Straight Dope 

What's the scoop on hemp? Is it true that in earlier days of our country over 90 percent of paper was made of hemp? Is it true hemp is one of the strongest fibers known to man? Why is it illegal to grow it, since it is only about 1 percent THC? In fact, it is only a relative of the plant that is cultivated for smoking, is it not? It just seems that cultivation of hemp would be such an easy solution to the deforestation problems we are having.

--Tyler Hartley, Lincoln, Nebraska

Our deforestation problems! Yes absolutely, hemp is a perfect solution. I myself can recall thinking as a youth (puff) that we've got terrible deforestation problems these days (puff). What can we do about them? (Puff. Long pause.) What was I just thinking about?

One of the nuttier developments of recent times is the sudden interest in nonpharmacological hemp cultivation among people who've never grown so much as a radish. It's true that prior to criminalization hemp was grown commercially for paper, cloth, rope and twine, and other products. It grows pretty much anywhere, doesn't require much tending, and produces plenty of strong fiber.

During World War II the government relaxed the antihemp laws and encouraged midwestern farmers to grow the stuff for the war effort. It's said that a parachute rigging made of hemp saved the life of George Bush when the young bomber pilot bailed out of his burning plane.

What with the renewed interest in natural fibers, there's a good case to be made that hemp farming should be promoted rather than suppressed. What the hell--we might as well legalize the stuff altogether, since we know perfectly well that cannabis smoking doesn't cause insanity or any of the other horrors that federal narcotics authorities feared when they clamped down in the late 1930s.

But let's not get goofy about this. Hemp cultivation isn't going to save the planet, as some claim. It won't halt deforestation, which is driven mainly by the demand for lumber and agricultural land.

Hemp wasn't a mighty industry in the U.S. prior to passage of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. Only about 1,300 acres of hemp--about two square miles--were under cultivation. It was cheaper to import the stuff than grow it.

Even so, total U.S. consumption was only about 2,000 tons, and most of that was used for rope and such. Textile manufacturers had long since abandoned hemp for cotton, which was easier to process. An improved hemp-processing technology had been invented, and the industry might have rebounded had it not been for the antihemp crusade. But nobody knows for certain.

The suppression of hemp wasn't, as some have alleged, the result of an unholy conspiracy between federal narcotics commissioner Harry Anslinger, the Du Pont corporation, and William Randolph Hearst. No question, Anslinger was a zealot who thought marijuana was a menace to society, and Hearst's newspapers had done their best to whip up antihemp hysteria. But so had everybody else in the press. Lurid antimarijuana stories appeared in the New Yorker, for God's sake.

The hemp industry didn't pose a significant threat to Du Pont and its new synthetic product, nylon. The most widely publicized early use of nylon was for women's stockings. Hemp wasn't used for this purpose.

Getting back to the present, let's not pretend that hemp and marijuana are two different things. They come from the same plant, Cannabis sativa. The "industrial hemp" variety, which is useless for recreational purposes, is tall and spindly, where the stuff prized for high-potency smoke is short and bushy. It's reasonably easy to tell the two apart when you're up close, but they can't be readily distinguished during aerial surveillance. Federal drug officials are probably right when they say legalization of hemp cultivation would greatly complicate enforcement.

Given the unlikelihood of total decriminalization of cannabis, Cecil can appreciate that proponents of the weed might want to sneak partial decriminalization in through the back door. On the one hand I think, hey, whatever works. But on the other hand I think, this is just the kind of hypocrisy we 60s types used to try so hard to avoid.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Slug Signorino.

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