It was Willie Nelson who first suggested to me that hemp is “not just for breakfast anymore.” And Willie is a fellow who knows quite a bit about the plant species called cannabis, marijuana, pot, reefer or whatever you choose to call it. But Willie’s point was not to tout the smokable cannabis, rather to push a strain of the plant that farmers worldwide have been raising for 6,000 years to produce a cornucopia of products including beautiful fabrics, fine paper, inexpensive fuel, safe pain relievers and plastic substitutes.
Did you know that our Declaration of Independence was drafted on paper made of 100%, pure dee hemp, that “Old Ironsides” was powered by hemp cloth sails, and that both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson cultivated the stuff? Jefferson even wrote that “hemp is of first necessity . . . to the wealth and protection of the country.” And he wasn’t just blowing smoke.
Okay, in the interest of full disclosure, I, Jim Hightower, hereby confess that— unlike Bill Clinton—I inhaled. And I enjoyed. But this isn’t about “Puff The Magic Dragon,” it’s about an easy to grow commercial crop that can produce a natural high for our economy. As for it’s hallucinogenic properties, industrial hemp is to marijuana what near beer is to beer—it has practically zero tetrahydrocannibinol (THC), which is the elemental oomph in marijuana that makes you get high. You could smoke a pure hemp rope all day long and you wouldn’t get high, you’d get sick. As an agricultural economist put it: “You’d croak from smoke before you’d get high on hemp.”
Yet Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey, his predecessors, various boneheads in congress, and assorted corporate interests have conspired since 1937 to make it illegal for the farming heirs of Washington and Jefferson to raise this most useful and profitable crop.
In a mind numbing example of ignorance and arrogance in action, hemp is presently classified as a “Schedule One Substance” by the obtuse Drug Enforcement Administration, meaning it’s a no no, right up there with heroin, cocaine and other life wreckers. Attempt to grow it . . . and Gen. McCaffrey’s drug troopers will arrive in the dead of night, storm onto your property, bulldoze your crop, and haul you off to the federal pokey.
GOOD POLITICS, TOO
Suppose there was a political issue that could pull together liberals and libertarians, that could bring the American Farm Bureau Federation and International Paper Company into political alliance with Willie Nelson and Woody Harrelson, that could unite environmentalists with small business, that could catch the general public’s imagination (especially young people) as a tangible plus for the people and the American way, and that could draw from Democrats, Republicans, Greens, New Party members, Jesse Venturians, Libertarians, Reform Partyites, Noneoftheaboves and Whatnots? Wouldn’t that be worth pursuing? The legalization of hemp for America is one such common sense, grassroots issue.
Okay, it’s not “The Galvanizing Issue” that can drive a whole movement, pulling masses into the streets, which I know is what a lot of progressives yearn for. But while we wait expectantly for The Big One, there are a number of significant realignment issues we progressives should embrace now—along with the odd- bedfellow constituencies pushing them. Organizing a movement is less about rhetoric and theories than producing tangible gains for regular folks, and legalizing industrial hemp would be one gain for a lot of people not used to getting any. In the process, we progressives would broaden our movement and appeal, demonstrating our commitment to a new can-do politics based on people’s aspirations rather than on the greed of corporations.
The family farm crisis of the ’80s was highly visible. In the ’90s, though, the media packed up and left it behind. The farm crisis, however, is still out there. Efficient, productive operators need many things to have a fair chance against the bankers, chemical purveyors, commodity cartels, and other corporate forces that are squeezing the life out of them, but one simple and very helpful step is to let them grow hemp. It can be a huge cash crop: Hemp will grow anywhere in America that corn, wheat, soybeans, tobacco, and many other crops now grow; indeed the damn stuff literally is a weed, growing wild in many areas.
It’s a great rotation crop—it has a short growing season, so it can be planted after other crops are harvested, giving farmers two incomes on the same plot of land.
Hemp can boost our depressed rural economy because it is profitable. For example, imagine The frustration of farmers in North Dakota, who are losing money on the grain they raise, looking across the invisible border separating them from their next door neighbors in Manitoba, Canada, where farmers are enjoying $250 an acre profit on last year’s hemp crop, bringing the province a total of $6 million last year.
Commercial farming today, pushed by Dow, Monsanto, and other pesticide makers, as well as by the government’s agricultural agents and ag universities, is soaked in chemicals, causing massive contamination of our soil, water, wildlife . . . and farm families. Contrast hemp: It’s a natural requiring very little water or fertilizers to produce an abundant yield, and it’s naturally disease and pest resistant, so toxic chemicals are unnecessary. Its seeds can be collected to grow next year’s crop, too—another mark against it in the eyes of the seed-selling agribiz giants.
It grows 8 12 feet high, with a dense stock of leaves at the top, so it chokes out ground weeds, eliminating the need for herbicides. Its long roots break up the soil, leaving the fields in perfect shape for next year’s plantings without having to plow.
Also, hemp can save our forests! It produces a top quality pulp for papermaking and an excellent fiber that can be used in lieu of wood for homebuilding, and it’s more productive than timber—for example, an acre of hemp generates more pulp than four acres of trees, ending the need to clear cut America’s forests.
As more and more of our jobs are being shipped out to Southeast Beelzebub by corporate America, hemp offers a grassroots opportunity for new economic growth and job creation. The whole plant can be used commercially—leaves, stalk, seeds, oils, and resins.
• Paper made from hemp is the best in the world—from beautiful writing papers to the strongest cardboard for containers.
• Eat hemp! Its seeds have a wonderful flavor, great cooking versatility, and are more nutritious than soybean seeds—high in essential fatty acids, and Vitamin E. The seed is 35% dietary fiber, and hempseed oil boosts your immune system and is heart friendly.
• Make beer! Breweries in Kentucky, Maryland and California are turning-out caseloads of really good hemp brews.
• Smear it on your body. The Body Shop, among others, markets lip conditioner, soaps, body lotion, and other hemp based skin care products.
• Wear it. Strong canvas hemp shoes are in (even Adidas sells them), as are beautiful flowing fabrics that “breathe” naturally. Hemp shower curtains are light and—get this—does NOT mildew, thanks to hemp’s natural anti microbial properties. Also, hemp carpets are durable and naturally flame retardant. (CK?)
• Use it for industry. Hemp fiber board that can replace wood; its scrap can be a biomass alternative for gasoline. And its a biodegradable substitute for plastics—BMW already uses a hemp fiber plastic for some of its trunk and door panels, and Ford is considering it to make radiator grills.
Sales of these products are booming all across America, yet our farmers can’t join in the gain—all of the stalks, leaves, and seeds have to be imported from China, Canada, England, Russia, and 26 other countries where hemp is grown freely and proudly.
THE BEE UP THE NOSE
From the founding of our nation until the 1930s, hemp was an All American crop, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture aggressively urged farmers to grow it, even giving out free seeds. In fact, the plant was so popular and widespread that dozens of American towns are named for it—Hempfield, Penn.; Hemphill, W.V.; Hemp, Geo.; Hempstead, Tex.; Hempstead Gardens, N.Y.; Hempfield Lake, Mich.; Hempton Lake, Wisc.; and Hempfolk, Virg., among others.
Then came two ugly forces that stopped its growth cold: fear and greed. The fear was fostered and promoted relentlessly by William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers— “Reefer Madness” screamed the headlines day after day, with stories of marijuana addiction, and loose women. The greed came from Dupont, Standard Oil, U.S. Steel, and other corporations that wanted to shut down this awesome and inexpensive source of products that stood in the way of their plastics, synthetic fibers, gasoline, and steel. The lobbying pressures of fear and greed culminated in the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which banned the growing of Marijuana and made the licensing process for growing hemp so cumbersome that farmers simply gave up.
There was a brief respite for the plant in World War II, when the Armed Services needed huge amounts of rope and other hemp products. Suddenly, the accursed plant was in governmental