Hemp has been grown for at least 12,000 years for fiber (textiles and paper) and seed (food and fuel). It has been effectively prohibited in the United States since the 1950s.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew hemp. Ben Franklin owned a mill that made hemp paper. Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper.
Because of its importance for sails (the word “canvass” is rooted in “cannabis”) and rope for ships, hemp was a required crop in the American colonies.
Hemp was grown commercially (with increasing government interference) in the United States until the 1950s. It was doomed by the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which placed an extremely high tax and made it effectively impossible to grow industrial hemp. While congress expressly expected the continued production of industrial hemp, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics lumped industrial hemp with marijuana, as its successor the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), does to this day.
Industrial hemp and marijuana are both classified by taxonomists as Cannabis sativa L., a species with hundreds of varieties. Cannabis sativa L. is a member of the mulberry family. Industrial hemp varieties are bred to maximize fiber, and/or seed, while marijuana varieties seek to maximize THC (delta 9 tetrahydrocannabinol, the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana) through several budding sites for its flowers and leaves.
While industrial hemp and marijuana may look somewhat alike to the untrained eye, an easily trained eye can easily distinguish the difference.
No one would want to smoke industrial hemp. Industrial hemp has a THC content of between 0.05 and 1%. Marijuana has a THC content of 3% to 20%. To receive a standard psychoactive dose would require a person to “power-smoke” 10-12 hemp cigarettes over a very short period of time. The large volume, high temperature of vapor, gas and smoke would be difficult for a person to withstand, much less enjoy.
If one tried to ingest enough industrial hemp to get a buzz, it would be the equivalent of taking 2-3 doses of a high-fiber laxative.
No marijuana grower would hide marijuana plants in a hemp field. Marijuana is grown widely spaced to maximize flowers and leaves; hemp is grown tightly-spaced to maximize stalk and is usually harvested before it goes to seed. It is also the first place where law enforcement officials would look.
If hemp does pollinate any nearby marijuana, genetically, the results will always be lower-THC marijuana and will contain unwanted seeds. When hemp is grown, nearby marijuana growers will be upset due to the pollination by hemp fields; thus causing marijuana growers to flee the area or grow indoors under lab-like conditions (to keep pollen outside).
When U.S. sources of “Manila hemp” (not true hemp; rather sisal and jute) was cut off by the Japanese in World War II, the U.S. Army and U.S. Department of Agriculture promoted the “Hemp for Victory” campaign to grow hemp in the U.S.
While the original “gruel” was made of hemp seed meal, hemp oil and seed can be made into tasty and nutritional products. [Recipe for Hemp Seed Porridge]
At a volume level of 81%, hemp oil is the richest known source of polyunsaturated essential fatty acids (the “good” fats). It is quite high in some essential amino acids, including gamma linoleic acid (GLA), a very rare nutrient also found in mother’s milk.
Hemp can be made into quality papers. the long fibers in hemp allow such paper to be recycled several more times than wood-based papers.
Because of its low lignin content, hemp can be pulped using less energy and chemicals than wood requires, resulting in less pollution and energy consumption. Its natural whiteness can obviate the need to use chlorine bleach, which means no extremely toxic dioxin being dumped into streams. Rather, when required, hemp can be whitened with hydrogen peroxide. Therefore, hemp paper is acid-free, which can last 1,500 years. Wood-based papers have a shelf life of 25-100 years.
Kimberly-Clark (a Fortune 500 company) has a mill in France which produces hemp paper preferred for bibles and cigarette paper because it lasts a long time and doesn’t yellow.
Construction products such as medium density fiberboard (MDF), oriented strand board, and even beams, studs and posts can be made out of hemp. Because of hemp’s long fibers (bundles of 7 feet long can be common), the products will be stronger and/or lighter than those made from wood (a Douglas fir tree’s fiber is at best ¾ inch long).
Hemp can yield 3-8 dry tons of fiber per acre. This is four times what an average forest can yield.
The products that can be made from hemp number over 25,000.
Hemp grows well in a variety of climates and soil types. It is naturally resistant to most pests, precluding the need for pesticides. It grows tightly spaced, out-competing any weeds, so herbicides are not necessary. It also leaves a weed-free field for the following crop.
Hemp can be made into variety of fabrics, including linen quality.
Hemp can displace cotton which is grown with massive amounts of chemicals harmful to people and the environment. fifty percent of the world’s pesticides are sprayed on cotton. “Cotton, the natural fiber;” think again.
Hemp fibers are longer, stronger, more absorbent, and more mildew-resistant than cotton. The original Levi Strauss jeans made for the Sierra gold miners were made of hemp sailcloth.
Fabrics made of at least fifty percent hemp block the sun’s harmful UV rays more effectively than other fabrics.
Hemp can displace wood fiber and save forests for watershed, wildlife habitat, recreation and oxygen production, carbon sequestration (reduces global warming), and other values.
Many of the varieties of hemp that were grown in North America have been lost. Seed banks were not maintained. New genetic breeding will be necessary using both foreign and “ditch weed,” strains of hemp that went feral after cultivation ended. Various state national guard units often spend their weekends trying to eradicate this hemp, in the mistaken belief they are helping stop drug use.
Henry Ford experimented with hemp to build car bodies and interiors. He wanted to both build and fuel cars from farm products. [See Popular Mechanics “Pinch Hitters for Defense.”]
BMW is experimenting with hemp materials in automobiles as part of an effort to make cars more recyclable.
Seeking to put more environment-friendly materials in its cars, Daimler-Benz may replace fiberglass matte with industrial hemp. [See Popular Mechanics “Putting Cannabis Into Cars.”]
Rudolph Diesel designed his namesake engine to run on vegetable oils, including hempseed oil.
Hempseed oil once greased machines. Most paint, resins, shellacs, and varnishes used to be made out of linseed (from flax) and hempseed oils.
Much of the bird seed sold in the United States has hempseed (it’s sterilized before importation), the hulls of which contain about 25% protein of which is more easily digestible than soybean protein.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) classifies all Cannabis sativa L. varieties as “marijuana.” While it is theoretically possible to get permission from the government to grow hemp, DEA would require that the field to be secured by fence, razor, wire, dogs, guards, and lights, making it cost-prohibitive.
The U.S. State Department must certify each year that a foreign nation is cooperating in the war on drugs. The European Union subsidizes its farmers to grow industrial hemp. Those nations are not on this list, because the U.S. State Department distinguishes the difference between hemp and marijuana.
Over 30 industrialized democracies do distinguish hemp from marijuana. International treaties regarding marijuana make an exception for hemp, and trade alliances such as NAFTA allow for the importation of hemp.