Friday, May 13, 2005

MFC - Take another look at hemp

The once and future most valuable and versatile crop in America is none other than cannabis hemp. Like most people, I used to think hemp was illegal because it is genetically the same as marijuana. It wasn't until I read Jack Herer's book "The Emperor Wears No Clothes" that I realized the opposite my be true: Marijuana was made illegal to ban hemp cultivation.

Think about it. Pot has been used medicinally for centuries, and is finally recognized for such use in several states. Why should anyone worry about a relatively benign plant? Clearly there is more to the story.

In fact, according to Herer's book, hemp posed a real threat to corporate powerhouses that were heavily invested in making inferior products.

It's no coincidence that "marijuana" (a Mexican slang word that was used to play on prejudice and disassociate the plant from the well-accepted cannabis hemp) was demonized in the papers of William Randolf Hearst. Timber, paper and newspaper holding companies stood to lose billions as new technology made hemp pulp paper production more viable. The same was true for DuPont and its petroleum-based plastics and synthetic fibers.

And so here we are, with most Americans having forgotten that hemp was once grown enthusiastically by our nation's founders. It was used for rope, canvas, clothes, textiles, paper, medicine, paint, lighting oil and food.

The U.S. government was once a primary champion of hemp. The crop's potential to replace wood as paper-making material was promoted in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Bulletin 404, published in 1916. It cited a four- to-one production advantage of hemp over timber: "Every tract of 10,000 acres which is devoted to hemp raising year by year is equivalent to a sustained pulp-producing capacity of 40,500 acres of average pulp-wood lands."

"Without doubt, hemp will continue to be one of the staple agricultural crops of the United States," the Bulletin declared.

Even after the plant was banned under the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, the federal government launched a campaign urging farmers to grow the crop for the good of the country when the Japanese cut off hemp supplies to America. In 1942 and 1943, farmers were required to view the USDA film, "Hemp for Victory."

"In 1942, patriotic farmers at the government's request planted 36,000 acres of seed hemp. ... The goal for 1943 is 50,000 acres of seed hemp," said the film. The acreage devoted to fiber hemp was 14,000 in 1942, with a goal of 300,000 acres in 1943.

Modern uses for hemp have expanded from the traditional list. It is now a viable source for many building materials, including pressed board, particle board, concrete construction molds, paneling, plastic plumbing pipes and more. Its potential for fuel and biomass energy are even more impressive.

Our need for hemp has likewise increased. Each legislative session ushers in a new set of regulations that hamstring businesses in the hope of addressing global warming, deforestation or some other environmental hazard when cannabis hemp could help as much.

The plant reaches 12 to 20 feet or more in just one growing season, producing about 10 tons per acre in four months. It can be cultivated in almost any climate or soil condition. It is more aggressive than weeds and rarely requires pesticides.

It has the best nutritional value of any plant source, with more usable protein than soybeans. It is a nontoxic, annually renewable source of so many products that a farmer simply can't go wrong sowing these seeds, according to Herer's book.

Hemp-related legislative activity is currently under way in four states. After approving hemp production in 1999, North Dakota's successful HB1492 now directs its state university to store feral hemp seeds for a time when production is legal under federal law. A bill allowing state-licensed production has passed the New Hampshire House. Oregon's SB394 and California's AB1147 would also allow hemp production with a state license.

The ban on hemp will crumble as environmental concerns worsen. The states that get in on the ground floor will have an enormous advantage. Western states should aggressively pursue this opportunity and stand up to the federal government again as they have in the past.