"The Truth About Hemp: Part I" by Kyle Peterson from "NOO Journal" Issue [six] 2007
WHICH SINGLE PLANT is found growing naturally in all 50 U.S. states and has over 25,000 possible uses, including paper, clothing, food, and fuel? The answer: hemp, a variety of the plant cannabis sativa L, often mistaken for marijuana. It’s been used for centuries in almost every civilization, including the United States. So, why it is illegal today?
Regardless of its possibilities as a source of food, fuel, and industrial materials, for many Americans, cannabis carries with it the stigma of a drug culture that developed in the U.S. during the 20th century. Viewed as a “gateway” into a forbidden and dangerous world, cannabis has become a scapegoat for the ills of society. But the fact of the matter is that prior to its prohibition in the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, hemp was a legal cash crop, grown by our Founding Fathers, and for many years was even an acceptable form of payment for taxes.
Despite its current status as a Schedule One narcotic, before 1937, the U.S. government recognized the differences between the varieties of the plant used for industrial hemp and those cultivated for the flowers, or buds. What happened to change that is a story of narrow, self-interests that would lead our nation down an unsustainable path, a story all too common in the United States history.
In the early part of the 20th century, incredible discoveries and innovations in the uses of agricultural products inspired a new field of science, called “chemurgy.” Defined by the Columbia Encyclopedia as a “branch of applied chemistry concerned with preparing industrial products from agricultural raw materials,” chemurgy was an agrarian response to an increasingly manufactured world and as such, we shall see, was diametrically opposed to the interests of the major petroleum and chemical corporations of the day.
Perhaps some of the most famous discoveries in the field of chemurgy were those made by the scientist George Washington Carver. While working at the Tuskegee Institute, Carver discovered literally hundreds of uses for various foodstuffs such as potatoes, soy beans, pecans, and peanuts, uses including adhesives, axle grease, bleach, shaving cream, and synthetic rubber (Bellis). But Carver was not the only one making such discoveries.
Always searching for ways to improve his original design of the automobile, Henry Ford looked to nature for answers. Ford built the body of a model car entirely from hemp and other fibers by binding them together with a resin and molding it into the desired shape. Today, this material is known as a biocomposite, and car manufacturers such as Ford, BMW, Daimler-Chrysler, and GM are experimenting with biocomposites to make door panels, head liners, and other parts. The Ford Motor Corporation alone used more than 5,000,000 pounds of hemp between 1999 and 2000 (Rothenberg 20).
But Mr. Ford wasn’t alone in his innovations with hemp, nor in his desire for ethanol, which he called “the fuel of the future," to fuel the automobiles of America. He originally intended to power automobiles with ethanol, known then as ethyl alcohol, so that Americans could make use of the vast number of materials available for conversion into cellulosic and starch-based ethanols.
Another advocate for ethanol was scientist Harold Hibbert. In 1920 at Yale University, Hibbert was experimenting with the chemical decomposition, or hydrolysis, of cellulose, an organic compound found in cell walls of all green plants, including hemp. But because cellulose is a complex polysaccharide and requires enzymes or acids that to this day are expensive to manufacture, cellulosic ethanol was not yet commercially viable (Kovarik).
Almost one hundred years later, several biotech companies, including Arkenol Fuels and Iogen, have begun marketing their patented hydrolysis processes that can convert anything from paper waste to farm and forest residues into cellulosic ethanol. The Energy Information Administration estimates that by 2015 improvements in the hydrolysis process will lower production costs by as much as 60 cents per gallon, allowing cellulosic ethanol to compete with gasoline. One such improvement is the use of genetically engineered enzymes to turn feedstocks into ethanol, technology unavailable to Hibbert in the 1920s.
Undoubtedly, the scientists working on ethanol from cellulose faced challenges, but probably none as daunting as opposition from the alliance between the Standard Oil, Ethyl, DuPont, and GM corporations. In his essay “Henry Ford, Charles Kettering, and The Fuel of the Future,” Professor Bill Kovarik details how the executives of these corporations feared competition from ethanol and so not only spread propaganda and lobbied ferociously against subsidies, but privately investigated politicians and advocates who supported the renewable fuel. In addition, the corporation Ethyl, which marketed leaded gasoline, even went so far as to refuse the sale of its products if a wholesaler also sold ethanol. Although the Supreme Court upheld an anti-trust lawsuit against Ethyl in 1940, as a result of such pressure, according to Kovarik, the once broad-based support for ethanol evaporated.
The cannabis plant, which can be converted into cellulosic ethanol, suffered a similar fate as part of the chemurgy movement. A new invention, similar to Eli Whitney’s revolutionary cotton gin, called the hemp decorticator, made stripping the bast, or outer fibers of the stalk more efficient. Such an improvement in technology reduced the time and cost of processing, which would in turn encourage the expansion of uses for hemp (Rothenberg 7). An ill-timed Popular Mechanics article published in February of 1938, the same month the Marihuana Tax Act came into effect, proposed hemp would be the next “billion dollar crop” (8).
However, the chemical giant DuPont held numerous patents, including one on tetraethyl lead (an oxygenate used to raise octane levels), which could be substituted with ethanol (7). Thus the future profits of the corporation were put in jeopardy, especially since serious questions had been raised about the potential hazards of lead after numerous deaths and injuries of workers who handled the toxic material. In the early development of leaded gasoline at least 40 workers died from lead poisoning and several hundred others were injured. Workers who knew what was causing their hallucinations called their factories “Houses of Butterflies.” These deaths caused much public controversy and at one point, the New Jersey state legislature banned the sale and production of leaded gasoline (Kovarik and Hermes).
As one of the chief investors in the corporation, the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, had a vested interest to see DuPont prosper and beat out its competitors, including those who offered alternatives, like ethanol. As the popularity of hemp grew, so did the threat it posed as an alternative to lead.
So Mellon appointed Henry Anslinger, who at that time was the Assistant U.S. Commissioner on Prohibition, to the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger, who would later marry Mellon’s niece, spent two years drafting the Marihuana Tax Act. In 1937, the bill was submitted to the House Ways and Means Committee, who was headed by another DuPont ally. The House Ways and Means Committee was the only congressional committee that could submit a bill to Congress without input from other government agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and the bill moved on to Congress. Anslinger testified about the “evils” of “marihuana” and with the prodding of prohibition lobbyists, the bill passed (Rothenberg 7).
The Marihuana Tax Act did not ban cannabis outright, nor would the tax of 1 dollar per ounce raise much revenue. But the Act required growers, manufacturers and distributors of hemp products to report every transaction to the IRS and provide the names and addresses of any recipient. Failure to comply would result in heavy fines or imprisonment. As a result, no one wanted to run the risk of dealing with cannabis, so the once-burgeoning industry quickly faded (Solomon). It is worth mentioning that in 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the requirement to register with the IRS violated the 5th amendment by forcing the petitioner to “identify himself as a member of a ‘selective group inherently suspect of criminal activities,’ and thus those provisions created a ‘real and appreciable’ hazard of incrimination …” (Leary v. United States). However, subsequent laws such as the Controlled Substance Act of 1970, plus court decisions such as Gonzales v. Raich in 2005, have upheld the federal government’s ability to regulate the interstate commerce of controlled substances.
The United States of America stands with one of the most crucial choices of its entire history: whether to increasingly rely on foreign markets and imports, which benefit only a few, or to look inside its own borders for alternative resources that would rehabilitate its economy and environment. Such a question should be answered by the people of this great nation, not just government officials and captains of industry. Regardless of hemp’s current legal status, I firmly believe that history will bear out how the many uses of the cannabis sativa plant outweigh concerns and objections held by government officials and other opponents. But it is up to concerned citizens everywhere to make heard their voices and make known their opposition to the status quo.
Bellis, Mary. About: Inventors. “George Washington Carver.” About.com. 1/26/07 http://inventors.about.com/library/weekly/aa041897.htm
DiPardo, Joseph. Outlook for Biomass Ethanol Production and Demand. 7/30/02. United States. Dept.of Energy. Energy Information Administration. 1/28/07
Kovarik, William.“Henry Ford, Charles Kettering,and the Fuel of the Future.” 1998. Hempfarm.org. 1/10/07. http://www.hempfarm.org/Papers/Fuel_ of_the_future.html
Kovarik, William and Matthew E. Hermes. ChemCases.com. “TEL Toxicity.” Kennesaw State University. National Science Foundation. 1/29/07 http://www.chemcases.com/tel/tel-17.htm
Rothenberg, Erik.“A RENEWAL OF COMMON SENSE:The Case for Hemp in 21st Century America.” October,2000. VoteHemp.com. 1/26/07 http://www.votehemp.com/PDF/renewal.pdf
Solomon, David. “The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.” Schaffer Library of Drug Policy. DrugLibrary.org. 2/04/07 http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/hemp/ taxact/mjtaxact.htm