Miracle crop, dangerous drug, or political football: Exploring America's on-again, off-again love affair with hemp
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.”
Hemp products are not illegal. In fact, the U.S. hemp-products industry takes in $100 million to $125 million in retail sales a year. Not only is hemp harmless, it has enormous versatility. Added to worthless fibers that are currently burned—such as straw from oats, rice, and wheat—hemp can produce superb paper and construction materials lighter and stronger than lumber. American cropland, 60 to 65 percent of which is stuck on a soil-depleting, chemical-dependent treadmill of corn, wheat, and soybean production, could be released and renewed if hemp were used as a rotation crop. In England and Hungary, hemp grown in rotation with wheat hiked the wheat harvest 20 percent. Hemp seeds, better tasting and more digestible than soy, could be rendered into hundreds of foods, thereby taking pressure off America’s bottomland hardwood forests, which are being replaced with soybean plantations.
Hemp fibers can be woven into cloth more durable than and as comfortable as cotton. Cotton is much more difficult to grow; it’s addicted to chemical elixirs, requiring massive fixes of artificial fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides. And when cotton ripens, the leaves have to be knocked off with defoliants before the bolls can be harvested. Hemp, which outcompetes weeds, requires no herbicides. In one study, hemp grown in rotation with soybeans knocked down cyst nematodes by more than half.
Hemp paper is naturally bright, but wood-based paper pulp turns brown during the cooking process. The pulp is then bleached with chlorine, which, when released into the environment, produces dioxin and other nasty poisons. If American farmers were allowed to grow hemp—which produces twice as much fiber per acre as an average forest—the nation could reduce nonsustainable logging, and the carbon tied up in the living timber would remain there instead of contributing to global warming.
Practically anything we make from a polluting, nonrenewable hydrocarbon like oil or coal can be made from a relatively clean, renewable carbohydrate like hemp. Henry Ford used to preach this in the 1940s. “Why use up the forests, which were centuries in the making, and the mines, which require ages to lay down, if we can get the equivalent of forests and mineral products in the annual growth of the fields?” he asked. Ford, who had a vision of “growing automobiles from the soil,” even produced a demonstration model with body parts partially made with hemp.
So it should come as no surprise that hemp has enormous appeal to those committed to protecting and restoring the planet. Three years ago Oregon environmentalist Andy Kerr helped set up the North American Industrial Hemp Council, an alliance of farmers, scientists, industrialists, and environmentalists whose mission is decriminalizing hemp. Members who even associate with advocates of marijuana decriminalization are summarily dismissed. And no one can call the directors potheads: Two are consultants for International Paper; one headed the board of Alternative Agricultural Research and Commercialization Corporation, a research firm chartered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and the chair is in charge of agricultural development and diversification for the state of Wisconsin.
When Kerr was running the Oregon Natural Resources Council and agitating for old-growth forests, the loggers kept getting in his face, shouting: “What are you going to wipe your ass with?”
“What they meant,” he says a bit more delicately, “was, ‘With what are you going to wipe your ass?’ It’s a legitimate question. So I kept searching for alternatives to wood and kept coming back to hemp. ‘God,’ I said, ‘because of its association with marijuana, we don’t need this. There’s got to be a better fiber.’ Well, there isn’t.’
Hemp advocacy isn’t new. Our first hemp law, enacted in Virginia, made it illegal for farmers not to grow the stuff. That was in 1619. The same law took effect in Massachusetts in 1631, Connecticut in 1632, and the Chesapeake colonies in the mid-1700s, at which time hemp was the world’s leading crop. Legend has it that early drafts of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were written on hemp-based paper. (Final versions were on animal parchment.) During the Revolutionary War, Old Ironsides, our most formidable battleship, carried 60 tons of hempen sail and rope. The first American flag was made out of hempen “canvas,” a word derived from cannabis. “Make the most of hemp seed and sow it everywhere,” declared George Washington in 1794.
Never has there been a federal statute outlawing the cultivation of hemp, just the DEA’s insistence that hemp is an illegal drug. Law enforcement officials in other countries harbor no such fantasies. Hemp is lawfully grown in 32 nations, and in the European Union it’s a subsidized crop. It is not practical to distill hemp’s THC or separate it from the cannabidiol that neutralizes it, but Americans are so afraid of hemp that they even want to prevent people from wearing it. Consider the case of Angela Guilford, who sells hempen products in Hoover, Alabama, and who aroused the suspicions of the community by carrying Grateful Dead memorabilia. In June 1997, when she was eight months pregnant, police raided her shop, seizing 168 items and charging her and her husband, Jeff Russell, with “felony marijuana trafficking.” Facing mandatory minimum jail terms of three years, the couple spent a stressful, suspenseful summer. But in late September charges were dropped when lab work failed to turn up THC in any of the shirts, bags, or jewelry.
Why such paranoia? There’s no smoking bong, but hemp may be the victim of a conspiracy by special interests that stood to lose billions in the 1930s, when hemp-fiber-stripping machines came online. Among the suspects: synthetic textile producer DuPont, which had just patented a process for making plastics from oil and a more efficient process for making paper; Hearst newspapers, which owned vast timberlands; and Andrew Mellon, an oil and timber baron as well as partner and president of the Mellon Bank of Pittsburgh, DuPont’s chief financial backer.
In 1930, nine years after President Warren Harding made him treasury secretary, Mellon created the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (the DEA’s precursor) and ensconced Harry Anslinger, the future husband of his niece, as its commissioner. Anslinger charged out after hemp, which he and the Hearst papers defined as a drug, using it interchangeably with the more sinister and less familiar term marihuana (the spelling changed later). Anslinger and Hearst whipped each other, the public, and Congress into prohibitionist frenzy. Anslinger testified before the Senate that no less an authority than Homer had revealed that the plant “made men forget their homes and turned them into swine” and that a single joint could induce “homicidal mania” sufficient to cause a man “probably to kill his brother.” The Hearst papers claimed that under the influence of marihuana, “Negroes” transmogrified into crazed animals, playing anti-white, “voodoo-satanic” music-jazz-and committing such crimes as stepping on white men’s shadows. The hype created an insatiable market for low-budget movies like Marihuana: Weed with Roots in Hell. Posters for the film featured a man thrusting a hypodermic needle into a woman in a low-cut dress and promised: “Weird orgies. Daring drug exposé! Horror. Shame. Despair. Wild Parties. Unleashed Passions! Lust. Crime. Hate. Misery.”
Emerging from the hoopla was the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which made no chemical distinction between hemp and marijuana. It was all “cannabis,” but the smokeable parts—the leaves and flowers—were taxed at $100 an ounce, effectively outlawing them. Had marijuana been the real target, Anslinger would have dispatched his agents to the border of New Mexico, where the drug was coming in. Instead, he unleashed them on the newly expanded hemp fields of the Midwest, swaddling farmers in red tape, busting them if a leaf remained on a stalk, running them out of business.
Only five years later hemp farmers got a reprieve when Japan seized the Philippines, cutting off America’s supply of “Manila hemp” —not true hemp but an excellent fiber for rope, boots, uniforms, and parachute cording. Now the Feds executed a crisp about-face, encouraging Americans to be patriotic and grow “hemp.” (No longer did they call it “marijuana,” except on the “Producer of Marijuana” permits issued to farmers.) The Department of Agriculture even produced a promotional film entitled Hemp for Victory, featuring footage of workers harvesting pre-Anslinger hemp in Kentucky to a maudlin rendition of ‘My Old Kentucky Home.’ 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. After the war, with the synthetic-fiber industry booming, Anslinger resumed his witch-hunt virtually unopposed.
Now he dropped the allegation that hemp/marijuana inspired violent crimes and asserted instead that it left its victims so dazed and passive that they could be easily converted to communism. America’s last hemp field was planted in Wisconsin in 1957.
More recently, the problem has been a succession of rigid, frontal-assault “drug czars.” General Barry McCaffrey, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, appears to have learned everything he knows about hemp from Anslinger. Two years ago, when a chemical engineer paid by the University of Wisconsin but working at the Forest Service’s lab in Madison, Wisconsin, circulated a marketing analysis demonstrating that Wisconsin farms could profitably produce hemp, and that they could meet the entire demand for chlorine-bleached, wood-based writing paper in the state, the Forest Service had the document withdrawn under pressure from the Clinton administration. Since then the author’s conclusions have been confirmed by multiple independent review. The crusade to bring hemp back, McCaffrey charges, is “a thinly disguised attempt to legalize the production of pot.” Moreover, “legalizing hemp production would send a confusing message to our youth concerning marijuana.” But the only confusing messages about hemp issue from McCaffrey’s office, the DEA, and their private-sector drug-war constituency.
Because McCaffrey is the voice of the Clinton administration, the DEA parrots him. The effort to decriminalize hemp is “no more than a shallow ruse being advanced by those who seek to legalize marijuana,” proclaims Philip Perry, special agent in charge of the DEA’s Rocky Mountain Field Division. The DEA and the drug czar maintain that American law enforcement agents can’t tell the difference between marijuana and hemp; but the Mounties, the gendarmes, the bobbies, and the police of 29 other nations have no trouble at all. A Keystone Kop, boots in the air and helmet in the mud, could tell the difference. Hemp, grown for stalks, is the spindly stuff that towers over your head; marijuana, grown for flowers, is the bushy stuff down below your knees. The drug czar and the DEA claim that pot producers will use hemp fields to hide their illicit crops. If they do, their marijuana will be ruined: Cannabis is one of the most prolific pollen producers of all cultivated plants, and if the high-THC variety is planted within seven and a half miles of a hemp field, the hemp pollen will render the next generation of marijuana less potent. “Hemp is nature’s own marijuana-eradication system,” declares James Woolsey, former director of the CIA and now a lobbyist for the North American Industrial Hemp Council.
If the war on drugs were really about reducing supply, drug controllers would be promoting hemp. But the war has taken on a life of its own, become an industry unto itself. For example, DEA reports that it spends $13.5 million a year to eradicate marijuana, and it also ladles out millions more for this purpose to local jurisdictions, including police departments and National Guard units. According to some estimates, the entire effort costs American taxpayers half a billion a year. But the DEA’s own figures reveal that 98 percent of the “marijuana” eradicated is hemp—the harmless, feral stuff that escaped during Hemp for Victory days. “Ditchweed,” it’s called. That’s the “marijuana” you see getting burned in all the photos. If you’re caught with ditchweed, you’re in big trouble, as Vernon McElroy discovered in 1991 when he got convicted for possessing 10.9 pounds that he says a friend picked and gave him as a joke. Now he’s doing life without parole at the overcrowded maximum-security penitentiary in Springville, Alabama. In Oklahoma, ditchweed is sprayed with herbicides from helicopters. And in 1998 Congress authorized $23 million for research into a soil-borne fungus that attacks and kills marijuana, poppy, and coca plants. U.S. Senator Mike DeWine, an Ohio Republican, calls it a “silver bullet” in the war on drugs, but David Struhs, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, calls it a threat to the natural environment.
The only parties affected by ditchweed eradication are future hemp farmers and birds. Ditchweed, warns hemp researcher David West, “represents the only germ plasm remaining from the hemp bred over decades in this country to achieve high yields and other important performance characteristics.” And while hemp is alien to the continent, wild birds have come to depend on it as a major food source. Birds so relish hemp seed, in fact, that it is sterilized and sold as commercial bird food. As Vermont state representative Fred Maslack puts it, the DEA and its pork-addicted drug-war contractors “would be better off pulling up goldenrod.”
Consider also the self-perpetuation of hemp’s facts-be-damned enemy—DARE. That DARE is recognized as a failure in reducing drug use among adolescents is not a consideration in the high-finance drug-war business. Virtually every study ever undertaken reveals that DARE graduates are about as likely to abuse drugs as kids who don’t go through the program. Such were the results of a two-year, $300,000 analysis by the Research Triangle Institute of Durham, North Carolina, of eight studies involving 9,500 DARE students in 200 schools. The Justice Department commissioned the analysis, but after intense lobbying by DARE, the agency invited the authors to “re-examine” their conclusions, then declined to publish the full report, claiming it was bowing to “concerns” of peer reviewers. Despite its known ineffectiveness, DARE thrives because every year it gets about $212 million in government grants and private donations (mostly the latter), which it ladles out to ravenous communities. Millions more are donated by businesses and police departments directly to local DARE programs.
Anti-hemp brainwashing by DARE works better on parents and school bureaucrats than on kids. In 1996 Donna Cockrel invited hemp activist and Hollywood actor Woody Harrelson to talk to her fifth graders in Simpsonville, Kentucky. While Harrelson also advocates the legalization of medicinal marijuana, he spoke only about hemp’s history and potential. Immediately Cockrel came under attack by the local DARE officer, who sounded the alarm to school officials and television audiences, proclaiming that hemp and marijuana were the same thing. Parents were apoplectic. Cockrel—with past awards for excellence and called a “dynamo” by The New York Times—was given an unsatisfactory performance report, investigated by the state professional standards board (which dismissed the complaint), then fired. “I believe that all children should say no to drugs,” she says. “But I want them to say yes to the truth.”
Lately America’s war on hemp seems to be flagging under a counterattack of reason. Legislation to effect or encourage hemp’s declassification as an illegal drug has been introduced or attempted in Colorado, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, Vermont, and Virginia. In March 1999, under growing political pressure, McCaffrey made the first conciliatory noise to The New York Times about maybe working with hemp advocates. But in August the DEA ordered the U.S. Customs Service to seize a Kenex trailer bringing in 40,000 pounds of hemp birdseed from Canada, alleging it was a Schedule I narcotic. Seventeen other loads of hemp products, including granola bars and horse bedding, were recalled. After Kenex was threatened with a $500,000 fine, president Jean Laprise commented: “It seems the DEA could be spending drug-war money in better ways than chasing after birdseed and horse bedding.” Now McCaffrey is saying hemp can’t be grown economically.
It struck me as odd that the responsibilities of the drug czar have been extended to protecting American agriculture from its own bad business decisions, so I contacted a farmer, one David Monson, who works 1,050 acres in Osnabrock, North Dakota, and who says he and his neighbors aren’t even breaking even on barley, wheat, and canola. “All the fungicides, herbicides, and insecticides we have to use are pushing the cost out of sight,” he told me. “The bottom line is that we need to find some alternative crops that we can make money on.” Monson has been forced to work at other jobs—as insurance agent and state representative, in which capacity he introduced the nation’s first bill to decriminalize the cultivation of hemp, signed by the governor in April 1999.
Monson, a Republican, also serves as superintendent of schools for the nearby community of Edinburg. Drug abuse isn’t much of a problem in northern North Dakota, but Monson works to discourage what little there may be by arranging seminars for students and training for teachers. And despite the drug czar’s and the DEA’s pronouncements, the people of North Dakota somehow remain unconvinced that he’s trying to legalize pot.
While hemp could make things lots easier for this tired old planet and the farmers who till its soil, no one in North Dakota will be growing it anytime soon, because anyone there or elsewhere who plants the seeds will get busted by the DEA. Monson doesn’t think that’s fair, especially when hemp farmers 20 miles away in Manitoba are legally making $250 an acre. But until the feds recognize hemp for what it is (a versatile crop) instead of what it isn’t (an illegal drug), McCaffrey will be correct when he warns that growing hemp is not economical.
From Audubon (Nov.-Dec. 1999). Subscriptions: $20/yr. (6 issues) from Box 52529, Boulder, CO 80322.
Hempformation sources: The Hemp Cookbook: From Seed to Shining Seed, Todd Dalotto (Healing Arts Press, 2000); The Hemp Manifesto: 101 Ways That Hemp Can Save Our World, Rowan Robinson (Park Street Press, 1997); Highlights: An Illustrated History of Cannabis , Carol Sherman & Andrew Smith with Erik Tanner (Ten Speed Press, 1999); Shift magazine (Sept. 1998).