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99HEMP Issues’s Rope Not Dope

Posted on June 16, 2000

By Isaac Schapira, Anchorage Daily News

Anchorage, Alaska — In November, Alaskans will have the opportunity to vote on an initiative, known as 99HEMP, to legalize the various derivatives of cannabis sativa. If the measure passed, it would legalize marijuana cultivation, possession and use. It also would make it possible for Alaskans to grow industrial hemp.

Sounds good at first. I support the legalization of both industrial hemp and marijuana.

But the reasons for legalizing hemp are different than the reasons for legalizing marijuana. Industrial hemp is a nonpsychoactive crop with practical applications as a source of fuel, food and fiber. One acre of hemp will yield 1,000 gallons of ethanol through a relatively simple refining process.

Hemp is a low-maintenance crop, and the amount of carbon dioxide it takes in during the growth cycle balances out the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by burning ethanol. Clearly, hemp biomass could prove to be a valuable energy resource in the coming years. Since one could get no higher smoking industrial hemp than by smoking asparagus, it makes little sense for anti-marijuana statutes to outlaw hemp’s cultivation.

Unfortunately, the 99HEMP supporters have chosen to lump industrial hemp in with marijuana. The initiative petition, found online at the Free Hemp in Alaska website defines hemp as “hemp, cannabis or marijuana, or any part or preparation of cannabis sativa, cannabis indica … or any variety of cannabis.”

That’s wrong. Cannabis indica is not hemp, it is an entirely different species, and a far more psychoactive one. This distinction was made by Pierre Lamarck as early as 1783.

The movement to legalize industrial hemp will meet with limited success if it is linked with efforts to legalize marijuana. If voters are reliably informed that industrial hemp cannot be smoked recreationally, and of the numerous economic and environmental advantages that hemp has to offer, then it is reasonable to expect that they might vote to legalize it. On the other hand, many Alaskans do not support the legalization of drugs, and will reject a measure like 99HEMP because it would make marijuana legal.

Even something like using the same term for industrial hemp and marijuana indicates a faulty concept of botany and chemistry on the user’s part and can perpetuate a similar misunderstanding on the reader’s part. This misunderstanding is why hemp was outlawed in the first place.

Furthermore, the Free Hemp in Alaska site, which is decorated with goofy images of bongs and pot leaves, makes the effort to legalize hemp look less like a legitimate endeavor and more like the work of oafish potheads.

In a 1996 interview with High Times magazine (the work of decidedly less oafish potheads), International Hemp Association project manager Robert Connell Clarke said, “There’s recreational marijuana, there’s industrial hemp and there’s medical marijuana. That’s three distinct issues. And they should not be linked together.”

“The hempsters feel that linking them together allows medical marijuana, or more likely industrial hemp, to lead the way toward the eventual legalization of recreational marijuana. But in my view, that’s not putting your best foot forward, that’s tying your shoelaces together. Believe me, I have a lot of contact with the industrial side, and they don’t want to hear about marijuana. They just want to have hemp be hemp. They wish … it came from a different plant.”

The focus of a pro-hemp initiative should be to legalize industrial hemp and should not be bogged down by the stigma of marijuana. But I believe that marijuana should be legal as well.

Conservative writer William F Buckley Jr. maintains that the war on drugs is lost.

While the legality of the cannabis genus is justifiable, any attempts to bring about this freedom should be gradual. Right now, a more reasonable and feasible step would be to lobby for an initiative to legalize industrial hemp and maintain the proscriptions against marijuana. Hopefully, these will be overcome someday. If not, at least we’ll have better fuel and rope.

When November rolls around, I will vote yes on the 99HEMP initiative. If it passes, Alaskans will probably enjoy a wide range of benefits from access to cannabis. But the tactics of people at Free Hemp in Alaska are not only limiting the likelihood of passage but disseminating more of the misinformation that continues to cloud the minds of the anti-hemp crowd.

There’s a list of quotes at Free Hemp in Alaska website and among them is this one, from Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.” That’s also incorrect. Evil does just fine when good people do the wrong thing.

Perfect World editor Isaac Schapira is a recent graduate of West.

Copyright © 2000, The Anchorage Daily News. All rights reserved.