Imagine if scientists discovered a new plant, a plant they say has the potential to both save money and conserve the environment. The plant grows quickly, is easy to cultivate, and can be used as a staple in virtually any industry. Textiles, building materials, food, paper, cosmetics, even fuel can be made from this seemingly magical crop. In addition, this plant is a renewable resource that ecologically benefits the environment it is planted in. The American people would be thrilled with this revolutionary breakthrough.
In a time of economic and environmental disaster, this discovery would be hailed as a timely solution for a number of pressing problems. But here’s the punch line: this plant exists, and humans have been using it for thousands of years. In fact, early human civilization was built on this crop.
It is called hemp, and its uses and potential are almost unlimited.
However, it is illegal to grow in the United States, with the exception of a few states that have passed legislation allowing the crop’s cultivation. This is because of hemp’s unfortunate cousin, marijuana. Despite the fact that the two plants are biologically very different and that smoking hemp will not get you high, American law makes no distinction between the two plants. Until hemp is legalized in the United States as a whole, Americans will be passing up an opportunity to advance itself that has practically been handed to it.
Hemp is a crop with seemingly unlimited potential. Perhaps one of its most useful purposes is actually a very simple commodity: paper. Today, the vast majority of the world’s paper is made from wood fiber. According to hempusa.org, hemp produces twice as much fiber per acre than the average forest. When added with worthless fibers that are currently burned such as straw from oats, rice and wheat, hemp can be used to create construction materials stronger than lumber. The long fibers in industrial hemp allow hemp paper to be recycled several times more than paper made from wood fibers. Therefore, it is feasible to imagine hemp could almost completely end our dependence on wood and greatly reduce deforestation. Countless trees would be allowed to remain standing for oxygen production and carbon sequestration, which would reduce global warming.
Hemp also fertilizes the soil it is grown in and can be used to curb the depletion of topsoil. If farmers were to introduce hemp as a rotation crop, the soil would be much more fertile and would therefore yield greater harvests of other crops. In England and Hungary, for example, when hemp was grown in rotation with wheat, the wheat harvest was 20 percent more productive.
Hemp has a seemingly endless list of other uses. Hemp fibers can be woven into cloth that is more durable than cotton based cloth, and just as comfortable. But cotton is difficult to grow, and requires massive amounts of pesticides and herbicides. In fact, 50 percent of all the world’s pesticides are sprayed on cotton. The core fiber of the hemp stalk can be used to make organic plastics, and its long fibers are perfect for producing strong rope. The woody core of a hemp stalk can be mixed with lime, sand, plaster and cement to make bricks or concrete. Lotions and soaps can be made from hempseed oil. It can even be used to make car door panels and insulation. Everything from beer to biofuels can be made from this extremely versatile crop.
Yet with all of these potential benefits, growing hemp is still illegal on a federal level. The reasons for this are downright irrational. Industrial hemp and marijuana are not the same plant, and there is nothing anyone can do to turn a hemp plant into a marijuana plant. The main difference between the two plants is the amount of tetrahybrocannabinol (better known as THC), the chemical in marijuana that induces psychoactive effects in users. Industrial hemp is less than one percent THC, while marijuana generally has a THC content between five and 20 percent. This makes it nearly impossible to get high from smoking hemp. To receive a standard psychoactive dose of THC from hemp, according to naihc.org, one would have to smoke 10 to 12 hemp cigarettes in an extremely short period of time. The large volume and high temperature of the smoke would be almost impossible for a person to withstand. Unlike marijuana, hemp also has high levels of cannabidiol, which is an anti-psychoactive compound that inhibits THC. Another ignorant argument against hemp is that fields of the crop would be a perfect place to hide marijuana plants. However, marijuana and hemp plants would cross pollinate, causing the marijuana to be less potent and therefore of poor quality. This would not be worthwhile for marijuana growers.
While it is theoretically possible to get permission from the government to grow hemp, it is certainly not practical. This is because the DEA would require that the field be secured by guards, razor wire, dogs, and lights, making it cost ineffective.
Industrial hemp is the solution we’ve all been looking for, but it has been in front of our faces all along. It is difficult to say which is more infuriating: the fact that hemp is illegal, or the fact that its prohibition is such an overlooked issue in both the environmentalist community and the public as a whole. Considering the benefits growing hemp, not only should it be legalized, the government should actually encourage farmers to grow it. As George Washington once wrote in a letter to his farm manager, “make the most you can of the Indian hemp seed. Sow it everywhere.”
Dean Curran is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.