EVERY AUGUST, TENS OF thousands of stoners, drug-law reformers, and weekend revelers gather at Myrtle Edwards Park for Seattle’s annual Hempfest. Along with amplified bands, antiprohibition polemics, and the sizzle of stall food, festival goers hear claims that hemp—_Cannabis sativa_—is the wonder plant of the twenty-first century. Speakers and pamphlets proclaim it a ready source of food, fuel, and clothing, and a superior, eco-friendly building material. Some make more grandiose claims: that hemp can supply enough paper pulp to save the world’s forests and enough energy to wean us off oil. According to one article posted by the Toronto Hemp Company, historians generally agree that “it was early civilization’s largest agricultural crop, from well before 1000 BC until the late 1800s AD.” And as any old hippie who resorted to smoking Kansas ditch weed in the ’60s can attest, it won’t get you high; although industrial hemp is the same plant species as marijuana, it’s not bred to produce the psychoactive ingredient THC.
Hempfest speakers also note, no doubt, that Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia plantation grew hemp and George Washington endorsed it as a cash crop after the Revolution. Back then hemp was mostly used to make rope and twine, but it also went into linen, canvas, and paper, and records indicate that Queen Victoria drank hemp tea for menstrual cramps. But hemp rope was prone to rot, especially on sailing ships, and it lost out first to other plant fibers, then to nylon and plastics. Hemp farming became unfashionable when the United States effectively outlawed marijuana in 1937. In 1970, Congress eliminated all legal distinctions between industrial hemp and marijuana, and the Drug Enforcement Administration soon began policing hemp cultivation.
Meanwhile production slumped around the world, as other countries banned or limited growing hemp. Now that trend has reversed: Since the mid-1990s, most leading industrialized nations, including Britain, Germany, Canada, and Australia, have resumed cultivation. France and Italy never stopped.
Today hemp fiber, safely away from sea rot, is making a comeback thanks to its high tensile strength. European and Chinese builders add it to concrete. Mercedes-Benz makers use a composite formed largely of hemp fiber for interior panels. Hemp-oil cosmetics are booming, led by that countercultural classic, Dr. Bronner’s soap.
"To ignore it or to just categorize it as marijuana…is a huge mistake." —Lee Szabo, Vice President, Living Harvest
Hemp seed once went mostly to feed pet birds (which, unlike those hard-up hippies, were thought to sing more on it). Now it’s the darling of the organic food industry, used in everything from hemp-oil cheese to waffles, nutrition bars, and, for consumers jaded on soy and rice concoctions, milk. Les Szabo is a board member of the Portland-based organic, kosher, and vegan foodmaker Living Harvest, which created the first hemp protein powder (and which must import seeds from Canada). He ticks off hemp seed’s advantages: It’s “one of the most complete plant-based proteins,” with all 10 essential amino acids, and “a great source of your omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids,” plus loads of fiber. “So, to ignore it or to just categorize it as marijuana” is in Szabo’s view “a huge mistake.”
Hemp activists also claim it’s a particularly ecofriendly crop, requiring little or no fertilizers and pesticides. The federal Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) disputes that, citing a 1997 paper by a noted plant-fiber scientist who found that hemp absorbs more soil nutrients than cotton and most grains, and needs “liberal” fertilization for high yields. But in 2000, Ontario’s agriculture ministry found that hemp’s nutrient needs were similar to wheat’s and that, because it grows quickly and shades the ground, it overcomes weeds without herbicides.
Federal agencies and antidrug groups are unimpressed. “The claimed advantages of cannabis hemp over other raw materials are false,” Drug Watch International said in 2002. “Better alternative products exist in every case.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture foresees “a small, thin market” for hemp fibers and seeds.
If industrial hemp’s not good business, what is it then? “A stalking horse for the legalization of marijuana,” the ONDCP warned in 2001—and a cover for smoking pot. The office reported that employees in the Defense Department and other federal agencies “who tested positive for marijuana use subsequently raised their consumption of hemp products as a defense against their positive drug test.”
"The claimed advantages of cannabis hemp…are false. Better alternative products exist." —Drug Watch International
Law enforcement officials also worry that since they’re visually indistinguishable, plots of marijuana could pass for legal hemp. In the fall of 2006, that concern helped prompt Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to veto a bill supporting hemp farming in California.
The Bush Administration has tried, without much success, to rein in the “stalking horse.” In October 2001 its Drug Enforcement Administration banned foods containing even traces of THC. (It still allows hemp paper, rope, and clothing, which aren’t intended for human consumption.) The Hemp Industries Association immediately sued, arguing that the minute quantities of THC found were equivalent to the opiate traces in a poppy-seed bagel. It won, and in late 2004 the feds let their deadline pass for appealing the decision.
Meanwhile hemp keeps making friends, in state capitols as well as in the marketplace. By 2003 legislatures in 14 states had passed laws encouraging hemp cultivation; another 11 took up the issue this year alone. In North Dakota a state Republican leader became the first farmer certified to plant hemp. Even some veteran antidrug warriors now seem to prefer to avoid the issue. Indiana Representative Mark Souder, the top congressional Republican on drug policy, did not respond to our several phone and e-mail messages. Washington Lieutenant Governor Brad Owen, an anti-drug crusader who’s used his bully pulpit to campaign against medical marijuana, declined to comment. The Office of National Drug Control Policy did not provide a spokesperson to amplify its stated position.
Hemp food marketer Szabo insists he has no ulterior motive: “We purely look at this as a food source. We don’t advocate or have any sort of agenda when it comes to medical marijuana or any legalization of marijuana. There’s always the snicker factor, and we’ve heard all the bad jokes about hemp.… But when it came down to talking to health food stores across the country, it was not a hard sell.”
Nor do the weed warriors at Hempfest need much convincing about the surpassing virtues of cannabis cookies and sativa shampoo.