Saturday, August 23, 2008

Hemp: Waiting for a Comeback

This is an essay I wrote about hemp. It explains the benefits of hemp and its potential for a comeback.

Hemp: Waiting for a Comeback


Since 1937, it has been a felony to grow, or manufacture any type of hemp product, because of a flawed association with another type of cannabis plant, the type commonly known as marijuana. This stigma has substantially compromised the growth of a potentially important industry and market. While hemp is classified as marijuana by the US government, the strain(s) of cannabis grown for industrial purposes are very different plants for very different purposes. They are specialized plants; and though thousands of years of selective breeding, industrial hemp can arguably fall into it’s own category. This makes sure a hemp field could never be confused/used with/like a field of marijuana, and vise versa. The myth of connotation must be broken to show that hemp has no association with marijuana besides a long ago common ancestor; and it is rather an agricultural crop that can provide an alternative to several materials, with significant benefits for improved performance and environmental sustainability.

Hemp is a natural fiber, much like cotton or flax, that has been used for thousands of years for a variety of applications. Until the industrial revolution, Hemp served as a primary raw material, in the production of paper, textiles, oil, and nutrition, among others. During the industrial revolution many less expensive and easier to use materials evolved from finite fossil fuels, without regard to the environmental impact that these alternatives might have. We now face an “Inconvenient Truth,” documented in a recent film by former Vice President, Al Gore: fossil fuels have caused increasing and irreversible damage to our environment and our future economic well being.

While politics continues to suppress the facts regarding hemp’s potential, the recent midterm elections, along with a growing global market, may signal a change. Hemp has come surprisingly close to becoming regulated, and with a change in political “climate”, hemp may be in a position to grow, considering the literal change in climate.

Hemp’s Potential

Hemp’s versatility and sustainable characteristics distinguishes it from other competing materials, such as cotton, tree pulp, soy, bamboo, fiberglass, and even petroleum. If hemp can overcome the massive political/policy barrier, literally thousands of new and beneficial applications are possible. For example, by comparison to cotton, hemp uses far fewer pesticides, requires less care and water, and provides more fiber per acre. Although there is a public preference for cotton, which is currently softer and cheaper, advances in hemp processing may mitigate this gap if production were permitted. In addition, hemp is one of the most efficient biomass producers in the world, able to compete with the likes of corn and sugarcane (for both alcohol and biodiesel fuels). “If corn works, why grow hemp”, is the mentality that has dominated the past century, and “corn” has been used in every industry, where hemp could easily have been a viable alternative.

Shortly after the 1937 restriction on hemp production, the hemp industry was poised for a comeback. A 1938 Popular Mechanics article titled, “New Billion Dollar Crop” begins with an alluring introduction:

American farmers are promised a new cash crop with an annual value of several hundred million dollars, all because a machine has been invented which solves a problem more than 6,000 years old. It is hemp, a crop that will not compete with other American Products. Instead, it will displace imports…

(Popular Mechanics)

This “promise” was never fulfilled, thanks to another new development that DuPont was making at the time. In 1937, Nylon was patented, which was stronger, cheaper, and lighter than hemp fiber; derived from fossil fuels and not biodegradable. DuPont already had all the paper processing chemical patents, which has turned the majority of our valuable forests into newspapers and landfills of garbage. Many people believe that DuPont was involved with oil baron, Andrew Mellon, and newspaper barron, William Randolph Hearst, in a “Cannabis Conspiracy” to eliminate hemp as competition. While this theory has substantial evidence, it has little relevance to the current hemp market. What is undeniable is that as early as 1937, “there were over 25,000 different uses for hemp, “…from cellophane to dynamite” (Popular Mechanics).

Two Types of Plants, Neither Marijuana

Industrial cannabis is grown for two main purposes: it's seed (for

nutrition and oil), and it's stalk (two parts of the stalk, the fiber and the core of cellulose). Hempseed is very nutritional, containing high levels of protein, fiber,

and the Essential Fatty Acids Omega-3 and Omega-6, both

difficult to obtain, and commonly sold through supplements such as fish and flax

oil. The seed can be eaten like sunflower seeds, ground to flour, or processed to protein powder. The oil, apart from all of its nutritional uses, can also be used for cosmetic products as well as being used industrially for solvents, soaps,

paints, lubricants, and biodiesel. A major seed source in Canada has said, "…we saw

an 80 percent jump last year without the court victory," demonstrating that where

hemp is allowed to grow (nowhere is it free of controversy), it most certainly can.

The stalk, a source of raw fiber and cellulose, has even more uses. The fiber can be refined to make thousands of types of textiles, from durable and course industrial fabrics to fine linens that can be blended with silk (Popular Mechanics). “In 1916, the Department of Agriculture issued Bulletin No. 404, Hemp Hurds as a paper making Material, a collection of individually authored scientific articles” (Lupien). Both hemp fiber and hemp hurds (the core) can be made into paper, producing up to four times more paper per acre than trees. The stalk is used for biomass fuel, and new discoveries are being found in biocomposites to make lighter, stronger, cheaper, and safer materials than ever before. These are replacing fiberglass, and Germany (Mercedes as a good example) has been using hemp to make biocomposite hemp car parts since 1997 (Votehemp).

The Current Market

The hemp market has grown substantially in other parts of the world, where it is legal.

China currently produces approx 40% of the world’s hemp, using it's hemp for

textiles and paper. Canada has been growing hemp for seed. These headlines in the Canadian publication, Organic Consumers, in 2005 highlight the opportunity:

  • Hemp Food Sales Grow 50% Over Last Year”
  • “Canadian Farmers Triple Hemp Acreage to 24,000 in 2005”
  • US Farmers Missing Out on New Cash Crop”

It is estimated that the world hemp market is at an annual $50-$150 million, but estimates increase every year. For example:

An Australian firm, Wavelite Express, uses hemp as a substitute for fiberglass in surfboards. Adidas has experimented with hemp shoes. German and British companies make hemp candy, beer and energy bars. Even hemp-seed oil is used for lubrication, cooking and cosmetics. In five years, says hemp advocate Michael Rich, the industry could be worth $1 billion. (Gluckman).

Hemp has actually seen some ups and downs recently, "China's annual hemp production

topped 100,000 tons in 1980, but fell to less than one-tenth that over the following

10 years", a decade later, "Trade has grown at least ten-fold since 1990, and advocates believe the market has barely been tapped" (Gluckman). Yet, despite versatility and potential that the hemp industry has, America has left the resource entirely

untapped. This has kept hemp in a marginal market; High prices due to import costs and relatively small volume. Policies are changing around the world, and the U.S. is lagging behind.

Environmental Approach

Increasing the awareness of hemp’s benefits could play an important role in it’s reemergence as a sustainable alternative to fossil fuel-based materials. For example, hemp can:

  • Convert CO2 into oxygen at an astonishing rate, given that hemp can grow over 4 meters in a 110 day growing cycle.
  • Make biodegradable plastics and composites
  • Make paper products without bleach and other chemicals
  • Use less pesticides than used for cotton.

A firm that used hemp in its products could use ‘earth friendliness’ in it's brand image, becoming a common marketing theme such as used with hybrid cars. In addition, experts say that hemp can help reverse global warming, while giving us time to replant forests and find more effective alternatives.

Who’s Influencing the Sandtimer?

The principal obstacle to hemp’s reemergence as an alternative material and fuel is Public Policy. Given the environmental harm caused by fossil fuels and the benefits of hemp as an alternative, it’s a matter of ‘when,’ not ‘if.’ Once the barrier is broken, hemp will increase at nearly exponential rates, as R&D and mass production creates higher quality products at lower cost and thousands of jobs to American farmers, processors, distributors and retailers.

Currently, the largest hemp organization is, which recognizes the problem of ignorance, which is why it states, “…our primary goal is the education of legislators and regulators, farmers, businesses, students and other concerned citizens.” (votehemp) Votehemp currently helps get hemp into the news, along with having a database of information, ranging from general information about hemp to the different bills and statutes that are being passed through legislation. “To date, twenty-six states have introduced hemp legislation and fifteen have passed legislation “…We have now reached a major milestone…” (

Votehemp’s position clearly distinguishes industrial hemp production from any implied support of marijuana, and carefully keeps the word, and any connotation, of marijuana off of the site. Their position is markedly conservative. The title page is patriotic: an American flag is layered as a sky backdrop for the capitol building, pictures of famous US presidents, and cold facts and quotes scrolling through. ““Make the most you can of the Indian Hemp seed and sow it everywhere” -- President George Washington, 1794” ( This quote is intriguing, and as it once did for me, it (along with the other facts) beckons the viewer to keep reading.

But, few people recognize the importance of the issue. While Votehemp addresses the messy problem of politics, it fails to reach out to a wide demographic of people; to penetrate into mainstream.

Penetrate Pop Culture

Hemp, like the unrenewable resource, oil, has found itself in the seemingly helpless tangle of politics. A number of events indicate that a more supportive political environment seems to be developing:

  • Colbert’s live report at the Presidential Correspondents Dinner
  • An Inconvenient Truth
  • News like the change of The House and Senate

An Inconvenient Truth is a specific example. The movie provides an enormous body of facts for considering change and argues for the need to take action. Gore hints at how, while there is a common argument that any change could be perilous for our economy, we (US) aren’t the biggest fish in the sea, and that we might suffer more if we are left behind. The movie was very insightful, and it made me think of the potential that the educational genre of entertainment really has.

In light of education, hemp could carve an interesting niche, whether through documentaries or an investigative reports on the Cannabis plant. The “slippery slope” argument, too often cited, “reform in hemp will lead to reform in marijuana”, shows that the argument is neither valid nor sound. They are not only different plants for different purposes; they are entirely different issues, although their acceptance is ironically parallel, in the U.S. alone. Hemp has carried a bad stigma for too long, and if the myth can be debunked; hemp can be discussed as a very viable source for a better future, and more than just another raw material, but a better raw material.

Hemp is certainly not the only option available to reverse the deleterious effects of fossil fuels. There are many alternative energy sources to consider including bio-mass, wind, solar and hydroelectric power. But, we need all the alternatives that are possible. Americans want the truth and, with hemp, the truth is ironically convenient. It would not only provide a plethora of alternatives to currently harmful methods of petroleum-based production and use, but it could be instrumental in reversing the problem: turn slash and burn back into farmland and convert CO2 into oxygen every season. It is good for the environment and good for the economy.

A Plan for Action: From the Ground Up

With many possible options at hand, four factors seem relevant to consider at this time:

1. Efficiency. Hemp is one of the most efficient plants, given its incredible grow rates, negligible care, water, and pesticide use (a possible reason it is has been stigmatized as “Weed”). “Hemp is the most environmentally positive crop, improving soil quality as it grows” (ecolution).

2. Flexibility. Although there are thousands of uses, some stand out more than others. While hemp is a great crop for biomass fuel, corn is already being used, and hydrogen seems to be on the way. However, things like biocomposites, which can create biodegradable plastic(s) to fiberglass, have less competition.

3. Urgency. The urgency that the environmental issue carries can carry hemp with it, and this takes on a holistic approach. There is a growing demographic of consumers who are driving hybrids (but not mixed fuel), eating organically (but not any hemp products), recycling (petroleum and paper pulp), the list goes on.

4. Accuracy. Hemp has been maligned through its association with marijuana. The government’s excuse, “people will try to hide marijuana in the fields” is ridiculous because of cross-pollination (essentially turning marijuana into hemp), and by the time it matters, in all seriousness, it may not even be an issue (thanks to hemp suppression, medical marijuana is making more news for cannabis, as well as more money for R&D).

One approach may seem idealistic, but could have tremendous potential: government support. Although this seems optimistic at the present time, there is precedent: when hemp was legal in the early 1900’s research was already being done.

A Federal study, “Paper from Refuse Hemp Stalks,” reported favorably on the prospects of utilizing hemp. Two years later, another study, “Hemp Waste for Paper,” reiterated the conclusion for the previous study….[many articles were written on making hemp from paper]…In fact, some of the earliest articles on this topic bore titles such as Paper from Refuse Hemp Stalks, and Hemp Waste for Paper:

“In addition to the waste materials that are available, evidence has

been gathered that certain crops can probably be grown at a profit to both the grower and the manufacturer solely for paper-making purposes. One for the most promising of this is hemp.” (Brand) (Lupien 25-31)

Many of the articles were published in the Government funded, Bulletin No. 404. New research might start where this research left off. And, today, we have far better technology and resources to leverage than a century ago.

We do not need government funding. Simply permission. The private sector is waiting. Farmers will support the use of hemp in their crop rotations to sell to the new generation of customers, and perhaps public land can also be used. Areas that risk mudslides need hemp, and the void that slash and burn created needs it too, while forests for lumber and paper will be designated either untouchable forests or renewable hemp fields. Forests can be renewed, oxygen will be put back in the atmosphere, and paper products will be more effectively recycled, as hemp fiber can recycle more times than tree pulp.

As more research is done, we may find more uses and more applications for this raw, renewable resource, such as a cheap and effective way to phase out petrol based plastics. We can use hemp in recycled paper, until tree pulp is pushed to the margin. And, potentially, government regulations may curb the growth of bleach and deforestation. In addition, government subsidies and tax benefits can help major paper plants adapt their machinery to work for hemp, as well as create new hemp production facilities.


While these efforts may seem optimistic at the present time, I predict a paradigm shift in my own lifetime, one that will reverse the greenhouse, find an alternative to oil, and will have technology that dramatically improves production methods. Hemp has been a vital agricultural product throughout human history until about 150 years ago, and in that same century and a half, we have practically destroyed the planet, we’re depleting our natural resources; politics has gone far enough to imprison more than ever and continue to capitalize on globalization. We have created great economic wealth at the expense of environmental depletion and debt. Hemp represents a holistic paradigm shift; one that will effect far more than just the material used to make paper. The shift will occur regardless, due to globalization and the “inconvenient truth.” The question is whether America will be participating. Hemp will certainly have a role to play; and the US cannot afford to disregard this. We must act now; plant our seeds and establish our roots, so that when the sun comes out, we will be ready for harvest.

Popular Mechanics:

Lupien, John Craig (April, 1995). Unraveling an American Dilemma: The Demonization of Marihauana. Masters Thesis: Pepperdine University.

C. J. Brand, “Utilization of Crop Plants in Paper Making,” Yearbook of the United States Department of Agriculture, 1910, p.338

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