Sunday, April 6, 2014

Is it Time for Hemp?

Is it Time for Hemp?

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has suggested that the United States assist the Ukraine by purchasing hemp seeds, but wouldn’t letting American farmers grow their own be a better idea?

Go to any supermarket and read the labels carefully: a surprising number of foods contain hemp seeds or hemp oil – even hemp milk for that bowl of cereal.  In the drug store look for cosmetics, shampoos, and soaps containing hemp-seed oil.  Entire shops sell only hemp clothing.  A few years ago, a car fueled only by hemp-seed oil circumnavigated the United States.  But none of that hemp was grown by American farmers.  It was all imported from Canada, Europe (including the Ukraine), and China.

Why don’t American farmers grow this versatile crop?  It’s because Congress has made it illegal, treating it like a dangerous drug, and growing it could land the farmer in federal prison for a long stretch of years.  In 1937 Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act, which included all parts of the plant Cannabis Sativa in its definition of marihuana; but in response to the complaints of fine-art paint manufacturers who used hemp seed oil instead of linseed and bird seed manufacturers complaining that caged canaries would not sing without hemp seed in their diet(the fore-runners of today’s rock musicians?), congress allowed their importation of sterilized hempseeds.  That exemption, which also included allowance of the importation of processed hemp products, was continued in the current law, the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.  The result is that American canaries can eat hemp bird seed, American food processors can include hemp in their products, American clothiers can sell hemp garments, and American cars can run on hemp fuel.  Only the American farmer is barred from participating in that market.

Are hemp and marijuana the same thing?   As the federal government recognized, both hemp and marijuana are variants of the same species, Cannabis sativa, (marijuana also includes C. indicia, but that plant is rarely used for food or fiber) just like Saint Bernards and Chihuahuas are both members of the same species, Canis lupus familiaris .  The difference between hemp and marijuana is primarily the content of THC, the primary psychoactive chemical in marijuana.  Hemp contains less than 0.5% THC, while marijuana has anywhere from 6 to over 20 per cent.  The old saying is that one would have to smoke a joint as big as a telephone pole in less than fifteen minutes to get high from hemp.  I have found no record in over three thousand years of history of anyone getting high from consuming hemp.

The government’s insistence on conflating hemp and marijuana is based on the claim that law enforcement officers will not be able to distinguish a hemp field from a marijuana patch and their efforts would be hampered.  The problem with that argument is that the two plants require totally different cultivation methods, making their growths highly distinctive from as far away as they can be seen.  Hemp is planted as close together as possible, forcing them to grow high with little or no branching, to produce the longest fibers possible.  Marijuana plants are widely spaced and pruned relatively low to encourage branching for maximum flower production.  The collateral fear expressed is that a marijuana patch would be hidden by placing it in the center of a field, surrounded by the taller, more thickly planted hemp stalks.  However, marijuana grown that way would be useless.  The plants would be pollinated by the hemp, producing seeds and lowering the THC content to a uselessly low level.  Over two hundred years ago, the great biologist Carl Linnaeus recognized that hemp and marijuana (then called “Indian Hemp”) were the same species and observed that the cultivation methods prevented hemp from being psychoactive.  The police can quickly learn to tell the two varieties apart, just as they have no problem preventing millions of gallons of ethanol from being diverted to bootleggers.

Hemp has a long and central, if largely unsung role in American history.  British law required most farmers in the American colonies to grow hemp to supply the royal navy; George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were hemp farmers.  The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were circulated on hemp paper, and all U. S. currency was printed on hemp from the Civil War into the 1930s.  The U.S.S. Constitution, “Old Ironsides”, was rigged with miles of hemp rope and acres of hemp sails, as were all the China clippers, New England whalers, and almost all other sailing ships.  Even during World War II, the federal government exempted hemp growers from the drug laws to ensure the navy would have the ropes it needed for that war.

Secretary Vilsack should not only buy sterilized hemp seed from the Ukraine, he should fight to change the law so that he could buy fertile seeds as well.  The law should be changed so that American farmers can regain their place as leaders in the production of this versatile crop.