It is one of the first crops cultivated by humans, and was a staple crop for the American colonies. It requires less water than most crops, and no pesticides at all, to grow, and while growing it detoxifies soil and sequesters CO2. Its seeds are a superfood, yielding highly nutritious flour, bread, cereal, “milk”, oil and protein additives — as well as fuel, paint, ink and cosmetics. Its fast-growing stalk yields one of the strongest and most useful fibers known, used in superior paper, canvas, ropes, insulation, cardboard, clothing, shoes and plastic — plastic that is, by the way, biodegradable. This one plant can provide many of the products an industrial society needs, sustainably, while drastically reducing pollution, energy consumption, deforestation, fossil fuel use and providing income for millions of farmers (in places like West Virginia, where glum people sit around in fertile hollows mourning the death of coal).
So, of course, planting, harvesting, or even studying hemp is mostly illegal in the United States and has been for decades.
Ask anyone in American politics why this is so, and you get mumbles. “Mumble mumble mumble marijuana.” Yes, hemp is related to marijuana, but it is not marijuana, and you can smoke it until your black lungs fossilize and you will not get high from it. So why is it classified as a Schedule I drug by the federal government? “Mumble mumble mumble looks like marijuana.” And so it does, sort of (but not exactly). So does okra (guy in Georgia got raided by police intent on destroying the okra in his garden). So does the chaste tree, Texas Star (hibiscus), Japanese maple and spider flower. Yet you can plant any of those puppies without fear of going to prison. (If you plant a Schedule I drug you have committed a felony.)
I used to attribute this breathtaking stupidity on the part of the American government to, well, stupidity. Hemp, I thought, was collateral damage in the nuclear explosion of stupidity known as the War on Drugs (now in its 45th successful year….), whose regulators got so lathered up they could not tell one plant from another. Plus, years ago I learned that if a thing happens either because of conspiracy or stupidity, and you’re not sure which, always go with stupidity, and your batting average will be stellar. But there is a little more than simple dumbness at work here.
Both hemp and marijuana are cannabis plants. Hemp is cannabis sativa and marijuana is cannabis indica. So when regulators wanted to prevent people from getting high on cannabis indica, they criminalized cannabis, which included cannabis sativa, which made it illegal to use one of the most useful and sustainable crops the world has ever known.
Stupid mistake, but easy enough to fix: add one word to the prohibition, so as to ban indica and leave sativa alone. It’s kinda like filling all the blanks in an indictment so that instead of arresting everyone with the last name “Smith” for a murder, you make it more specific. Funny how in nearly a hundred years no one has got around to making that one word change.
Funny, until you count the number of existing industries that would be negatively impacted by a flourishing hemp industry; start with paper, textile, oil, pharma, plastic, food, and just keep going until you get tired. Then consider who benefits: the land, the environment, the climate, the farmers and the consumers, none of whom has a lobby in Washington. Bingo.
There is evidence now of some substantial changes in public attitude, accompanied by some glacial, begrudging changes in the law. The other day, a meme (put up on the Facebook page “End the Drug War” pointed out that we could replace all the persistent, oil-based plastic that are befouling our world and killing wild creatures at an appalling rate, with hemp-based plastics that biodegrade in 60 days. The meme went viral. Thanks to activists including actor Woody Harrelson, hemp and hemp products enjoy high public approval ratings.
Thus, in a few states now, one can get permits to grow small plots of hemp for research purposes. All you have to do is submit to approximately the same amount of red tape, inspections and bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo as it would take to start up a nuclear power plant. West Virginia, one of the states that considers hemp far too dangerous to unleash on its impoverished citizenry without careful supervision, just removed all restrictions on carrying a concealed firearm.
Maybe if we showed them how to make guns from hemp?