The word “hemp” comes out of Western Europe as a description of a number of varieties of the cannabis plant, particularly the varieties like “industrial hemp” that were bred over time for industrial uses such as fuel, fiber, paper, seed, food, oil, etc.
Its cultivation and use for such purposes goes back 12,000 years, and, while it was native to Asia, it was grown in, and had an enormous influence upon, many of the ancient and more modern cultures, and on the history of Europe and America.
The Gutenberg Bible and the Magna Carta were both written on hemp paper. In the early colonies laws were passed mandating the production of hemp. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew hemp. Ben Franklin owned a mill that made hemp paper. Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper.
In fact, the word “canvas” is a derivative of the Latin “cannabis” and the Dutch “canefas”. Because of its great strength as a fiber, and its resistance to rotting and decay, its use for canvas and rope was far superior to other fibers such as cotton from the cotton plant, or linen from the plant called flax – that ubiquitous natural resource of so many countries in the old world.
Napoleon knew that he could cripple the British Navy – that ever-present thorn in his side – if for only one year he could simply cut off their supply of hemp from the Ukraine, where the best hemp was then grown, so they could not maintain their sails and rigging. He forced the Russians to sign a treaty to that effect, and later invaded Russia because they blatantly ignored it.
What was really happening to American commercial ships at the outset of the War of 1812 was that the British would stop them and give them the alternative to run the French blockade and get the Russian hemp. If they refused, then their ship was commandeered and used for the same purpose anyway. The British didn’t need the privateers as warships, they needed them as swift commercial transports that could bring back this fine Russian hemp.
Henry Ford experimented with hemp to build car bodies. He wanted to build and fuel cars from farm products:
“Why use up the forests which were centuries in the making and the mines which required ages to lay down, if we can get the equivalent of forest and mineral products in the annual growth of the fields?” — Henry Ford
In the second World War, when the Japanese blocked the supply of Philippine manila, a weaker fiber, the US Government temporarily legalized industrial hemp, and even put out a short movie called “Hemp for Victory”. George Bush’s parachute was made of hemp fiber.
Those who wear the fiber – and you must all be aware of its increasing use in clothing – tell of its remarkable qualities for becoming softer and more comfortable over time, like an old pair of jeans, while still retaining its exceptional strength.
However, the bulk of the hemp stalk is not this strong fiber, but a raw type of cellulose or biomass called “hemp hurds”. When the stalks were allowed to simply lay in the field, especially in a moist climate, and slightly rotted, or “retted”, the fiber could easily be separated from the hurds.
In the early part of the last century mechanical processes were developed to cut, bale and “decorticate” (i.e. separate the fiber from the hurds) the stalks so that hand labor and field retting were no longer necessary. Those processes would be to hemp what the cotton gin was to cotton, and they came at a moment when hemp was ready to explode into modern industrial use, but it was at that same moment when all varieties of hemp were made illegal in a sweeping prohibition primarily aimed at marijuana.
We say “primarily” aimed at marijuana because there are certainly those who subscribe to a conspiracy theory that parties, like Du Pont, which controlled the patents to make plastics from petroleum, Andrew Mellon with his great oil interests, and William Randolph Hearst with his lumber and paper interests, pushed for the prohibition of all forms of hemp – certainly an act that would now be considered legislative overkill – because they wanted to eliminate the competition of hemp as a cheaper and much cleaner raw material for the production of plastic, oil, paper, etc. It was Mellon’s nephew-in-law, Harry J. Anslinger, who became the original head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and led the fight to criminalize marijuana.
Whether you buy into that conspiracy or not, there is no doubt that:
Hemp hurds offer a renewable and much-cleaner source of a raw material for plastics than fossil fuel, and also offer an alternative as a fuel source. This is certainly a consideration that we should stress in a time when we are told that we are using about 4% of the world’s petroleum supply each year, meaning we have about a 25-years’ supply, and that if the people in China only get the mopeds they dream of, they will consume as much oil as we do in America.
Hemp hurds and fiber also present a paper source that is superior to wood, and modern biocomposites materials, using the strong hemp fibers, offer attractive alternatives to wood.
Meanwhile, hemp fiber remains the strongest natural fiber, with a surprising UV resistance, that makes is a superior source for ropes, cordage, canvas and lighter fabrics, while the hemp seeds themselves provide a phenomenal raw material for both food and for oil.
All of which explains why the American Farm Bureau Federation, a 4.5 million member farm group, called hemp “one of the most promising crops in half a century. … [It] could be the alternative crop farmers are looking for.”
Some states and the federal statute, 21 U.S. Code 802 (16), define “marihuana” to exclude hemp stalks and sterile seeds. However, owing to a regulatory interpretation by the DEA, hemp cultivation is illegal because naturally the cultivation produces leaves and flowers. But even this regulatory interpretation is now being challenged in court by Kentucky farmers while numerous individuals and organizations clamor for the US Government to revisit this rule.