Thomas Jefferson urged others to grow it. So how did hemp earn its rep as Public Enemy Number One? Australian director Anthony Clarke new film The Hemp Revolution traces the much-maligned plant’s history from its revered status in ancient Sumeria to its modern-day vilification.
No stranger to U.S. foreign policy (his Panama Deception won the 1993 Academy Award for best documentary), Clarke now aims his lens at domestic policy, examining the political, economic, and cultural forces behind hemp’s prohibition in 1937 and its censure in the War on Drugs. A vast gallery of archival footage, photos, and paintings traces hemp’s historical and often surprising uses — it was listed in a Chinese pharmacopoeia 5,000 years ago, U.S. military uniforms were made out of it, and pioneer wagons were covered with it. “Few plants in the world have been as useful,” says physician and best-selling author Andrew Weil. “Yet merely being in the presence of the plant is a criminal offense.”
The demonization of hemp, Clarke argues, had nothing to do with the psychoactive effects of cannabis and everything to do with the petrochemical industry’s desire to monopolize the textile and paper markets. While DuPont was patenting processes to make paper from chemically treated wood pulp, and nylon and plastics from oil and coal, the hemp industry was on the verge of becoming a billion-dollar-a-year business. DuPont did not welcome the competition and called for hemp’s prohibition, aided by William Randolph Hearst, who ran lurid news accounts linking marijuana to violent crimes, and U.S. Commissioner of Narcotics Harry Anslinger, who pushed to find jobs for federal agents unemployed after the repeal of alcohol prohibition in 1933.
Clarke interviews scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs around the world studying hemp’s potential as a source of food, fiber, seed oil, and fuel. Because hemp spares forests and produces minimal pollution, they say, it’s a superior alternative to the petroleum- and timber-based textile, paper, and fuel industries. What’s more, because hemp is insect-resistant, substituting it for bug-prone cotton would greatly reduce the need for pesticides.
Despite a rocky past, hemp products (made from foreign-grown fiber) are enjoying a renaissance. Though they sometimes cost more than their conventional equivalents, it seems a small price to pay to avoid reliance on chemicals and vanishing forests. And the prospect of an ecologically sound industry giving timber and oil companies a run for their money is enough to lift your spirits, naturally.
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