The Colonel's Weed | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

The Colonel's Weed 

Tribune boss Robert McCormick had a farm, and on that farm he grew some hemp.

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As crops throughout the midwest withered during the drought of 1936, the Chicago Tribune reported on one plant untroubled by the lack of water. "When we stopped to look at the test plot where the hemp is growing, we wanted to doff our straw hat and give this plant a little applause," wrote reporter Robert Becker. "It has grown remarkably in spite of intense heat and drouth [sic]. In fact, one of the boys was saying that during the week of the most severe heat the hemp kept pushing its head to the blazing sun."

Becker's report showed up in a regular Tribune feature called "Day by Day Story of the Experimental Farms." This space kept readers up-to-date on two farms in the western suburbs that had been started (and publicized) by the Tribune in hopes of bringing innovation to the desperate farming industry.

Hemp, traditionally used to make products like rope, paper, and birdseed, was an obvious choice for the experimental farms. Though it had been cultivated in the U.S. since colonial times by the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Americans weren't growing much hemp in the 1930s. But new technological advances, as well as its natural resistance to drought, made hemp potentially attractive to struggling farmers.

Less than a year after Tribune employees reported on the impressive properties of hemp, the drug czar of that day published an influential article in American Magazine. The story by Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, began: "The sprawled body of a young girl lay crushed on the sidewalk the other day after a plunge from the fifth story of a Chicago apartment house. Everyone called it suicide, but actually it was murder. The killer was a narcotic known to America as marihuana."

It wasn't long before the Chicago Tribune's hemp crop was the focus of a federal drug investigation.

Nearly 70 years later, the old argument continues: Are hemp and marijuana synonymous or only distantly related?

Donald Briskin, a professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois in Urbana, says hemp and marijuana differ substantially, thanks to the way they've been bred over the centuries. Hemp has been selected for length and minimal branching, to maximize the recovery of the fiber along its main stem. Marijuana has been selected for elevated THC, the molecule in marijuana flowers most responsible for getting smokers high.

"Some plant scientists consider hemp and marijuana to even be different species," says Briskin. "For instance, another classification is to consider hemp as Cannabis sativa and marijuana as Cannabis indica. There isn't complete agreement on the classification of these plants."

THC has been virtually bred out of industrial hemp. In Canada, for example, the legal difference between hemp and marijuana is a THC content that is either below or above 0.3 percent of the plant, measured by dry weight. But the THC content of common marijuana ranges from 3 to 7 percent. The flowers of industrial hemp may bear some physical resemblance to marijuana, but ingesting even massive amounts won't get a normal human high.

Though 33 states had outlawed marijuana by 1937, its use as an intoxicant was relatively uncommon in the U.S. Marijuana became illegal in Illinois in 1931 after local media, including the Tribune, campaigned against the drug. The logic of prohibition was explained in "New Giggle Drug Puts Discord in City Orchestras," a 1928 Tribune article about marijuana's growing popularity among local musicians. The story explained that marijuana "is an old drug but was generally introduced into the country only a few years ago by the Mexicans. It is like cocaine. In the long run, it bends and cripples its victims. A sort of creeping paralysis results from long use."

State laws against marijuana didn't impact hemp. It had been grown in the United States since before the revolution, but the labor-intensive processing of the plant made it less attractive to American farmers, and by the time the Tribune started experimenting with it most hemp products in the U.S. were imported. Technological innovations that reduced the costs of processing hemp might have been what caught the eye of Colonel Robert McCormick, the Tribune's publisher and editor.

McCormick was an agricultural enthusiast. His great-uncle Cyrus revolutionized farming by inventing the mechanical reaper, and McCormick farmed Cantigny, his estate in Wheaton. In the mid-1930s, when he wasn't busy bashing FDR and the New Deal in the pages of the Tribune, McCormick operated the "experimental farms" on his estate. Frank Ridgway, the Tribune's agricultural editor and usual author of "Day by Day Story of the Experimental Farms," also served as supervisor for the farms. Ridgway described them as "practical laboratories for trying out new discoveries, theories and practices." According to one biographer, McCormick personally chose the crops. Along with exotic strains of soybeans and alfalfa, he grew hemp.

A small test crop of hemp was planted in 1934, and in '36 a three-acre hemp plot was sown. By harvest time, the plants had grown to 13 feet. Reaping proved difficult. The towering stalks overwhelmed the machines, and part of the crop had to be cut by hand. The farmers learned as they went along. "Much progress has been made in the manufacturing of fibers, paper and other products on a small laboratory scale," Ridgway wrote after the 1936 harvest. "The next step is to manufacture the hemp products on a commercial scale. When that is accomplished, farmers should find a profitable outlet for hemp plants."

To accompany Ridgway's column, the Tribune published a photograph of farmworkers attempting to harvest the massive plants. At least one person was troubled by what he saw.

A few days after the photograph appeared, the Chicago office of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics received a letter from Washington. Anslinger wanted a "full report" on the Tribune's hemp.

Elizabeth Bass, the bureau's supervisor in Chicago, made some phone calls and then visited Cantigny. Farm operators answered questions and sent Bass on her way with a pound of hemp to take back to the office. Bass told Anslinger the plants were strictly for industrial use.

She wrote that Ridgway "knew nothing of Marihuana and had only vaguely heard that cigarettes were made from some variety of Cannabis or hemp. His sole knowledge and interest was confined to the dried stalks."

The visit might have left the farmers scratching their heads. There was nothing secret about their crop. It had been written about repeatedly in the Tribune, and the farm was open to visitors--some 23,000 stopped by in 1935 alone. What's more, at the time there were no federal laws addressing either hemp or marijuana.

Anslinger wanted more information. Bass pressed Ridgway, who referred her to H.W. Bellrose, president of the World Fibre Corporation, an Illinois firm that processed the hemp produced by the Tribune farms.

Bellrose responded to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics with evangelical enthusiasm. He described a machine called a hemp decorticator that he said could revitalize the American hemp industry. The decorticator, Bellrose explained, reduced the labor needed to process hemp. He tried to place the machine in historical perspective.

"The World Fibre Decorticating machine represents to the fibre industry what the Eli Cotton Gin was to the cotton industry," Bellrose wrote, adding that the machine could eliminate the country's need for imported hemp. And he suggested a reason for McCormick's interest in hemp.

"In the paper pulp industry alone, we are importing 80% of all paper as paper stock, and this industry runs well over one billion dollars per annum," Bellrose wrote. Biographers of McCormick have noted that he kept ahead of William Randolph Hearst in the midwest by maintaining a cheaper supply of paper than his rival publisher.

But Bellrose saw more than paper coming from hemp. It promised salvation. "The growing of hemp by the American farmer means the growing of a crop that goes into industry and into the human stomach, and therefore, constitutes the only resolution of the present day agricultural problem," he wrote.

Apparently Anslinger was not impressed. In 1937, at his insistent urging, Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act. Though it didn't outlaw marijuana or cannabis, it imposed a tax so high that legal production became economically impossible. Anslinger vowed that hemp farmers would not be impacted by the new law.

"I would say that they are not only amply protected under this act, but they can go ahead and raise hemp just as they have always done," Anslinger stated during congressional hearings. It wasn't true. Hemp farmers, including those at the experimental farms, were about to learn that they'd been regulated out of legal existence.

In the spring of 1937, before the tax act was even debated, farmers at McCormick's estate planted another hemp crop. It was a denser crop than the earlier ones, and harvesting would begin earlier in the season. The goal was to limit the size of the plants to make for an easier harvest.

On September 29, Ridgway reported on the harvest in the Tribune. The hemp being dried for processing, he wrote, was superior to the crop that had been grown the previous year. Three days later, the Marihuana Tax Act went into effect. Within two weeks, federal agents visited the experimental farms and told the operators that they were subject to the tax act no matter what they intended to do with the hemp crop.

Ridgway explained the dilemma of the hemp farmers in his October 11 column. The tax act applied to the flowers of hemp, whether or not they were smokable. A tax of $1 an ounce was imposed on growers who'd registered with the government, of $100 an ounce on those who hadn't. Ridgway expected the hemp to sell for about $15 a ton. Even at the lower tax, the farm faced a loss of roughly $31,985 on each ton of hemp harvested.

The only way for a grower to avoid the tax would be to remove every flower before selling the stalks. Such a process would cost more than the crop was worth. As a final insult, federal officials told Ridgway the hemp had to be guarded 24 hours a day during the drying process.

"If these requirements are rigidly adhered to by the administrators of the marihuana law," Ridgway wrote, "the farm manager likely would decide that the best way out would be to burn the entire crop harvested from the fifteen acres this year and discontinue his efforts to aid in the development of hemp as a commercial cash crop for farmers in this country."

Ridgway managed to end his gloomy report on a somewhat hopeful note. Elizabeth Bass had told him that "officials responsible for the administration of the law...are making a careful study of the act and its regulations to see what can be done to cooperate with hemp for useful and harmless purposes."

They've yet to make a suggestion.

The Colonel Robert R. McCormick Research Center stands near land once used for the experimental farms of Cantigny. The center's archives contain only one document relating to the experimental farms--a book adapted from the "Day by Day" columns. Officials of the center say they can't be sure when the last experimental crops were abandoned.

A more important question goes unanswered too: why would federal officials so promptly target a relatively small hemp crop like McCormick's?

Maybe because it was McCormick's. He despised President Roosevelt, his onetime Groton schoolmate. McCormick's Tribune trafficked in page-one headlines such as "Moscow Orders Reds in U.S. to Back Roosevelt," which ran before the 1936 elections with nothing to back it up. The Tribune hailed that year's bumper crop of sunflowers as "Landon buttons...nodding their approval" of the Kansas governor whom the Republicans nominated for president. FDR couldn't have minded watching Anslinger tramp through the colonel's gardens.

Hemp historians offer another reason. On its surface, the ongoing hemp ban looks like collateral damage from the war on marijuana, but some theorize that hemp was a target all along.

The Emperor Wears No Clothes, a book by Jack Herer, is sometimes referred to as the hemp bible. Revised over several editions since it was first published in 1985, the book claims to uncover the "hemp and marijuana conspiracy."

Like more academic examinations of marijuana prohibition, Herer's book takes up the idea that cannabis was first outlawed for reasons of race and culture. The first state marijuana laws were imposed in places with significant immigrant Mexican populations. It's commonly argued that these laws, like most drug prohibitions, were intended to discipline a minority by restricting a drug popular with it.

But Herer goes further, suggesting that the 1937 federal marijuana law was specifically designed to stifle a resurgent domestic hemp industry. Herer identifies two central players: supernarc Anslinger and newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst. Anslinger wrote outrageous stories about the allegedly deadly effects of marijuana, and Hearst ran them in his newspapers. Anslinger had ties to the Du Pont family, which was revolutionizing the fiber market with petrochemical-based synthetics like nylon. Hearst controlled vast timber reserves that would have lost much of their value, Herer suggests, if a cheap and renewable source of paper had become available.

The story of McCormick's hemp crop, which isn't mentioned in Herer's book, both supports and contradicts his thesis. The tax act did indeed end McCormick's attempt to promote industrial hemp. However, McCormick controlled even more timberland than Hearst.

McCormick apparently made one last attempt to grow hemp at his estate. According to Poor Little Rich Boy, a biography by Gwen Morgan and Arthur Veysey, when Japan cut off hemp supplies from the Philippines during World War II, McCormick planted new hemp seeds and encouraged other farmers to do the same. He hoped to supply the raw material for the rope needed by the navy.

Washington's Hemp for Victory campaign allowed some farmers to grow hemp for the war effort. But according to Morgan and Veysey, federal narcotics officials raided Cantigny before the harvest and ripped the hemp plants out of the ground.

Rigid hemp laws remain in place today and are vigilantly enforced. The descendant of Anslinger's bureau is the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which in 2001 unilaterally banned hemp food products--such as hemp milk, hemp energy bars, hemp tortilla chips, and hemp pasta--though they have no psychoactive qualities. The ban was overturned this year in court, but the DEA can still appeal.

In 2000 and again in 2001, DEA agents raided a supposedly sovereign Lakota Indian reservation in South Dakota and destroyed acres of industrial hemp growing there, even though tribal leaders had approved the crop.

Arguments against hemp have grown neither in sophistication nor in logic since Anslinger's day. Here in Illinois, a bill that would have allowed the study of industrial hemp at the University of Illinois was vetoed by Governor Ryan in 2001, despite strong bipartisan support in both legislative houses.

"I cannot ignore the concerns of the drug prevention and treatment groups that the ultimate commercial cultivation and availability of a product that contains a potentially mind-altering substance would leave open the prospect of substance abuse," said Ryan. A pharmacist before turning to politics, he should have known better.

Yet benefits suggested by hemp proponents in the 1930s that might have seemed wildly optimistic then have become reality. Hemp is being used for textiles, food, and building materials. A car that runs on hemp oil has been developed. And hemp is of great interest to environmentalists because it's a crop that requires little or no pesticide. Hemp products continue to sell in the U.S., even though the hemp itself is always imported.

Hemp still grows in Illinois. The Tribune reported in 1998 that $450,000 had been spent by state police the previous year to destroy roughly ten million uncultivated hemp plants, many descended from the Hemp for Victory effort in World War II. If ingested, none of those plants would have given anyone a buzz. In 2002 another 633,000 wild hemp plants were obliterated.

The numbers vary from year to year, but the battle continues. It may be possible to willfully ignore hemp's virtues, but its essential nature makes it difficult to eradicate. It is, after all, a weed. Only months after it's slashed and burned, hemp sprouts again, pushing its head to the sun.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/AP--Wide World Photos.

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