Dear EarthTalk: 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,
is it illegal to grow in the United States?
— Doug Jones,
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 one point
in their lives 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 for
making clothing that the U.S. government provided farmers with
subsidies to convert to hemp cultivation.
Hemp is a renewable and easy-to-grow crop that is tough enough
to substitute 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 as
it is naturally resistant to pests and grows fast, crowding
out weeds. To make paper, trees must grow for many years, while
a field of hemp can be harvested in a few months and make four
times the paper over a few decades.
Also, the 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, as a “Schedule 1” drug
under the Controlled Substances Act, making it illegal to grow without a license
from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Although industrial hemp
does not contain enough psychoactive ingredients to make a smoker “high,” farmers
who grow it can risk jail time. Today, the U.S. 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 following 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 Hawai‘i, 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 due to opposition from
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,” as
marijuana growers could camouflage their illicit operations with similar-looking
For more information visit www.hemptrade.ca.
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