain a THC level of four to 20 percent. Seed varieties of the hemp plant that have been developed through genetic engineering carry THC levels of less than one percent and are incapable of producing a “high” effect no matter how much is smoked.

The mainstream hemp movement focuses on the applicable and economic uses of the plant, while distancing itself from the pro-marijuana agenda. “I think that as we expand the industry, the politicians will see the economy we’ve built,” says Wirtshafter. He says that within the last five years, 10,000 jobs have been created within the U.S. hemp industry, which did an estimated $50 million in worldwide business in 1995. American companies can’t grow hemp, but they can buy sterile seeds and stalks from abroad and use that as raw material.

Environmental Savior?

According to entrepreneurs like Carolyn Moran, hemp can singlehandedly stop worldwide deforestation. In February, Moran and her company Living Tree Paper Company in Eugene, Oregon, printed their magazine Talking Leaves on the “first 100 percent tree-free hemp content paper.” Her company’s new Tradition Bond paper is 10 percent hemp, 10 percent esparto grass, 60 percent agricultural by-products (like cotton and flax), and 20 percent post-consumer recycled fibers.

Over the last two years, says Moran, hemp awareness has gone mainstream. ‘We need to put pressure on the industry to create more plant-based paper,’ she says. “Consumers need to put their money where their consience is.”

Hemp is also making a fashion statement, whether on baseball caps carrying the message “Don’t smoke this hat,” or with the hemp shoe marketed by Adidas footwear, which drew a protest from the White House National Drug Council.

Bob Ferringtino, management consultant at Adidas supplier Hemp Textiles International (HTI), says hemp may be the answer to the world’s fiber shortage. “The stuff works, it’s bulletproof,” he says, adding that textile professionals see hemp simply as a versatile and durable fabric. “The credibility of the fiber has been proven,” says Ferringtino.

Cautious Approach

Despite hemp’s multiple uses as cloth material, rope, cooking oil and treeless paper, many people continue to believe that to legalize industrial hemp is to legalize marijuana. So while the U.S. remains intransigent, England, Germany, Holland, Hungary, China, Chile and Switzerland are reaping the benefits of hemp farming.

According to “Industrial Hemp, Practical Products: Paper to Fabric to Cosmetics,” a paper published by Hemptech, China is the largest exporter of hemp paper and textiles. In 1994, French farmers harvested more than 10,000 tons of hemp, and Great Britain, which dropped the ban in 1993, is studying new markets for hemp fiber.

In the U.S., many state governments are also making headway in pushing for state-by-state permission to grow hemp. Vermont legislators are pushing the governor to sign a bill permitting a pilot hemp project that will study the plant’s marketability.

Colorado’s Hemp Production Act, introduced in both 1995 and 1996, also asks for a trial farming permit. Although the bill was defeated twice, it has received endorsements from the American Farm Bureau Federation and many other groups. “The main opposition is the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA),” says Laura Kriho, public relations director of the Colorado Hemp Initiative Project. Kriho says that pressure from the farming sector, rather than environmentalists, will carry the hemp movement to victory.

Mary Romano, communications coordinator of the Rocky Mountain Sierra Club chapter, says hemp legalization has not been an issue with her group. She says the misconception that hemp equals marijuana has a grip on the mainstream audience and forces environmental groups to be cautious.

Mari Kane, publisher of Hemp Pages: The International Hemp Journal, says eventually the DEA will be forced to relinquish the ban on hemp farming. “It’s a plant that can provide alternatives to anything synthetic,” she says.

For now, the hemp movement is still fighting for recognition, and advocates like Kane will continue to fight for legalization. “Hemp can save the world, but we have to give it a chance,” she says,.

Copyright © 1996, E: the Environmental Magazine. All rights reserved.