A little choppy this week, I thought, but there was too much interesting material about hemp history and production so I just kitchen-sinked the thing -- plus, I managed to sneak the word "oeuvre" past my editor.
So, why aren't we growing hemp again?
Reefer madness continues in the 2009 Assembly
Now that the state budget is put to bed, tossing and turning and trying to figure out whether it’s a dream or a nightmare, other bills are smoldering in the capital. One bill in particular caught my attention while I was churning through the history of Wisconsin agriculture for a class I’m teaching this fall. Assembly Bill 206 creates a committee to study the uses of industrial hemp. (An apology to hopeful students: the course will include bioregional capitalism but will not be hemp specific.)
Hemp, it turns out, is an old and profitable Wisconsin industry. Wisconsin led the nation in industrial hemp production into the 1950s with mills across the state, including Beaver Dam, Hartford and Juneau. Nationally, hemp was always an important crop: George Washington grew hemp, early drafts of the Declaration of Independence were printed on paper made from hemp, the first U.S. flag was sewn from hemp, the first pair of Levi’s was made from hemp fiber and Henry Ford intended his Model-T to run on ethanol which, until the 1930s, had hemp as a major feedstock. (Thanks to Fortenbery and Bennett’s Agricultural & Applied Economics Staff paper for the details).
Seriously: Betsy Ross, Henry Ford, and Levis? What’s not to love?
Love is fickle. Americans have always had a love-hate relationship with drugs and alcohol. One of our earliest, and most American, tax insurrections was the Whiskey Rebellion and yet, in 1919, we also passed the 18th Amendment.
Prohibition, however, was a straight jacket we quickly learned to unbuckle, often with the assistance of a mysterious woman named Mary Jane, a favorite companion, we’re told, of all those 1930s jazz musicians. The Marihuana Tax Act, passed in 1937, placed all cannabis under control of the U.S. Treasury Department and hemp, an innocent bystander, got caught in the same dragnet of purity designed to arrest marijuana, its naughtier sister.
Today, the ban on hemp is easier to understand as part of a reflexive, irrational, post-Prohibition fear of marijuana use. A delightfully weird artifact of this national freak-out is, of course, the movie “Reefer Madness.” Released a year before passage of the Marihuana Tax Act, it remains, along with the cinematic oeuvre of Ed Woods, one of the great cult movies of the pre-Rocky Horror Show era.
The problem, of course, is that hemp contains tiny levels of THC, marijuana's active ingredient. Hemp usually rolls in with THC levels around 0.3 percent while medical marijuana, the kind with enough kick to produce an effect, starts at 1 percent and runs all the way to 20 percent. In a nutshell even though you’d have to smoke a field of hemp to get high, the plants are legally identical.
Hemp industry advocates typically employ an analogy to illustrate how stupid the law is. They note that, in order to protect us from the dangers of rabid St. Bernards the government has banned Chihuahuas since, after all, they’re both dogs. Marijuana is the St. Bernard and hemp is the Chihuahua.
So, you can’t really get high from the stuff plus there are some important industrial advantages over other crops. Hemp can be grown for food, fuel, and fiber – its seeds are rich in protein and amino acids, but also produce an oil that can be converted into biodiesel.
Hemp has roughly four times the biomass potential of corn. Corn, we should remember, is subsidized for the corn-based ethanol industry (to the tune of $7 billion in 2006) and consumes more energy from fossil fuels than it yields. Moreover, with a nod to your 501s, hemp produces more fiber and uses half the irrigation water and nitrogen fertilizer that cotton does. Car manufacturers are even using it to strengthen and lighten new plastics.
The economics of large scale cultivation remain largely untested but Canadian hemp production, begun as an experiment in 2001, grew from 3,200 acres to 48,000 acres by 2006. A 1997 U.S. Department of Agriculture report suggested that Wisconsin could field as many as a million acres of hemp for paper production.
This same bill has died in committee in previous years but there is no good reason not to look into this potential resource more carefully. America is the world’s only industrialized nation to prohibit growing industrial hemp, even though the World Trade Organization and the NAFTA and GATT trade agreements all recognize industrial hemp as a legitimate crop.
In Wisconsin, we have AB 206. In Washington, Rep. Ron Paul introduced the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2009 to amend the Controlled Substances Act and exclude hemp from the definition of marijuana. That could start the ball rolling nationally.
There are still plenty of questions, but until we start looking into them, we can’t know what the answers, and opportunities, might be.
Bad puns left out of the newspaper version: jokes about a hemp bill smoldering in Madison, rolling up a doobie and rolling up one's sleeves, and a kind of wicked shot at a Wisconsin politician -- a Republican -- who introduced a medical marijuana law a few years ago, after opposing the very idea, because one of his relatives got cancer and 'needed' it.
And so on. Most of you probably wrote your own as you passed bye the obvious rimshots.