As the issue of legalizing marijuana remains complicated and highly controversial, a lesser-known yet increasingly significant side effect continues to transpire in the background: the suppression of its incredibly useful and diverse distant cousin, industrial hemp. Both marijuana and hemp have a long history in the United States. Unfortunately, because both plants are from the cannabis species, hemp was pigeonholed into a “dangerous drug” classification along with marijuana, representing the beginning of the end for hemp as a major agricultural asset to the United States.
Industrial hemp contains no psychotropic qualities that create a “high” like marijuana. Considering that hemp’s unique qualities can help solve some of our country’s major problems, it becomes increasingly ridiculous that it remains off limits due to ignorance and poor lawmaking. The United States government needs to create a legal distinction between marijuana and industrial hemp. The time is now to fully legalize and endorse the cultivation of industrial hemp for the benefit of this country, its people, and the planet as whole.
The tremendous irony of hemp being outlawed in America begins to surface upon examining the fundamental role hemp played in the early formation and growth of this country. The first hemp laws in America were passed in 1619 and they were “must grow” laws. In great contrast to the legality of hemp cultivation today, if you were a farmer living in America back then, and you did not grow hemp, you could be jailed or kicked out of the country as non patriot. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp on their plantations. Benjamin Franklin started one of America’s earliest paper mills with hemp (Herer 4).
Early in the twentieth century, Henry Ford talked about the importance of transitioning away from America’s dependence on fossil fuels. Ford was an advocate and early proponent of sustainability, conducting extensive research on using hemp fibers for use in his cars to make body parts, paint, and even to use hemp oil to power the engines of his automobiles (Herer 5). The word canvas comes from the Greek word “kannabis,” as hemp was used to make most of the sails, rigging, ropes, and cargo and fishing nets used on the majority of ships throughout the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries.
Most of the crewman on theses vessels wore clothing made with hemp as well (Herer 5). None of hemps rich history has anything to do with smoking it to get high. In fact, cannabis hemp is so thickly woven into the modern history of the world that many have written books on the subject, most notably Jack Herer’s “The Emperor Wears No Clothes”. Herer effectively relates the global scope of hemp’s significance in past centuries: From more than 1,000 years before Christ until 1883 A. D. cannabis hemp was our planets largest agricultural crop and most important industry, involving thousands of products and enterprises; producing the overall majority of Earth’s fiber, fabric, lighting oil, paper, and medicines. In addition, it was a primary source of essential food oil and protein for humans and animals. (Herer 3) As more is learned about hemp, it becomes more astonishing that it remains banished, leaving its immense potential left untapped, especially considering its wide range of uses and the importance of sustainability in today’s world.
In a 2008 paper entitled “Hemp for Sovereignty,” Steve Smith of Missouri Southern State University’s Department of Social Services writes about a case study involving the residents of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. In their quest to improve their poor economic condition, the tribal people of Pine Ridge came to the conclusion that growing industrial, non-psychotropic hemp was a viable solution for their specific conditions. The people of the reservation felt strongly enough about pursing this agricultural development strategy that they decided to challenge the United States drug policy.
Smith says, The central legal problem for those who wish to grow hemp for industrial purposes is that there is no clear distinction in federal statute between industrial hemp and marijuana. Thus, a plant with no psychotropic properties and that could be used to fashion anything from ropes, to paper, to bricks for constructing homes is placed in the same category as marijuana. (Smith 233) In his research, Smith found that the source of the problem stems from the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 that was carried over into the comprehensive Drug Abuse Controlled and Prevention Act of 1970.
Banning industrial hemp was a mistake from the beginning. The government refusing to address this situation is not acceptable and that is where the Oglala Sioux tribe in Pine Ridge, South Dakota have drawn a line in the sand. The tribe said it is their right as a sovereign state to cultivate their land. They were also purposely shedding light on the need to legalize hemp. Research from the University of Connecticut conclusively indicates that hemp is a viable source for biodiesel fuel—one thatc does not affect the food supply like corn and soy do.
Led by associate professor of chemical engineering Richard Parnas, the research team will be building a refinery using a $1. 8 million grant from the Department of Energy. Hemp is ideal for two reasons: first, it is not a major food source so it should not contribute to food security problems; secondly, it can grow in infertile soil using otherwise inhospitable conditions. “It’s equally important to make fuel from plants that are not food, but also won’t need the high-quality land,” Parnas said (“Scientist Says…” para 8).
The potential and diversity of hemp is almost limitless. Laura Sevier describes hemp as “a true wonderplant” (Sevier 62). Sevier elaborates: “There are an estimated 25,000-plus uses for hemp, including everything from mushroom compost and machine-part lubricants to nets, nappies and superfood salad oil. It is one of the most versatile plants on the planet. With multiple co-products, nothing goes to waste” (Sevier 63). The problem remains the same for implementing hemp to help our country and our planet: its messy entanglement with the prohibition of marijuana.
Hemp’s unique characteristics can help solve many problems we face in this country. While the fight to legalize marijuana continues, the negative side effect of suppressing hemp from agricultural development may turn out to be a more relevant issue. The time to remove industrial hemp from the marijuana/drug category, legalize its cultivation, and start reaping the benefits of this great resource, as our forefathers did before us, is now.