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By Jeff Danner Jeff has worked in both the chemical and biotech industries and is the veteran of thousands of science debates at cocktail parties and holiday dinners across the nation. In his Common Science blog, Jeff aims to make technological and scientific concepts accessible to all.

Hemp, George Washington Grew It

By Jeff Danner Posted January 14, 2013 at 1:59 am

With all of the critical economic and environmental challenges we face in the world and in North Carolina today, we no longer have the luxury of tolerating the foolish, inefficient and unnecessary ban of growing industrial hemp. Before everyone gets all excited, this is not a marijuana legalization column.  Hemp consists of a family of strains.  Strains of hemp which are useful in industrial applications contain 30 to 50 times less of the “active” ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), than strains grown for “recreational” use.

Hemp has a long and rather glorious history.  Its cultivation began 12,000 years ago in China, making it among the first plants domesticated by humans.  Hemp rope and sails were used in the great sailing vessels of the Age of Exploration of the 1500s.  In 1619, the Virginia House of Burgesses passed a statute requiring all farms in the colony to plant hemp.  George Washington grew hemp at Mount Vernon, and the original Levi’s blue jeans were made from hemp.  North Carolina was once among the top hemp producing areas in the country. 
 
Hemp is a remarkable plant.  It grows very rapidly.  It enriches the soil it’s grown in with nitrogen making it an ideal plant for crop rotations.  Hemp is also very effective in removing excess nutrients from the soil, which prevents them from reaching local waterways and causing damaging algae blooms.  The soil cleaning properties of hemp could be of great use in remediating North Carolina’s hog waste lagoons. 
 
Almost every part of the hemp plant can be converted into useful products.  The fibers in the stalks can be used to make rope, paper, and textiles.  The oil in the seeds can be used to make biofuel, biodegradable plastics, and a variety of health foods.  The remaining parts of the hemp plant can be tilled into the soil as compost. 
 
However, today there is no industrial hemp production in the U.S.  What happened, you ask?  The short answer is the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which imposed a tax on hemp products regardless of end use or THC content.
 
The longer answer is complex and filled with intrigue involving two of the most famous families of the era, the Hearsts and the Mellons.  By the mid 1930s, William Randolph Hearst had become fabulously wealthy through his newspaper empire.  To maximize his profits and to secure his supply of newsprint, he invested in millions of acres of timber.  At the same time, as I explained in “The Lesson of Nylon”, DuPont Chemical, in which the Mellon family where heavily invested, introduced synthetic fibers into the textile industry.  Just about this time, several key advancements were made in both hemp farming and processing which may have allowed it to compete favorably with timber and nylon.  As the legend goes, the Hearsts and Mellons felt sufficiently threatened by these developments to use their influence to “encourage” the U.S. congress to tax hemp.  By the mid 1950’s industrial hemp production in the U.S. had ceased.
 
All was quiet on the hemp front for a while until the counter culture movement of the 1960s brought about increased interest in the strains of hemp better suited to recreational use. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was thrown out by the Supreme Court in Leary. V. the U.S. in 1969.  (Yes, that was Timothy Leary of “turn on, tune in, and drop out” fame.)  Any sense of victory for Mr. Leary was to be short lived with the passage of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 which, rather than taxing hemp production, simply banned it outright.  Absent a minor exception for medical marijuana, this ban is still in place today.
 
Given all of the benefits and uses of hemp, you should not be surprised to know that it is grown all over the world.  I suspect you will also not be taken aback to learn that the world’s largest grower of hemp and exporter of hemp-based products is China.  So who do you think is the world’s largest importer of hemp-based products?  Yep, it’s us, the U.S.A.
 
This foolishness is almost certain to end soon.  In August of 2012, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon introduced the Industrial Hemp Farming Act which is still working its way through the Congress.  North Dakota, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Oregon, California, Montana, West Virginia, and Vermont have already passed legislation allowing for industrial hemp production as soon as the U.S. government relents.
 
North Carolina should join this group of forward-thinking states.  Growing hemp would benefit our farmers through increased revenues and improved soil productivity.  Hemp could be deployed in cleaning our hog lagoons and other damaged agricultural areas, and our already-rebounding textile industry is perfectly positioned to start making high-quality hemp fabrics for the domestic and international markets.  What do you say Governor McCrory?
 
Have a comment or question.   Please use the interface below or send me an e-mail to commonscience@chapelboro.com.

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