Louisville Courier-Journal/AP

Hemp: Long demonized, it’s poised for a comeback

Powerful economic interests more than moral questions were behind the US’s outlawing of industrial hemp

Kentucky won a lawsuit on Friday against the federal government for the right to plant a shipment of hemp seeds that had been impounded. The case underscores what appears to be a comeback for the controversial plant, which, despite having much lower THC levels than marijuana, has been classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency as a Schedule I drug on par with heroin. 

Federal legislation outlawed hemp as part of a war on marijuana in 1937. But this year's Farm Bill, passed on Feb. 4, contains a provision that allows colleges and state agencies to grow and conduct research on the plant in states that allow it.

Growing hemp under these circumstances is now legal in Kentucky, along with 15 other states that have removed barriers to hemp production.

Though industrial hemp and marijuana come from the same plant, Cannabis sativa, hemp seeds are bred to produce plants with 0.3 to 1.5 percent THC, whereas marijuana has 5 to 15 percent. THC, the ingredient in marijuana that gets people high, is far too low in hemp to have the same effect.

Hemp proponents said the plant can be an environementally friendly source of paper, textiles, oils and biodegradeable plastics.

Long before Kentucky’s spat with the DEA to release its shipment of hemp seeds, the state led the U.S. in hemp production — with a mid–19th century peak of 40,000 tons per year.

In fact, before the U.S. was even a country, its first big cash crop was hemp. Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper.

Hemp was briefly freed for use during World War II — growing the plant was  considered a patriotic duty as part of the government’s Hemp for Victory campaign — when foreign sources of textiles, ropes and fibers came under enemy occupation and the U.S. needed to grow its own. A hemp-rigged parachute saved George H.W. Bush’s life while he served in the armed forces. But when war subsided in Europe, the U.S. found new sources, and hemp was phased out.

The plant’s disenfranchisement began in the early 20th century, when powerful petrochemical and pulp-paper industries realized they stood to lose billions if hemp’s potential was fully realized.  

The main orchestrators of the anti-hemp movement were newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst and Lammont Du Pont, the head of the multinational petrochemical conglomerate, according to author Jack Herer — who wrote the seminal marijuana text “The Emperor Wears No Clothes.”

Du Pont began persistently lobbying the U.S. Treasury Department from 1935 to 1937 to enact federal legislation that would stymie hemp’s increasing production.

Andrew Mellon, Du Pont’s banker and then–secretary of the Treasury, “piled on the pressure for federal legislation. He too had vested interests in seeing hemp suppressed, since he was a major shareholder in Gulf Oil and a huge mining concern in Pennsylvania, not to mention a number of utility companies,” historian Martin Booth wrote in Cannabis. 

Harry J. Anslinger, Mellon’s nephew-in-law who was formerly with the Bureau of Prohibition, became the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930 — and soon began a feverish crusade against hemp and marijuana, failing to distinguish between the two.

Anslinger spread alarm over the plant, linking it to crime and bouts of insanity without providing unbiased scientific investigation to support his claims, according to Herer.

Largely because of Anslinger’s efforts, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937 into law. It became the first federal law regulating marijuana and hemp.

Flash-forward to 1985 — when “The Emperor Wears No Clothes” was published — setting in motion “a re-evaluation of hemp as an industrial commodity in America,” according to Booth.

“Jack Herer claims that hemp could save the world. This is somewhat optimistic, and yet it has been assessed that if hemp were to be used as the only source of natural fiber or pulp, the deforestation of the planet would largely be halted and reliance on hydrocarbons created by the international petrochemical industry to make modern plastics and other materials would at least be halved,” Booth wrote. 

Ecologically minded businessmen began to import hemp products from overseas and research into the plant’s potential began.

By 1996 — the year actor Woody Harrelson protested the criminalization of growing hemp by planting four hemp seeds on his land in Kentucky, later showing up to his trial in hemp clothing — there were over 300 U.S. companies importing hemp to produce a range of products, including luggage, clothing, oils, cosmetics, soap, textiles, skate- and surfboards, ropes and more.

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