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In Praise of Hemp

There’s a lot of energy in the air these days surrounding hemp, and with good reason. Hemp was removed from our culture back in the early 20th Century when a number of laws were established that demonized hemp and marijuana. Now, as we’re learning that so much once held as true is false, it should come as no surprise that our illusions about hemp are crumbling as well.

Hemp is the common name for cannabis, the first plant cultivated by humanity as we crept from a Hunter/Gatherer culture to an Agrarian one. This were several reasons for this. First, hemp is an extremely versatile plant, with edible seeds, rich oil and strong, fibrous stalks. Second, it’s particularly easy to grow, needing little in the way of fertilizer or pest control. And finally, hemp is native to many parts of the world, so it was accessible to large segments of our ancestors.

Hemp has a strong historical influence on every continent, with varied cultural and religious traditions. It’s written about in China as early as the 5th Century BC. It was commonly breathed or smoked by various tribes in the Middle East. Many African spiritual practices involve consuming hemp smoke to enhance awareness and generate visions like the Dagga ‘cults’.

In the United States, as early as 1619 the first Virginia House of Burgesses passed an Act requiring all planters in Virginia to sow "both English and Indian" hemp on their plantations. In more modern times, hemp was a popular crop in antebellum Kentucky and other southern states. It was commonly used for a variety of products, most notably the paper on which the U.S. Constitution was written. Several of our founding fathers were hemp farmers.

All that changed when newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst decided to demonize the plant, his financial interests better served by printing his newspapers on wood pulp supplied by forests he owned in the early 20th century. Dupont’s new plastics were far more valuable in a hemp-free world as well. His nephew, Harry Anslinger, commissioned ‘Reefer Madness.’

Today, we can still follow the money. The lumber, textile and petro-chemical industries are the most influential in keeping hemp illegal. Then for pot there’s the pharmaceutical industry, the alcohol lobby and all those anti-drug agencies with self-preservation interests. We learn much from understanding these connections.

With this background, let’s consider how hemp might again play a pivotal role in our communities and culture.

With hemp, we have a low-impact, high-yield crop that can be used for a variety of purposes. The stalks and fiber can be used in composites as a wood substitute for an array of products. They can also be processed to create ethanol. This is a carbon-neutral resource, since the carbon released is but the carbon the plant ingested during its life. Durable, light-weight, and strong, it’s difficult to imagine all the uses for industrial hemp were we to focus on designing and building hemp-based products.

With hemp oil we have another energy-rich resource, which can be used in cooking, as lamp oil and as a medicinal, as its high concentration of essential fatty acids is great for the skin and overall health. Hemp seed can be used for food as well. They’re highly nutritious with a good deal of protein. Hemp has remediation properties too. It absorbs heavy metals in the soil, reducing their toxicity and harmful environmental effects. There are vast expanses of hemp in the area of the Chernobyl nuclear accident for just that reason.

Hemp can be grown successfully in nearly every state in these United States. One can imagine a culture where locally produced hemp provides a good portion of the energy, food and product needs for our communities. This approach would provide employment in both production and processing of the plant. It would also reduce the environmental damage caused by our pollutive, subsidized corn production. Re-integrating hemp into our culture is a key to the new localism.

And then there’s marijuana. The heathen devil-weed [a term coined by Hearst’s yellow press] was blamed for all sorts of bad behavior as part of the demonization process. Marijuana actually reduces aggressive behavior, unlike alcohol. The demonization and slander against the singular most influential plant in human history is but one example of the dysfunctionality of our culture.

Weed does indeed have psychotropic properties of note. Being stoned has a curious effect on the mind. Most say it tends to enhance whatever we feeling or experiencing at the time, offering a heightened experience of music or games or food [the proverbial munchies]. It is often used as a mind-quieting agent as well, as the stream of thoughts so constant to most of us becomes less pressing in a marijuana state of mind. In our fear-ridden, highly-stressed culture that alone could be of great value.

Medical marijuana is much in the news these days, being legal in a number of states, though often still prosecuted by the Feds. Its value in alleviating the worst effects of cancer treatments, chronic backache and other issues is well-documented. Imagine if our culture actually encouraged research on medical marijuana [sigh]. Not likely when the legal drug cartel called ‘the pharmaceutical industry’ has so much influence in government.

Finally, it’s worth noting that marijuana has not been placed as the medical cause in a single death in this country. Compare that with alcohol, tobacco, or the host of concoctions the pharmaceutical industry markets to us constantly. Mary Jane is decidedly benign.

Just say no to politicians and pundits who espouse the evils of hemp. They are uneducated, disingenuous or both [surprise, surprise]. Let’s say yes to re-introducing hemp into our culture, and to creating local jobs, products and health.