High Ideals: The Story Of Industrial Hemp

In February of 1938, Popular Mechanics ran an article about industrial hemp entitled "The New Billion Dollar Crop." This article spoke of a new machine called a decorticator that separated the woody "hurds" from the fiber, thus making the fiber readily available for use without prohibitive amounts of human labor.

Under old methods, hemp was cut and allowed to lie in the fields for weeks until it "retted" (rotted) as a result of dew, rain and bacterial action, enough so that the fibers could be pulled off by hand. This new method of processing hemp efficiently opened wide the growing market for this versatile plant.

The article was a glowing report of an exciting opportunity for American farmers and industry. It stated, "Hemp is the standard fiber of the world. 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 77% cellulose which can be used to produce more than 25,000 products, from dynamite to cellophane." The article also spoke of the ease of growing this crop: "Hemp is an easy crop to grow and will yield from three to six tons per acre on any land that will grow corn, wheat or oats. It can be grown in any state of the union. It has a short growing season so that it can be planted after other crops are in. The long roots penetrate and break up the soil to leave it in perfect condition for next year's crop. The dense shock of leaves, eight to twelve feet above the ground, chokes out weeds. Two successive crops are enough to reclaim land that has been abandoned because of Canadian thistles or quack grass."

What is ironic about this optimistic heralding is that late in 1937, Congress passed the "Marihuana Tax Act" that, although it was aimed at outlawing marijuana, the legal limits of tax and licensing posed by the legislation quickly put an end to all industrial hemp production. What were the reasons for this action, and why today, when the potential benefits of this most amazing and potentially enormously beneficial plant are even better known and documented, does it remain illegal?


Hidden Profits, Outrageous Propaganda


There were several factors that led to the demise of the hemp industry in America, and, not surprisingly, they can be traced to back to big money seeking to protect its interests. One of the biggest opponents of the growth of the hemp industry was William Randolph Hearst, who owned large tracts of standing timber and reigned over the newspaper industry. As early as 1917 he began a smear campaign, part of what was known as "yellow journalism," against marijuana, preying on the racism of the times towards Mexicans, "negroes" and jazz musicians, claiming that this evil weed was the most powerful violence-inducing substance known to mankind.

Before 1931, Harry Anslinger was Assistant Commissioner for Prohibition. He represented a large group of law-enforcement personnel facing lack of work after prohibition ended. In 1931, he was appointed by Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon to direct the new Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Mellon also had another significant position — he owned the Mellon Bank, one of the nation's largest, with significant interest in the fortunes of Dupont, which held patents for cheap wood pulp-acid paper, and on the manufacture of artificial textile fibers from petroleum. Both paper and textile markets were dominated by products derived from hemp, which was also known as marijuana.

Faced with a steadily decreasing budget, the Bureau responded as any organization might: it tried to appear more necessary, and it tried to increase its scope of operations. Partnering with Hearst was a way they could further each others' efforts. When, in 1937, Anslinger led the crusade against marijuana before Congress, his testimony was almost entirely made up of Hearst news releases which he read aloud in the emotionally-charged style typical of the exaggerated or contrived "news" of yellow journalism. The culmination of the attack was the film "Reefer Madness," which time and experience have revealed to be ludicrous. On the basis of that mentality, however, marijuana was outlawed. Dupont, Mellon, and Hearst in a single move wiped out hemp, their major competitor in the paper, textiles, and paint industries.

Until then, about 80% of all paper, canvas, rope, and paint depended on hemp, which is still unexcelled for those purposes. (The Declaration of Independence, written on hemp linen, is in excellent condition; the anti-hemp laws, written on wood pulp-acid paper, are decaying on the shelves.) Hearst's cheap newspapers were made possible by Dupont's acid-rain-producing paper process. (The USDA calculated in 1914 that hemp crops could make four times as much paper per acre as trees. The annual world consumption of paper has risen from 14 million tons in 1913 to over 250 million tons in the 1990s. In 1988, senior columnist Alan Bock wrote in The Orange County Register, California's most conservative newspaper, that "since 1937, about half the forests in the world have been cut down to make paper. If hemp had not been outlawed, most would still be standing, oxygenating the planet."). Dupont's petroleum-based fibers and oils enabled them to take over the entire market which had been dominated by hemp. Mellon's bank and Anslinger's tax-funded agency became more wealthy and powerful.

When the 1944 New York City "LaGuardia Marijuana Report" was released stating that marijuana was, in fact, not violence-causing at all, thus refuting the basis on which the 1937 act was passed, Anslinger came forward with a different angle. In 1948, he stated before Congress that marijuana was even more dangerous than previously suspected because it caused users to become peaceful. Its growing abuse was a deliberate plot by the communists to turn American youth into pacifists, unwilling to fight for their country. The Committee didn't want to be brought before some other Committee for siding with communists, so they voted to keep the law on the books.

Hemp's Heroic History

High Ideals: The Story Of Industrial Hemp - <h3>Hemp''s Heroic History</h3>During the period from 1937 to the late 60's, the US government understood and acknowledged that industrial hemp and marijuana were not the same plant. While it is part of the same family as marijuana, industrial hemp usually contains less than 1 percent of the psychoactive chemical tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Interestingly, it is high in another chemical, cannabidiol, or CBD, which is actually anti-psychoactive. In other words, there is no getting "high" off it. Marijuana, on the other hand, contains a 3-10% content of THC and is low in CBD.

It was the claims from the law enforcement officials that marijuana and hemp could not be easily differentiated that led to the stranglehold on the hemp industry. But it was not until the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 that marijuana and hemp became lumped together as a "Schedule 1" drug, in the same category as heroin and LSD. This meant that any substance containing any amount of THC had a "high potential for abuse, has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the US, and a lack of safety for the use of the drug under medical supervision." Interestingly, between 1842 and the 1890's, a powerful concentrated extract of marijuana was the second most prescribed drug in the United States. When the marijuana tax act was passed in 1937, a representative from the American Medical Association was sent to protest it due to the important medicinal attributes of the plant which include anti-spasmodic, anti- depressant, pain relief qualities and more.

And so, except for a brief period during WW2 when about a million acres were subsidized (the "Hemp for Victory" campaign) by the US to be grown in the Midwest to replace "Manila hemp" imports from the Philippines that had been cut off by the Japanese, hemp and marijuana have remained illegal in this country. The irony of this prohibition of hemp deepens when one learns that the first hemp law enacted in 1619 in Jamestown, Virginia actually required all farmers to grow hemp. Hemp was legal tender (money) in most of the Americas from 1631 to the early 1800's. In 1640 the Governor of Connecticut declared that every citizen must grow the plant.

America's founding fathers were strong advocates of a hemp-based economy for their new country. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were themselves long-time hemp farmers. The US Census of 1850 counted 8,327 hemp "plantations" (minimum 2,000 acre farms) growing cannabis hemp for fabric, canvas and cordage. Taxes were paid with hemp for 200 years. The U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Gutenberg Bible, the original Levi Strauss jeans, and Old Glory (our nation's flag) were all made from hemp, as were the sails and ropes of the ships that brought early settlers to this country. The history of hemp dates back some 10,000 years to China where it was and remains an important crop. One of the oldest textile artifacts is a piece of hemp fabric estimated to be 8,000 years old.

Henry Ford and Rudolph Diesel both saw the benefits of hemp to the automotive industry. When Diesel produced his famous engine in 1896, he assumed that the diesel engine would be powered by a variety of fuels, especially vegetable and seed oils. Like most engineers of his time, he believed that vegetable fuels were superior to petroleum. The difference is that vegetable sources (hemp being the most efficient vegetable) are renewable, cheap and clean, and petroleum sources are limited, expensive and dirty.

In the 1930's, Henry Ford operated a successful biomass conversion plant that included hemp, produced methanol and promised a cheap readily available fuel. In his words, "there's enough alcohol in one year's yield of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for a hundred years." Many race cars actually run on methanol, so it doesn't mean that performance is compromised by the use of biomass fuels. In 1941, he built a hemp fueled and fabricated automobile that weighed only two thirds the amount of a steel car and could resist blows ten times as great without denting. It appears, however, that big oil money was at work here as well, as the industry turned over to a sole reliance upon petroleum based products.

Gasoline had many disadvantages as an automotive resource, but came to the forefront because of the ease of operation of gasoline engines with the materials then available for engine construction, a growing supply of cheaper petroleum from oil field discoveries, and intense lobbying by petroleum companies for the federal government to maintain steep alcohol taxes. Many bills proposing a national energy program that made use of America's vast agricultural resources (for fuel production) were killed by smear campaigns launched by vested petroleum interests. One such smear put forth by the oil companies was that such programs "robbed taxpayers to make farmers rich."



The Next Generation


High Ideals: The Story Of Industrial Hemp - <h3><h3>The Next Generation</h3></h3>Hemp and hemp awareness went underground for a long time after the brief legalization in WW2. In the early 1990's, however, a movement to bring hemp back into the lives of Americans began to get underway. According to Hemptech, a California firm that tracks the industry, sales of hemp related products, barely a blip in 1990, grew from $5 million in 1993 to an estimated $300 million in 2001. These include hemp textiles, papers, personal care products and foods. Hemp has become a fashionable textile, finding itself in everything from Calvin Klein jeans to Adidas sneakers, and showing up in upscale catalogs and retail outlets. This is with good reason: hemp is nature's longest, strongest and most durable fiber. As a fabric it is softer, more insulating, more breathable and longer lasting than cotton. It also requires virtually no pesticides to grow, unlike cotton which requires enormous amounts of chemicals to grow and process and is the largest contributor to pesticide pollution. In California alone 6,000 tons of pesticides and defoliants are used on cotton each year.

Recent scientific research on the hemp seed has revealed that it is one of nature's most perfect sources for human nutrition. Hemp seeds can be ground, soaked, or crushed for their oil content. Hemp oil is the richest known source of polyunsaturated essential fatty acids (EFA's, or the "good" fats), and it assists the body's natural ability to heal, both externally and internally. Hemp oil also contains gamma linoleic acid (GLA), a very rare nutrient found in mother's milk. In addition, the seeds contain all the amino acids and are high in protein, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium and vitamin A. Like soybeans, hempseed can be made into many nutritious food products, yet it is easier to digest. Non-dairy cheese, milk, and even ice cream can be made by soaking and processing the hemp seed. Seed cakes can be processed into a flour for making high-quality breads, cakes, pastas, and cookies. It also makes an excellent animal food.

The growing awareness of the enormous potential benefits of and the exploding US market for hemp products has led many farmers to explore growing it, especially in regions where tobacco and dairy farmers are facing a shrinking market. In January of 1996, the American Farm Bureau Federation, more than 4.6 million members strong, unanimously endorsed the researching and growing of industrial hemp, calling hemp "one of the most promising crops in a half a century…it could be the alternative crop farmers are looking for". The simple truth is that this crop is a valuable, low-cost biological resource. Hemp is naturally drought, pest, and disease resistant, reducing the demand on dwindling water supplies. It is a hardy plant that grows in most climates up to 16 feet in 70 days, shading out weeds and eliminating the need for costly herbicides or pesticides. After hemp is harvested, the field is often left virtually weed-free for the next crop. This fact alone will save farmers untold thousands of dollars, while improving water quality.

The legislative bodies of several states including Hawaii, Missouri, and Vermont, passed legislation in 1996 supporting industrial hemp. Twenty more states have followed suit, but the DEA remains firmly opposed to any notion of revising the federal law to allow for its domestic cultivation, and currently they are the only committee that has the power to license farmers to legally grow hemp. So far only Hawaii has been allowed to grow a small, closely regulated test plot. The DEA asserts that allowing the legalization of hemp sends the wrong message and undermines the government's anti-drug policies at a time when teenage marijuana usage is on the rise. They also claim that hemp looks too much like marijuana and could be used by pot growers to hide illicit marijuana.

However these claims are easily refuted: none of the countries that currently cultivate hemp for industrial purposes (Harry Anslinger took his "reefer madness" crusade around the world) have reported experiencing rates of rising marijuana use because of their position regarding hemp. It would seem that our government asserting that these two very different products — an agricultural crop and a drug crop — are one and the same is more inclined to send the wrong message to today's kids, who see clearly the hypocrisy in action here. As far as hiding pot in hemp fields, Indiana Sate University molecular biologist Paul Mahlberg says the two plants are easily distinguishable.

"Hemp plants are cultivated inches apart to produce plants with tall stalks, while pot plants are short and spaced a few feet apart to produce bushy, THC-rich flowers and leaves. Marijuana cultivators try to cull male plants to prevent fertilization of the female plant. Unfertilized females produce more THC, thus making it attractive as a drug. In contrast, hemp production typically seeks fertilization to produce seeds. A pot grower would fear the inevitable cross pollination from hemp in a mixed plot. The pot crop would always get weaker," Mahlberg notes.

An official statement from the US government last year read: "Industrial hemp has been the focus of official interest in several states. However, hemp and marijuana are different varieties of Cannabis sativa, which is classified as a controlled substance in the United States. With Canada now allowing hemp production, questions have been raised about the demand for hemp products. U.S. markets for hemp fiber (specialty textiles, paper, and composites) and seed (in food or crushed for oil) are, and will likely remain, small, thin markets. Uncertainty about long run demand for hemp products and the potential for oversupply discounts the prospects for hemp as an economically viable alternative crop for American farmers."

Given that over $300 million dollars worth of hemp was imported to this country in 2000 and given that this market has shown explosive growth over the last five years, this statement borders on the absurd. Growing concern over the environment, global warming, deforestation, pesticide pollution and dwindling oil reserves all point very clearly to a potentially enormous demand for hemp. Europe is leading the way; as countries there have passed more laws to protect the environment, hemp usage has increased and driven up the demand.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that American farmers are losing out in the global competition of this emerging worldwide economic industry, the DEA continues to stonewall state efforts to enact hemp cultivation and research bills by threatening to arrest any farmers contracted to grow the crop. In fact, in a knee-jerk reaction to growing pressure, without any compelling reason or the required public notice and comment period, on October 9, 2001, the DEA issued an interpretative rule banning hemp seed and oil food products that contain any amount of trace residual THC, proposed to go into action February 6 2002.

"This is not anything new. It's more of a clarification," said a DEA spokesman who asked not to be identified. "There was confusion in the public as to what products were legal and not legal…if the product contains THC and is intended to be consumed in the body, then the product is illegal." Under this new interpretation, certain brands of a wide variety of foods — beer, cheese, coffee, corn chips, energy drinks, flour, ice cream, snack bars, salad oil, soda and veggie burgers — will be criminalized. Stores that vend hemp food products have been given notice to get them off the shelves or face prosecution.

Says the DEA: "If you wish to err on the side of caution, you may freely dispose of the product. As stated in the rules that the DEA published on Oct. 9, 2001, anyone who has purchased a food or beverage product that contains THC has 120 days (until Feb. 6, 2002) to dispose of the product without penalty under federal law."

Because trace THC does not pose any potential for abuse as a drug, the U.S. Congress had exempted non-viable hemp seed and oil from control under the CSA. Similarly, Congress exempted poppy seeds from the CSA, although they contain trace opiates otherwise subject to control. Hemp seeds and oil are as likely to be abused as poppy seed bagels for their trace opiate content, or fruit juices because of their trace alcohol content. Yet, the DEA has not tried to ban poppy seed bagels despite their trace opiates that have interfered with workplace drug testing, which hemp foods do not (although there have been some unproven claims that they do).

Not surprisingly, as of this writing, the Hemp Industry Association and several major hemp food companies in the US and Canada are challenging this ruling. The hemp industry is still awaiting the court's ruling on their motion to stay the interpretive rule until the court case is concluded, and is reassuring retailers and consumers that hemp food products should remain on the shelves, as victory in court is almost certain and virtually all hemp foods on the market have undetectable THC according to the official Health Canada testing protocol. Hopefully they are correct.

Looking at the history of hemp regulation in this country since 1937, it is clear that little has changed. Big money — oil, timber, and chemical/pharmaceutical companies — are still protecting their interests through a bogus bureaucratic front. Farmers, small business people, the consumer and the environment are suffering as a result. What has changed however, is public awareness and the ease through which the truth about this situation can be disseminated.

There is no arguing with the fact that the legalization of industrial hemp could help solve many of the challenges faced in today's world. The government has said it is "patriotic" to go and drill for six months worth of oil in one of the last great unspoiled places on earth. It would be far more patriotic to empower farmers and new businesses with a petroleum alternative: jobs would be created, the air could be cleaner and we could potentially end the need to "protect" Mideast oil reserves, thus freeing up the public money required to maintain enormous military build-up there.

This country was built on hemp and the high ideals of democracy. The beauty is that we do have a say in this policy; your voice and your vote count and will add to the swelling tide of support that industrial hemp is currently receiving. Take the time to visit some of the websites listed below to see what you can do. Write your congressman, senator, the DEA, and President Bush and tell them that you support the legalization of industrial hemp. Buy hemp products, sign petitions and hold the vision of a country that makes laws based on common sense and common good and not special interests.

The Drug Enforcement Administration handed a victory to the multimillion-dollar-a-year hemp food industry on Feb., 6, 2002 when they told the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit they will extend the "grace period" for hemp food products that contain "any THC." The extension reassures retailers stocking and selling hemp food products that, for the next 40 days, the DEA will not commence enforcement action. Ultimately, the hemp food industry expects to prevail against the DEA's attempt to ban hemp foods because Congress exempted nutritious hemp seed and oil from regulation (see 21 U.S.C. §802(16)), and the trace infinitesimal THC in hemp seed and oil is not psychoactive and does not interfere with workplace drug-testing.

Resources Web


  • Hemp — Lifeline to the Future by Chris Conrad. Creative Xpression, 1994
  • The Emperor Wears No Clothes by Jack Herer. Ah Ha Publishing, 2000
  • The Hemp Manifesto: 101 Ways that Hemp Can Save the World by Rowan Robinson. Inner Traditions, 1997

Eileen McKusick is a freelance writer from Connecticut. She has discovered hemp seeds to be quite tasty and eats them on a regular basis.