Hemp for Victory!

by Patrick Reagan

This past week, hemp advocates and aficionados nationwide engaged in educational and awareness building exercises during their annual “Hemp History Week”. The aim was to enlighten the public’s perception of hemp by demonstrating its versatility in several facets of everyday life and drawing attention to its pivotal role in American agriculture up until the mid-20th century. Before hemp can be understood in its contemporary context, a stroll down memory lane may refresh the reader on this critical crop.

While the history of hemp and humans goes all the way back to the Neolithic Revolution ~10-12,000 years ago, for brevity’s sake, the focus of this reminiscence will remain on hemp’s history in the New World. Hemp helped propel European explorers to America’s shores by providing tough and durable sails and rope for riggings on long, trans-Atlantic voyages. The climate proved suitable, and in 1564, King Philip II of Spain proclaimed that hemp be cultivated in his New World possessions, ranging from the tip of Tierra del Fuego to the Willamette Valley.

Hemp was instrumental in securing the continuity of the English colonies. With the memory of numerous colonial failures fresh in mind, particularly the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke Island, colonists in Virginia became the first to make the planting of hemp mandatory in 1619; not only could hemp fibers be used to sew cloth but the seeds could be consumed for a much needed source of protein, carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, and minerals including calcium and iron. As Virginia flourished, other colonies took notice and began implementing their own hemp mandates, and, collectively, the colonies continued to thrive with hemp providing a safety net to fall upon during inclement seasons.

The Founding Fathers of the United States of America saw good promise in hemp and some even farmed it themselves. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both grew hemp, and Benjamin Franklin owned one of America’s first paper mills that produced durable and long-lasting hemp paper that was to play a crucial role in the founding of a new nation. Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper, and other Founding documents written on hemp include Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense”, the Articles of Confederation, the Federalist (and Anti-Federalist) Papers, and the United States Constitution.

Hemp’s prominence waned in the 19th century. The invention of steam turbines and diesel engines along with the widespread favor for Manila rope fiber eliminated hemp from the high seas. Advances in agricultural technologies, techniques, and crop variants practically eliminated concerns of climate-driven crop failures or Malthusian catastrophes. As average incomes increased and America’s middle class grew, so too rose the demand for clothing of finer quality fiber. By the 20th century, hemp’s use in everyday life was in steady decline and preserved only by the most steadfast of farmers who continued to see it as insurance during hard times.

Hemp in America met its demise in the “zero tolerance, one-size-fits-all” Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. This act was a blanket ban on the cannabis plant, presumably because its psychotropic attribute, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), was becoming responsible for a tremendous wave of violence sweeping across the country. Hemp was lumped into this Act because it contains trace amounts of THC. However, if one were not to become entangled by yellow journalism and instead ask “Cui bono?”, one need look no further than media mogul William Randolph Hearst and the DuPont Company. Hearst, like any good crony capitalist of America’s Gilded Age, profited from the government’s ban on cannabis because of his considerable interests in the timber industry that fueled his paper mills and printing presses. The hemp ban also helped DuPont, which had patented nylon two years prior as a replacement for Asian silk and hemp products. The biggest beneficiary of all, however, was the US government, as it enjoyed expanded powers of regulation and taxation that would eventually lead to the infamous “War on Drugs”.

Hemp enjoyed a brief comeback during World War II. Strict war rationing diverted many essential materials to the war effort; shortages became the natural result of this central planning. Hemp was officially enlisted by the US government in 1942 following the release of Hemp for Victory, in which farmers were educated on hemp’s multitudinous uses and encouraged to grow it en masse. Despite its service during a time of national need, hemp, like many American veterans, was cast aside and again put under ban in 1955. The likely beneficiary this time was the burgeoning petrochemical industry, led by none other than DuPont.

Hemp, a crop that has, without question, benefited the US and seen it through thick and thin, has not graced America’s fertile soils for over half a century. In that time, America ceded its dominance in hemp cultivation to the Soviet Union, which produced the most hemp from 1950-1980. It was not until the 1990’s that some industrialized countries began to loosen restrictions and allow the cultivation of hemp again, including Australia, Germany, France, Italy, Great Britain, and Canada. Today, America stands as the only industrialized country that does not allow the cultivation of hemp; by contrast, North Korea, arguably one of the most sheltered, underdeveloped, and authoritarian regimes on the planet, allows the cultivation of hemp.

Hemp has also suffered from neglect in the cannabis re-legalization movement. Despite it being, by far, the easiest sell to the American public due to its non-intoxicity, it has fallen to the wayside in favor of medical cannabis and decriminalization measures. Since hemp’s inclusion in the definition of “marijuana” in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, thirteen states have decriminalized simple cannabis possession and fourteen have allowed medical cannabis for seriously/terminally ill patients; only five states (North Dakota, Montana, West Virginia, Vermont, and Oregon) have removed laws banning hemp cultivation provided a license is granted to the farmer by the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The number of licenses issued by the DEA as of this writing: zero.

What is hemp’s hope for a brighter future in the sun? Legislation currently introduced in Congress (House Resolution 1866: Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2009) by Representative Ron Paul (R-Texas) has sat idle and is unlikely to see any action before the end of the 111th Congressional term. The States, on the other hand, can reclaim their sovereign right to an intrastate hemp economy any time they like. Hemp’s salvation, barring Federal clemency, is in the 10th Amendment to the US Constitution, and a State’s willingness to interpose on behalf of its farmers. A glimmer of hope comes in the form of California’s upcoming re-legalization initiative set for a vote this November. If passed, theoretically, any Californian would be allowed to grow as much cannabis as they like in a twenty-five square foot area. While this may not come even close to the amount of space needed to produce hemp on an industrial level, two interesting avenues could be pursued. The first is hemp cooperatives, and the second is vertical farming. The former would construct symbiotic relationships between neighbors into “cannabis collectives” and the latter would develop a new agricultural technique where the sky is literally the limit.

America is currently in one of the worst economic and political crises it has ever faced, but what punctuates it more than those it has weathered in the past is that there is no contingency. In previous seasons of uncertainty and inclemency, America could always fall back on a sturdy, durable, reliable hemp safety net; this net has not existed for fifty-five years.

Today, more than ever, there exists a need to drastically rethink hemp and the opportunities and security it can provide for struggling Americans. In so many ways, America must go back and observe the wisdom of the Founding Fathers and what they did to set a fledgling nation onto the path of prosperity. The most prescient advice George Washington gave (besides avoiding the pitfalls of political parties. Oops!) was, “Make use of the Indian hemp seed, and sow it everywhere!” This is advice America has taken to the bank before, and can take to the bank again. Hemp for Victory in the 21st century!

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