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Thursday, Dec. 21, 2006 01:00 am

A need for weed

Hemp is renewable, easy-to-grow, and inexplicably illegal

The Declaration of Independence and the first American flag were both made from hemp.
Photo by Rick Wood/MCT
A number of products, including paper and clothing — even food and beer —are made from hemp. What is it about hemp that makes it so versatile — and why is it illegal to grow in the United States? Is it also illegal in Canada?

What did the first Gutenberg bible, Christopher Columbus’ ropes and sails, the Declaration of Independence, and the first American flag have in common? All were made from hemp. Indeed, many of America’s forefathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, earned a living at some point in their lives by growing and selling hemp, which was used to make everything from paper to rope to sails to clothing. During World War II the crop was of such strategic importance in making clothing that the U.S. government provided farmers with subsidies to convert other types of fields to hemp cultivation.

Hemp is a renewable and easy-to-grow crop that is tough enough to be substituted for paper or wood and malleable enough to be made into clothing and even a biodegradable form of plastic. Meanwhile, hemp oil is all the rage among natural-foods gourmands, who enjoy its nutty flavor and its healthy amounts of protein and omega fatty acids. Hemp is also a popular ingredient in many new hand and body lotions.

Environmentalists and farmers alike appreciate hemp as an alternative to cotton for clothes and trees for paper. Unlike cotton, hemp does not require large doses of pesticides and herbicides, because it is naturally resistant to pests and grows fast, crowding out weeds. To be made into paper, trees must grow for many years, whereas a field of hemp can be harvested in a few months and yield four times the paper over a few decades. Making paper from hemp uses only a fraction of the chemicals required to turn trees into paper.

In spite of hemp’s versatility, in 1970 the U.S. Congress designated hemp, along with its relative, marijuana, a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act, making it illegal to grow hemp without a license from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Although industrial hemp does not contain enough psychoactive ingredients to make a smoker high, farmers who grow it can risk jail time. Today the United States is the only developed country that has not established hemp as an agricultural crop, according to the Congressional Research Service. Britain lifted a similar ban in 1993, and Germany and Canada followed suit soon after. The European Union has subsidized hemp production since the 1990s.

With their American competition out of the running, Canadian farmers have been reaping hemp’s financial rewards, especially after a ruling by a U.S. federal court that hemp-made products could be imported into the U.S. In 2005, the Canadian hemp industry tripled the amount of acreage dedicated to the crop to meet rising demand, according to the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance.

American farmers are intensifying their lobbying efforts to lift the U.S. ban. State legislatures in Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, and West Virginia have all passed laws that would make hemp legal if the U.S. government were to allow it. But a hemp-farming bill introduced into Congress this past year by Texas Republican Ron Paul stalled out as a result of opposition by the DEA and the White House. For its part, the DEA maintains that allowing American farmers to grow hemp would undermine the “war on drugs” because marijuana growers could camouflage their illicit operations with similar-looking hemp plants.

For more information: Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance, www.hemptrade.ca; Vote Hemp, www.votehemp.com.

Send questions to Earth Talk, care of E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881 or e-mail earthtalk@emagazine.com.

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