by Nathaniel Altman

Hemp (Cannabis sativa) is both highly controversial and widely misunderstood. Its negative aspects are emphasized while the benefits are largely ignored, especially by the mainstream media. As a natural product with a wide range of industrial and medical applications, it has been subject to a campaign of misinformation by big business and government who have a vested interest in its prohibition.

Q: What are the origins of hemp?

Native to Central Asia, hemp has been cultivated for over ten thousand years. The ancient Chinese called it "ma" and used it for making cordage, building materials, cloth and paper. High protein hemp seeds were used as food and in making hemp oil, which has been found to be richer in polyunsaturated fats than canola or soy. In India, hemp was believed to have been produced by the gods. The "Bhagavad Gita (IX:16) called it "the healing herb", and throughout the subcontinent it was a valuable medicine used to treat malaria, improve digestion, cure dysentery, increase mental power and heighten sexual potency. The Bible referred to hemp several times in the Old Testament. In Ezekiel 34:29, hemp (Kaneh) is called a "plant of reknown". Few remember that between the American Revolution and the Second World War, hemp was one of our country's most important agricultural crops. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp on their plantations and both encouraged its widespread cultivation. Benjamin Franklin started one of America's first paper mills with hemp, which allowed the colonies to have a free colonial press without having to import paper from England. The Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper. Because hemp fiber is ten times stronger than cotton, it was traditionally made into twine, canvas and clothing. The sails for the USS Constitution, and nearly every other old sailing ship, were made of durable hemp fabric.



Q: How is hemp used?

Hemp can be used to make an astounding 25,000 different products. In addition to well-known products like rope, twine, nets, canvas bags and carpets, the fiber from hemp stalks can be used to make textiles for apparel, diapers, sheets, towels, tents, drapes, knapsacks and shoes. The first Levi's jeans were made of hemp fibers which are longer, stronger, more lustrous, absorbent and mildew resistant than cotton. The fibers and hurds (a pulp byproduct after the hemp fiber is removed from the plant) can make newsprint, cardboard and stationery. Hemp fibers will also strengthen and allow paper to be recycled indefinitely.

In addition to salad oil, margarine and food supplements, hempseed oil has been used to make paint, varnish, ink, fuel, plastic resin, solvents and lubricating oils. It can also be used to make soap, shampoo, bath gels and cosmetics. Hempseed is the world's second richest plant source of protein and is cheaper to cultivate than even soybeans. Hemp protein can be added to flour and animal feed instead of more expensive crops like soy and corn.

Hemp hurds can be used to manufacture cellophane, plastic, building materials, insulation, fiberboard, cement blocks and mortar, and can even be made into a fiberglass substitute.

A hearty plant with few natural enemies, hemp requires no pesticides or fertilizers. Since it takes only 100 days to grow, several crops can be planted a year or after other crops are harvested. the leftover stalks make excellent mulch. A variety of hemp used for industrial purposes contains only minute amounts of the psychoactive chemical THC that is usually associated with hemp cultivation.


Q: Where is hemp produced today?

While hemp cultivation has been prohibited in the United States since 1938 (except during WWII when the government strongly encouraged farmers to grow hemp), it is widely cultivated legally for industrial use in China, the world's largest producer of non-wood paper. Over 10,000 tons of hemp were harvested in France last year, primarily to make building materials and insulation. Romania, Hungary, Russia, Spain and Poland all grow and make products from hemp.


Q: Does hemp have medicinal value?

Until the development of aspirin and barbiturates, cannabis was an important drug in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was used to treat rheumatism, ulcers, asthma, insomnia, migraine and other health problems. Although information of its therapeutic value is ignored by the mainstream media, a growing number of physicians have investigated the medicinal values of hemp. The excellent book, Marihuana: the Forbidden Medicine, by Lester Grinspoon, M.D. and James B. Bakalar, discusses many of their findings. After numerous lawsuits on behalf of cancer patients, 35 states now permit hemp to be consumed primarily to counteract the nausea produced by cancer chemotherapy and AIDS drugs. Help has also been found to help improve the appetite of people with AIDS and to treat symptoms of glaucoma, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, pruritus (severe itching), depression and other mood disorders.


Q: But isn't hemp a dangerous hallucinogen?

Hemp has long been valued as a euphoric, uplifting and mind-expanding herb. A campaign organized by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and supported by the alcohol, tobacco, petrochemical and paper industries during the 1930s led the public to believe that hemp as addictive and caused "violent crimes (and) psychological and emotional degeneration." Despite a number of scientific studies (including one undertaken in New York City by the LaGuardia administration which found no proof that major crime was associated with marihuana or that it caused aggressive or anti-social behavior) it was declared a dangerous drug by the Federal Government and outlawed in 1937.

While the abuse of mind-altering substances can be harmful, especially while driving or operating machinery, there have been no studies that have proven that smoking hemp is either dangerous or addictive. A major study in Jamaica between 1968 and 1975, sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health (Vera Rubin and Lambros Comitas, Ganja in Jamaica: A Medical Anthropological Study of Chronic Marihuana Use: Anchor Books, NY, 1975), reported even regular smoking of ganja was "without deleterious social or psychological consequences" and found "no impairment of physiological, sensory and perceptual-motor performance, tests of concept formation, abstracting ability and cognitive style and tests of memory." The study also debunked the theory that hemp smoking leads the user to hard drugs like cocaine and heroin, since the use of hard drugs among working class Jamaicans is virtually unknown.


Q: How can hemp cultivation save trees and support the environment?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 10,000 acres planted in hemp will yield as much paper as 40,000 acres planted in trees, and requires far less caustic chemicals in its manufacture than paper from wood pulp. Its potential use as an environmentally-friendly source of paper, including corrugated boxes, computer paper and stationery, as well as paperboard and particle board for furniture and housing construction, is enormous. Even if 1917 technology to process hemp into pulp were used today, hemp could replace about 70 percent of all wood pulp produced by paper mills.

Coal and petrochemicals originally received their energy from the sun millions of years ago and stored energy as the plants decayed. When burned, they release pollutants into the atmosphere. Biomass fuel, on the other hand, releases fewer pollutants and the fuel source spends the growing season removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. Hemp is the world's champion photosynthesizer converting solar energy into biomass more efficiently than almost any other plant. Hemp has at least four times the biomass/cellulose potential of corn or kneaf. It can also compete economically with petroleum-based fuels, without depleting the ozone layer. During World War II, Henry Ford even developed a car that could run on hemp-based fuel.


Q: Why is the government so against the cultivation of hemp?

The alcohol, tobacco and petrochemical interests, as well as large paper companies with interests in forest products, helped influence the government to ban the cultivation and use of hemp in the 1930s. Timid politicians, who prefer to maintain the status quo, are disinclined to legalize hemp for fear of being branded drug advocates. However, shifting economics have renewed interest in hemp cultivation and products. By 1994, over 200 different companies imported hemp, and that year the Governor of Kentucky appointed a task force to study the feasibility of tobacco farmers growing hemp. In January of this year, the Hemp Production Act was introduced in the Colorado state legislature.


Q: What is the future of hemp?

Hemp is one of the most economical crops one can grow. If not outlawed by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs in the 1930s, many of the nation's family farms would be profitably growing hemp today. Because it grows in many climates and in most types of soil, it is perfectly suited for regional economics. In contrast to importation, local production of hemp would be inexpensive, and lead to the growth of local businesses.


As the public learn more about the value of hemp, there will be a greater demand for hemp products. Seek out additional sources of information and share it with friends, relatives and public officials. Support the use of hemp textiles, clothing and paper.

To Find Out More


The Great Book of Hemp by Robert A. Nelson (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1995, 256pp.) $19.95;

Industrial Hemp (Ojai, CA: Hemptech, 1995, 48pp.) $4.95;

The Emperor Wears No Clothes by Jack Herer (HEMP/Queen of Clubs Publishing, 1985, 263pp.) $19.95;

Marihuana: The Forbidden Medicine by Lester Grinspoon, M.D. and James Bakalar (Yale University Press, 1993, 184pp.) $11.95 Mail Order Catalogs:

American Hemp Mercantile, Seattle WA (800-469-4367);

The Hempstead Company, Costa Mesa, CA (800-284-HEMP); The Ohio Hempery, Guysville, OH (900-BUY-HEMP). Retailers:

Heaven on Earth, Tannery Road, Woodstock, NY (914-679-4990);

The Hempstead Company, 2060 Placentia Avenue, Costa Mesa, CA (714-650-8325).


For a list of worldwide hemp resources, send a s.a.s.e. to:

Hemptech, Box 820, Ojai, CA 93024


(Reprint, Free Spirit Magazine, Fall 1996 edition)

Copyright © 1996. The Light Party.

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