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Seeing good in potential of “evil weed”

Posted on March 26, 2000

By Anne Cook, The News-Gazette

Urbana, Illinois — Scientists say hemp would make a versatile, profitable crop for state farmers.

But opponents who associate hemp with a popular recreational drug, better known as marijuana, want to scuttle state plans to study the fibrous crop’s potential.

Other states are evaluating hemp, and researchers in Hawaii have set up the first legal test plot on U.S. soil in more than 40 years.

University of Illinois plant physiologist Don Briskin, who was appointed last year to an Illinois Senate committee to look at the issue, hopes to plant hemp trial plots in UI fields next year.

Briskin is a little surprised at some of the attitudes that have surfaced.

“I’ve had strange phone calls from people concerned about drug connections,” he said. “The federal Drug Enforcement Administration says looking at hemp production sends the wrong message to youth.”

He’s also puzzled by political sallies surfacing in Springfield, including proposed amendments delving into sociological issues that may have been designed to disable the legislation, SB1397, that would make hemp studies legal at the UI.

Major manufacturers use hemp to make clothing materials and building materials, including biocomposite plastics—those made from natural rather than petroleum-based materials. They’re importing the fiber they use from Canada, where hemp production is legal and, according to farmers, very profitable.

Cadillac plans to use hemp in car bodies beginning with 2002 production, and BMW already uses it, Briskin said.

Briskin is a scientist, and he has trouble understanding why people don’t get the message that hemp bred for drug use and hemp bred for fiber are two totally different crops.

“In some states, efforts to study the crop have been stopped,” he said. “This is controversial. People get worked up about it.”

“But it’s like the difference between a Doberman and a toy poodle. They’re both dogs, but the Doberman is sure to be the most effective watchdog.”

Rep. Rick Winkel, R-Champaign, said selling the hemp story in Springfield might not be easy.

The Illinois Drug Education Alliance has urged lawmakers to reject the study because it would send the wrong message to children and complicate the jobs of police.

The measure’s sponsor, Sen. Evelyn Bowles, D-Edwardsville, disagreed.

“We want to study (it),” she said. “We don’t want to make a bunch of druggies out of the children of this state, for gosh sake.”

Others agreed with Winkel that it might be a hard sell. One member of the Agriculture Committee said he largely agreed with Bowles but still could not vote “yes.”

“I believe at this time it’s not a very smart political vote,” said Sen. William O’Daniel, D-Mount Vernon.

Briskin said studies would focus on varieties bred in Europe, where hemp production is also legal and a sanctioned academic pursuit, that contain almost none of the active ingredient—delta-9 tetrahydrochannabinol, or THC—that gives pot users a buzz.

“Hemp was selected for something completely different,” he said. “That’s the reason we have varieties, selection and breeding.”

Cannabis is native to China, where early breeders recognized its potential to produce long fiber and selected for thousands of years for that characteristic.

However, Briskin said, growers in India identified its drug properties and bred to maximize them.

“It’s divergent selection, and you end up with one or the other,” he said. “You want long fibers for hemp, tall, spindly plants. And you want foliage and flowers for drugs, short bushy plants with lots of leaves.”

“Selection started in the pre-Christian era,” Briskin said. “Egyptians recognized it as a drug. It came to the New World in the 1800s. Fiber types were used to make sails for clipper ships and ropes of all kinds. It’s really durable and incredibly strong.”

Hemp’s domestic history is characterized by the same kind of paranoia that plagues promoters trying to revive it today. In 1937, the federal government slapped a $100 per ounce tax on hemp, effectively outlawing it.

But when World War II cut off Asian sources of fiber, the government did an abrupt about-face and started a program called Hemp for Victory, encouraging farmers in Iowa, Illinois and Kentucky and other states to participate.

In a recent article in Audubon magazine reprinted and posted on the internet by Utne Reader, author Ted Williams documented the outcome.

“With no change in federal law, some 400,000 acres were planted to hemp, the stalks of which were processed by 42 hemp mills built by the War Hemp Industries Corporation,” he wrote.

But after the war, Washington turned against the crop again, and the country’s Bureau of Narcotics head, Harry Anslinger, alleged that it left its victims so dazed and passive, they could be easily converted to communism, Williams wrote.

Briskin said today’s eradication programs are a legacy of those policies.

“It’s ideal for this climate and soil type, but it grows under a wide range of conditions,” he said. “The ditchweed in Illinois is feral hemp that escaped from the victory programs. People don’t seem to understand that it’s not good drug material.”

“The eradication programs are destroying potential germplasm that’s already selected for our climate, diseases and other factors.”

If the state legislation passes and he gets security clearance required by the DEA—clearance that will likely include background checks and random drug tests for research associates—Briskin will start his work by visiting experts in Europe and looking at their varieties.

“We need to do a range of studies for resistance and other factors,” he said. “It will take two growing seasons to get some answers about crop viability. I’d like to grow 2 to 4 acres somewhere on South Farms.”

Researchers overseeing Hawaii’s quarter-acre plot had to spend $25,000 to comply with security requirements that included building a 10-foot-high barbed wire fence around the plot and furnishing round-the-clock guards and infrared cameras.

Briskin said hemp seed, a useful oilseed, germinates at 2.9 degrees Centigrade, just slightly above freezing, so farmers could plant the crop very early.

“It’s planted at a high density, 700 plants per square meter, so you don’t need herbicide because it shuts out the weeds,” he said. “The growing season is about 150 days, and it yields about 1 ton per acre.”

Briskin said initial processing, pulling fibers from stalks, must be done fairly close to fields where it grows because the crop is bulky to haul. But he said a multinational company has already expressed interest in putting processing plants in the state.

Briskin’s ready to get started, but he can’t even put a plant in a pot in UI greenhouses unless the legislation, now stalled in subcommittee, passes.

He and other supporters in Springfield promote hemp as a way to stabilize state farm and rural economies.

“There’s a concern now about profitability from our two usual crops,” Briskin said. “they’re making money on hemp in Canada. Farmers there say profits are double or triple those from corn, so you can see why farmers here are excited.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2000, The News-Gazette. All rights reserved.