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The Straight Dope 

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I enjoy your usually well-researched columns but am sorely disappointed at your lack of depth on hemp cultivation [January 31]. You said it "won't halt deforestation, which is driven mainly by the demand for lumber." Uh, if hemp becomes a source for cellulose, won't the demand for lumber ease? I heard of a bumper sticker in a rural area last Sunday: "If you don't like logging, wipe your ass with plastic." Hemp makes paper. Those hurting loggers could sorely use a new commodity to make a living from.

You dismissed the Hearst conspiracy claim with nothing but your assertion that "everybody else" did it. Just why and how was hemp suppressed? Why did the press do their best to whip up antihemp hysteria? I had my suspicions about the conspiracy theory and had hoped you would be the one to clarify it. A simple denial does not cut it.

"Hemp wasn't used for [nylon stockings]." No it wasn't, but it certainly could be. Why isn't it just as good as the petroleum and wood pulp the companies use now? Maybe it is control of the oil wells and tree plantations? Hmm? If it was good enough during WWII, why is it goofy now?

If my current profession goes belly-up, there ain't much call for my specialty. I might need a subsistence crop. You're not helping my survival. There is a growing number of people who think the government should not be enforcing their brand of oppression and indeed the laws should be scrapped as a monstrous waste and enemy of liberty. Denying Americans the potential of this plant (whether it will save the planet or not) while the rest of the world passes us by and continues to enjoy its bounty is folly. In Russia they grow huge fields of...[Impassioned plea truncated, no room.] --William Hathaway, via the Internet

William. Kick back. Have a toke of this. Feel better? Look, I'm the first to concede that the gentle weed is harmless and ought to be legalized. But the day I start believing this dope-will-save-the-planet stuff is the day I switch to Kool-Aid. To address your claims and some of the dozens of others that flooded my mailbox:

Hemp is ideal for paper, cloth, and a thousand other products. Don't be ridiculous. Even hemp advocates concede the stuff has a lot of drawbacks. It makes a fairly coarse cloth (OK for jeans though) and, given current technology, doesn't lend itself to high-volume, low-cost paper production. (Granted, research in this area is continuing.) Many proposed uses are speculative or far-fetched. Check out back issues of HempWorld magazine, available on-line at Amid the rah-rah stuff you'll find some clear-eyed assessments of hemp's pros and cons.

By the way, William, "lumber" is usually understood to mean "construction lumber." There's been talk of using hemp in particleboard and such. But take it from someone who's been there, there's still no substitute for a wood two-by-four.

Cecil has been duped by the antimarijuana conspirators. If somebody tells me he was abducted by aliens, it's not my job to prove he wasn't. It's his job to prove he was. I've yet to see any credible evidence for the alleged Anslinger/Hearst/Mellon/Du Pont antidope cabal. Most historians of U.S. drug laws say the outlawing of cannabis was the work of narcotics commissioner Harry Anslinger, a formidable figure who persuaded Congress that this little-known weed was undermining the republic. What exactly motivated Anslinger is a matter of debate, but it seems silly to blame a fat-cat conspiracy--as I said earlier, hemp was a minor crop in the 1930s and posed no competitive threat.

The legalize-hemp-cultivation movement is not simply a backdoor attempt to legalize marijuana.

I'm sure many of the agribusiness types in the hemp coalition have never smoked a joint. But for a much larger crowd, your eco-green-save-the-whales types, hemp has become a kind of alternative vegetable.

(Literally--I've even seen hemp recipes.) No doubt many of these people have persuaded themselves that hemp is mankind's last hope, but don't tell me it hasn't occurred to a lot of them that legal hemp might be a step toward legal marijuana. One hemp shoemaker has a product out called H.I.G.H. Tops. Another, U.S. Hemp, stamps a marijuana leaf on its shoes, and owner Cathy Troutt was quoted in HempWorld as saying, "We aren't going to lie about our feelings on marijuana." Good for you, Cathy. Wish everybody else were as up-front.

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

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