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Industrial hemp isn't an evil weed

by Froma Harrop, writer for the Providence (R.I.) Journal

Hemp is a source of strong fibers and nutritious oils, say those who want to resume cultivation of the crop in the United States.  Hemp is the evil weed known as marijuana, say others who want the ban to stay in place.  As far as Canadian farmers are concerned, those two groups may go in a corner and fight it out.  Their government has just lifted the prohibition, and they are now sowing their first crop of Cannibus sativa in 60 years.  That they won't face competition from American farmers pleases them no little.

What exactly is hemp?  Well, hemp is an herb native to Asia.  It was a staple crop of Colonial settlers.  George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp.  Hemp paper was used in early drafts of the Declaration of Independence, and hemp ropes kept generations of American ships sailing the Seven Seas.  Up until the 1980s, the city of Newport, R.I., was still using Colonial-era water pipes made of wood wrapped in hemp.  The hemp looked pretty good after 200 years.

Hemp's strength and versatility are appreciated today.  It goes into paper, auto parts, textiles, oils.  Hemp is also environmentally friendly.  The plant requires very little in the way of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers.  A carpet maker in Georgia plans to market a hemp carpet that could eventually be turned into compost.

Canadian farmers are planting an industrial type of hemp, not the kind that hippies smoke.  Nevertheless, anti-marijuana groups fear that permitting any hemp production would open the door for legalization of pot.   Their concerns are not unfounded.  The industrial hemp plant looks an awful lot like its smokable cousin, according to the office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington.  Who would ever find the euphoric versions of the herb tucked into the acres of waving industrial hemp?

The Canadian government insists it is keeping close tabs on the production of hemp.  Farmers growing it must be licensed, and they may not produce plants that have more than 0.3 percent of the psychoactive ingredient.   And the Canadians will send around inspectors to ensure that farmers are growing hemp intended for rope, not dope.  We will see.

Pro-pot activists are euphoric over the return of industrial hemp.  They see its potential for opening the door to marijuana legalization.  It also affords new opportunities for their cult-like worship of the weed.  The magazine Hemp Times, for example, carries ads for a hemp-material backpack, marketed by a company in Costa Mesa, Calif.  And there's the Jefferson Shirt, made of guess what, and sold by the Coalition for Hemp Awareness, in Chandler Heights, Ariz.  Were all these products rolled up into a giant joint, they wouldn't produce much of a high.

Hemp's raffish reputation has made it a bit fashionable elsewhere.  The Galaxy restaurant, in Manhattan, offers waffles flecked with hemp seeds and mesclun with a vinaigrette of hemp seed oil.  Hemp, by the way, is said to taste like a cross between hazelnut and walnut.

American farmers feel left out.  North Dakota's legislature last year voted to have the state university study the potential of industrial hemp as a crop.  "Although lots of jokes persist, I am serious about" the bill, said Republican Representative David Monson.  "This is as American as baseball and apple pie."  (Did he know that the Galaxy restaurant has apple pie with hemp-flour crust on its menu?)  The University of Vermont asked Vermont farmers whether they would like to grow hemp.  They would.

Agricultural groups have put distance between themselves and the weed smokers.  But would it be a bad thing if the legitimization of hemp led to fewer sanctions against pot?  Not in my opinion.  Marijuana has been smoked, albeit illicitly, for a long time.  It does not appear to be physically addictive.  Researchers have yet to produce convincing evidence that marijuana serves as a gateway to more serious drug use.  Domesticating pot production would certainly eliminate a bloody smuggling trade that plagues our Southern border.

The "Reefer Madness" movement, which froze hemp farming in 1936, deserves an exhibition case at the Smithsonian with no hope for parole.  Perhaps the time has come to become grown up about hemp and resume cultivation of this unnecessarily vilified herb.

The Des Moines Register
Thursday, May 7, 1998, Page 13A

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This page last updated on 16 April 1999.