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America’s Hemp-Horror Hurts Economic Health

Posted on April 11, 2000

By Richmond Times-Dispatch

Richmond, Virginia — If brains were gunpowder, one is sometimes tempted to think, then the U.S. couldn’t blow its own nose. Even as it sues Big Tobacco, America spends millions each year to subsidize the weed — a plant that ranks, on the Healthful Substances Chart, only slightly above strychnine. Yet it forbids the raising of another crop that presents no threat to health and offers a multitude of uses: industrial hemp.

Hemp boasts a proud pedigree — particularly here in Virginia, one of the major producers back in hemp’s heyday. In 1623 the General Assembly passed a law requiring every planter to grow hemp, as it made excellent rope (executions by hanging were called “hemp pullings”) and sails. The short-lived Dismal Swamp Company had grand plans to drain the swamp and grow hemp and tobacco in it. George Washington grew hemp; so did Thomas Jefferson. The Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp-fiber paper. Hemp was used in the first American flag supposedly sewn by Betsy Ross.

It remained a legal crop until the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, when its domestic production was effectively banned. It enjoyed a brief renaissance during WWII, when the Japanese cut off the supply of hemp from the Philippines and the Agriculture Department promoted “Hemp for Victory.” Then the war ended, and once again the door clanged shut.

A move is afoot to bring hemp back — particularly as the future of tobacco, here in Virginia and elsewhere, looks less and less bright. Last year Virginia’s General Assembly approved House Joint Resolution 94, sponsored by Charlottesville Democrat Mitchell Van Yahres, urging the relevant federal authorities to permit the experimental cultivation of industrial hemp. But the movement faces a monumental obstacle: the nation’s reflexive opposition to anything that sounds as if it might be distantly related to drug legalization — even if the distance can be measured in parsecs.

As a yardstick for such monomania, consider an item published last fall in The New York Times. It reported the seizure by the Customs Service, at the Canadian border, of 40,000 pounds of birdseed. The birdseed consisted of sterilized seeds from processed industrial hemp.

Such seizures are laughable to the giants in the science of our day. Taxonomists classify both marijuana and industrial hemp as Cannabis sativa. But marijuana contains between 4 percent and 20 percent THC (maryjane’s psychoactive component). Industrial hemp contains THC in amounts between 0.05 percent and 1 percent. The seized birdseed had a THC content of barely 0.0014 percent. Any self-respecting Deadhead would have run from it, screaming. According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, persons attempting to smoke hemp will get a headache, not a high — if they do not collapse from smoke inhalation first.

Two years ago Discover magazine reported on a study by the Houston Advanced Research Center. Gas chromatography and mass spectrometry analyses showed that 70 percent to 80 percent of American currency, and particularly the $20 denomination, is contaminated with cocaine. The point? Simply that the odds of getting high from hemp are about the same as they are from sticking a portrait of Andrew Jackson up your nose.

Okay, but won’t drug dealers conceal their crops of pot by hiding them in hemp fields? Only if they’re surpassingly stupid. Marijuana plants are spaced a few feet apart to cultivate the leaves and flowers. Hemp is planted densely to cultivate the tall stalks for their fiber. A helicopter flyover would reveal the ruse. The pollen from hemp reduces marijuana’s potency, robbing the crop of value. And last year former CIA Director James Woolsey — nobody’s idea of a spaced-out hippie — took his first lobbying job, for the North American Industrial Hemp Council. The only hallucinations hemp can cause are in the minds of those who think it poses a threat to the war on drugs.

Virginia would stand to benefit considerably from legal hemp cultivation. The plant could not replace tobacco as a cash crop — nothing much could. (Should anti-tobacco efforts — greater taxation, disappearing price supports, FDA regulation — someday render it unprofitable, that judgment no longer would obtain.) But hemp grows well in Virginia soil and would make a fine rotation crop for farmers. It also would benefit the Chesapeake Bay, as it requires fewer pesticides and resists erosion.

As a commodity, it brings a respectable profit. It grosses $300 to $400 per acre, compared with $103 to $137 for canola and wheat. A study last year by the University of Kentucky predicted hemp would be the third-most profitable crop for that state (tobacco products ranking first and second). Worldwide, hemp demand more than tripled from 1997 to 1999, and U.S. Manufacturers imported more than 546 tons in 1998, from China and elsewhere. Why should the money be riding on China’s hip when it could be riding on Virginia’s?

Hemp is used to make a vast array of products — everything from paper and textiles to cosmetics, horse bedding, and plastic automobile parts. It could be used to make something else, too, if only Washington would only sober up. It could make Virginians rich.

Copyright © 2000, Richmond Times-Dispatch. All rights reserved.