Could Hemp Save the Family Farm?

Miracle crop, dangerous drug, or political football: Exploring America's on-again, off-again love affair with hemp

| March-April 2000

I confess that I am a user of hemp.

For example, I just quaffed a Hempen Ale and a Hempen Gold beer, shipped to me by Frederick Brewing Company of Frederick, Maryland. Both beverages are brewed with the seeds of hemp—Cannabis sativa—a plant native to central Asia and grown all over the world as various selected strains, some of which are known as marijuana. I’m feeling a faint buzz, but only from the alcohol.

Neither brew contains any of the narcotic delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which makes pot so popular. In fact, recent Pentagon tests invalidate the “Hempen Ale defense” by showing the ale to be THC-free, so military personnel can no longer claim it as the source of THC in their urine. But some hemp products do contain trace amounts of THC—as intoxicating as the opiates you get from a poppy seed bagel—so to make sure it knows where the THC comes from, the Air Force in 1999 banned all foods and beverages made with hemp. Somehow the news didn’t make it to the commander in chief, who, less than a month after the ruling, allowed Hempen Gold to be served on Air Force One. According to one reporter, the president “tasted but didn’t swallow.”

After I finished ingesting hemp, I slathered it on my hair-in shampoo made with hemp seed oil, which, according to its producer, Alterna Applied Research Laboratories of Los Angeles, restores dry and damaged (but, unfortunately, not missing) hair. While perky hair is not something I normally seek, the hair I have left definitely feels that way.

What I just indulged in—according to Glenn Levant, the nation’s best-funded and most-heeded marijuana educator—is an internal-external marijuana orgy. Levant is president and founder of Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), a 16-year-old program taught by local police in nearly 75 percent of the nation’s schools. “Hemp is marijuana,” he informed me, ending the interview when I cited sources that prove otherwise. Last year Levant was outraged to see Alterna’s hemp-leaf logo on shampoo ads at bus stops around Southern California, and he mounted a successful crusade to get them removed. “My big objection is that public property was being used to promote an illegal substance,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “The shampoo is a subterfuge to promote marijuana.” In July 1999, he paid Alterna an undisclosed sum to settle a lawsuit it had filed against him for making what it called “false and malicious public comments” about its product and motives.

Hemp and marijuana can cross-pollinate, but if one is the other, then a Pekinese is a Doberman. Plant a hemp seed, and no substance or force on earth can turn it into marijuana. If you smoke hemp, it will give you only a headache; it doesn’t contain enough THC to affect your brain. And unlike marijuana, it is high in cannabidiol—an anti-psychoactive compound that inhibits THC. Because of this, says David West, a plant breeder hired by the University of Hawaii to grow an experimental plot of hemp under special permit from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), hemp “could be called anti-marijuana.”