Can Hemp Break Through America’s Drug Insanity?

Date: 22 Aug 1997 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Can Hemp Break Through America’s Drug Insanity?

by David Morris

August 22, 1997 – published in St. Paul Pioneer Press

This July in Hoover, Alabama, police arrested eight month pregnant Angela Gilford for selling hemp t-shirts and macrame. Angela and her husband face mandatory three year prison terms.

Twenty-six countries around the world now grow hemp legally. But in the United States you can still go to jail for selling hemp paper. To Bud Sholts of Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture and Chair of the North American Industrial Hemp Council, we have become an “island of denial in a sea of acceptance”.

Once upon a time, hemp was the world’s most prized fiber. Washington, Jefferson and Franklin extolled its virtues. Betsy Ross’ used it for her flag. A draft of the Declaration of Independence was written on it. The sails for America’s first Navy were from hemp.

And then in the 1930s hemp fell into disfavor. It became confused with its botanical cousin, marijuana, and was literally hounded out of existence in the West.

But in the early ’90s, rapidly rising consumer demand revived the moribund hemp industry. The number of U.S. retail stores selling hemp products soared from 2 in 1988 to over 2000 today. Over 200 companies now market hemp products. Retail sales went from zero to over $60 million in Europe and North America. European hemp acreage tripled from 1990 to 1997.

Hemp is now used in sneakers by Adidas, in high fashion suits by Georgio Armani and in bibles made by Kimberly Clark. Interface wants to make hemp carpets. Ford is replacing fiberglass with hemp in its vans. Hemp makes particleboard, animal bedding, cheese and cookies, body oils and skin moisturizers.

Is hemp economical? Canada thinks so. Next year its farmers will plant its first commercial hemp crop in 60 years. This August Ontario’s Minister of Agriculture announced that his office is aggressively nurturing a home-grown hemp industry from farm to factory.

Is hemp economical? The Forest Products Laboratory in Madison thinks so. In May it released a study that concluded, “Wisconsin farmers could profitably produce hemp” for the state’s many high grade paper mills. The study identified an existing pulp market for more than 500,000 acres of hemp.

The Wisconsin report noted that state farmers could plant a million acres of hemp as a rotation crop. Hemp is a marvelous rotation crop. Its deep tap root aerates the soil. Its rapid and dense growth kills pests and weeds. English farmers have seen a 10 percent increase in their winter wheat yields after planting hemp.

Almost two dozen states debated hemp-related bills this year. In Minnesota, Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe leads the fight to re-introduce hemp back into the next to last state to have legally grown it in the 1950s.

But progress on the home front has been thwarted by America’s powerful drug bureaucracy. The DEA, with its $16 billion budget, calls the shots in Washington, while its network of local police officers through the DARE program and its citizen networks like Drug Watch so far have called the shots at the state and local level.

To these folks hemp is marijuana. Selling a hemp t-shirt becomes tantamount to selling heroin. This crackpot notion is causing great mischief. In 1995, taking the DEA literally, Alabama made selling hemp equivalent to selling marijuana. That’s why Angela Gilford goes on trial in September.

In Shelby County, Kentucky, Donna Cockrel, a highly praised teacher was fired for bringing hemp seeds and hemp growers into her fifth grade class. The irony is that the kids’ grandparents probably planted hemp for the War Department during World War II when Kentucky was, next to Wisconsin, the nation’s largest hemp producer. Today 50 percent of Kentucky’s farm revenues come from selling the world’s most addictive and harmful drug–tobacco. Is that the kind of agricultural switch that makes the DEA swell with pride?

When it comes to hemp the U.S. drug network response is just plain wierd. When Adidas announced its new sneaker, The Hemp the White House Drug Czar all but accused the company of selling crack to schoolkids. A high ranking police officer calmly informed Wisconsin legislators that people get high smoking ditchweed, a wild hemp plant that contains virtually no psychoactive components. A co-chair of Drug Watch told Colorado legislators that “hemp oil causes cancer overnight on laboratory rats”.

The jury is still out on whether hemp is a niche crop or a miracle plant. What we do know is that it makes a terrific rotation crop. That it rarely needs herbicides or pesticides. That its protein is more digestible than soybean’s. That its oil has better properties than flax oil and its fiber is stronger than wood’s and as stylish as linen. George Washington was onto something when he urged Americans to “sow widely the hemp seeds”. In 1997 the DEA would probably brand him a drug lord.

Morris is vice-president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance

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David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.