BY DAVID FISHER
Wrong. The first use is not to get stoned by smoking it.Industrial hemp has so little THC, the psycho-active ingredient, that gettinghigh on the stuff would be about as successful as getting drunk on alcohol-freebeer. But more on how hemp differs from marijuana later.
Hemp has been used to make cloth and rope for over 10,000 years and was thefirst crop ever cultivated for textile production. George Washingtonand Thomas Jefferson both grew hemp. Benjamin Franklin owned a mill thatmade hemp paper, and Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independenceon hemp paper. In fact, until 1883, more than 75 percent of the world’spaper was made with hemp.
Hemp has many commercial uses, including paper, food, fuel, rope, oils, textiles,shoes, building panels, plastics, paint, sealants, disposable diapers, coffeefilters, and livestock bedding, to name just a few of hundreds. Evidently,it can take the place of just about anything now made of cotton, wood, or petroleum,which makes it the most versatile crop in the world.
One of the more interesting uses of hemp is fuel. Once the fiber has beenremoved, the left-over cellulose mass can be burned as biomass to create energy.Alternatively, oil derived from the seed (“hempoline”) can be usedas biodiesel fuel. According to those who have done the math, if it were plantedalong enough of the nation’s roadways, the oil it produced could easilyreplace gasoline, at much less cost than what it takes to secure oil from theMideast or other sources.
If it’s so Useful, Why isn’t it Grown More Widely?
The answer is: precisely because it’s so useful, it threatened the timber,petrochemical, and cotton industries with a better, cheaper product. That’sapparently why back in the ’30s newspaper publisher William Hearstused his power as a publisher to create public panic about hemp and marijuana.It’sworth noting that he also owned millions of acres of timber that he wantedto convert into paper.
Meanwhile, Du Pont held the patent rights to the process for making paperpulp from wood using sulfuric acid. So big money interests such as these, withthe help of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, a Du Pont backer, helped persuadeCongress to pass the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act. That made it so costly to producehemp it destroyed the industry.
Hemp was briefly re-legalized during World War II, when the military neededit for rope. So for a while, growing hemp was the patriotic thing to do. Then,once the war was over, it again became unpatriotic, and was banned. Today,hemp production is still illegal in most of the U.S., despite the fact thatit’s legally grown in 33 countries around the world, including Canada,China, Germany, and England.
But progress is being made. In 1999, hemp production, trade, and use becamelegal in North Dakota. Legislation to study or otherwise move forward legalizationis in various stages of development in 21 states. Also, the DEA (Drug EnforcementAdministration) just recently backed down on its ban of hemp seed and oil innatural and organic foods.
But Can’t Hemp Fields Be Used to Hide Marijuana?
Not very easily. Marijuana plants are planted sparsely, so they are shortand bushy to maximize leaves and flowers. Industrial hemp is planted about100 times as densely so that it grows tall and straight to maximize the stems.If 33 other countries are smart enough to tell the difference and deal withit effectively, why can’t we?
What really gets me, though, is this: tobacco is a drug that kills 450,000Americans every year in addition to causing untold misery from cancer and billionsof dollars in lost work time and medical expenses, yet it’s legal. Asfar as I know, not a single death has been attributed to marijuana, yet it’sstill illegal to grow its easily-distinguished cousin, industrial hemp (exceptin N.D.). Go figure.
And no, I’m not in favor of legalizing marijuana as a recreational drug.It would make much more sense to de-legalize tobacco. Need I even start onthe subject of alcohol?
Hemp is a relatively easy crop to grow organically. It’s hearty, drought-resistant,and requires less fertilization and pest control than most other crops. Inaddition, the height and density of the plant creates too much shade for weedsto thrive. Some pro-hemp websites go a bit overboard, however, claiming thathemp can be grown in any waste area with no fertilizer or pest control at all.
Just to set the record straight, hemp requires soil with a pH between 6.3and 7.8, organic matter over 3.5 percent, and 40, 250, and 5,000 ppm phosphorus,potassium, and sulfur, respectively. It also should have less than 6,000ppm calcium. Hemp may be attacked by wireworm, spider mites, Lygus, thrips,or other pests. But organic controls, primarily natural predators, areavailable.
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