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Clearing The Air On Hemp History

Posted on December 27, 2000

Houston, Texas — Stephen O’Driscoll e-mailed that I made “two glaring mistakes concerning history” recently, when writing about the cannabis plant grown as hemp and its many uses. [See “Cannabis was once held in high esteem,” December 21, 2000.]

The first one, he said, was when I mentioned Old Ironsides’ being fitted out when the Revolutionary War came along. Not so. It wasn’t built until 1797. As O’Driscoll correctly mentioned, the first war that the famous ship formally named the USS Constitution participated in was the War of 1812.

Actually, my Old Ironsides mistake had more than one part. I called it a battleship, since it is a great big boat built for fighting. It is, in fact, a frigate, as O’Driscoll pointed out. But I would have been on firm ground by referring to it as a warship, according to my dictionary, which defines a frigate as “a fast, medium-sized sailing warship of the 18th and early 19th century.”

In doing additional research on the famous frigate, I saw that its sails apparently were made of flax, with rigging of tarred hemp. I’d understood from a previous reference source that both sails and rigging were fashioned from hemp.

I suppose the actual material could have been some combination of both fibers. Precise historic details can be a bit difficult to pin down. For example, one source reported the wood of more than 1,000 trees was required to build the vessel, while another source said it took more than 1,500 trees. Of course, the “more than” could make both figures accurate, though the first is not as impressive.

The Betsy Ross Debate

While donning the hair shirt over trying to launch Old Ironsides a few years prior to her construction, however, I take issue with O’Driscoll’s second accusation: “Betsy Ross had nothing to do with Old Glory,” he said. “Her grandson invented the story years later to add a little polish to the family name.”

This issue has not been resolved. Many people side with those who say that, since they’ve found no convincing evidence in official records, they suspect the Betsy Ross first-flag story must not be true. But the arguments made by those who believe that she did make the flag seem reasonable to me, so I find no proof of error here.

Mike Boudreaux also e-mailed regarding the hemp issue, saying he has “heard that Popular Science once declared cannabis to be the No. 1 cash crop of the future” and wanting to know whether it is true or “just something pot-heads claim.”

I haven’t encountered any such Popular Science magazine report. However, a Popular Mechanics article reported that “American Farmers are promised a new cash crop with an annual value of several hundred million dollars.”

The story said that hemp was going to become quite popular and profitable due to the invention of a machine “designed for removing the fiber-bearing cortex from the rest of the stalk,” which would greatly reduce the amount of human labor previously needed to process the crop.

“Hemp is the standard fiber of the world,” the story reported. “It has great tensile strength and durability. It is used to produce more than 5,000 textile products, ranging from rope to fine laces, and the woody “hurds” remaining after the fiber has been removed contain more than seventy-seven percent cellulose, and can be used to produce more than 25,000 products, ranging from dynamite to Cellophane.”

Predictions Unfulfilled

Other points the story made: Any land suitable for corn, wheat or oats would yield up to six tons of hemp per acre. It has a short growing season and can be grown in any state of the union. Long roots condition the soil, and the plant chokes out weeds.

But these predictions of such great profits and agricultural advantages from hemp crops were made way back in the February 1938 issue, and have not yet come true. Federal drug laws made it impossible for farmers to raise hemp for industrial uses, and continue to do so to this day, because drug war officials say it would be too difficult for them to prevent people from growing marijuana for smoking.

An increasing number of people are starting to question much about our nation’s drug policy. An increasing number of people say it was based on much misinformation and was a mistake from the get-go.

An increasing number of people say something worse than having to admit a mistake is denying it and allowing the damage to keep growing.

Note: There is nothing much worse than having to admit a mistake.

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