Splendor in the Grass?

The hemp plant comes in two varieties. One, its proponents say, could transform industries and provide an environmentally safe source of wonder products. The other is marijuana, and therein lies a debate that has business warily stalking a tantalizing raw material.

By John Mintz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 5 1997; Page H01
The Washington Post

A fast-growing coalition of scientists, farmers, entrepreneurs and major industries thinks it has found the modern equivalent of "flubber" -- the anti-gravity goo in a 1961 film that lofted actor Fred MacMurray's car into orbit, bounced his college basketball team toward the gym ceiling and unmasked spies.

The miracle substance arousing interest now happens to be the world's oldest crop -- hemp. Proponents of the fibrous stalk say it can reshape the paper and apparel industries, reduce world deforestation and pesticide use, yield new building materials and provide nutrient-rich foods that can reduce heart disease. There's only one slight problem with hemp, however. It's, ah, illegal. It's also called marijuana.

There are two varieties of the hemp plant, or cannibas sativa. One is pot, the sweet-smelling greenish herb that gets you high when you smoke it. The other is industrial hemp, and puffing it gives you a headache.

The pro-hemp forces want state and federal authorities to study legalizing industrial hemp while continuing to ban pot. But law enforcement draws no distinction between the two weeds. "Hemp is a controlled substance under the 1972 Controlled Substances Act," explained Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman James McGivney.

Legalizing hemp would undercut the government's anti-drug stance -- especially now, McGivney said, citing new studies showing teenage marijuana use rising. California voters' approval of a November initiative allowing medicinal pot use already has complicated drug enforcers' anti-marijuana message, officials add. The DEA also is concerned that pot growers would sneak onto legalized hemp fields to grow their illicit weed. Narcs in helicopters couldn't differentiate the two, McGivney said. Hemp promoters disagree, and say the two plants look different. [See accompanying graphic, Page H5.]

Many businesses avoid publicly proclaiming interest in hemp, fearing that they'll be labeled soft on drugs. Instead, they let farmers and environmentalists push the issue in state legislatures from Kentucky to Vermont, Wisconsin and Missouri.

So far the police have stalled the "hempsters" in Washington and state capitols. In Colorado, for ex ample, dozens of narcotics investigators packed state hearings, derailing a proposed hemp study. A key argument of the agents in Denver and elsewhere is that pro-hemp business figures actually are front men for drug dealers. "They're making a cutesy argument to legalize marijuana," a White House drug enforcement official said of hemp activists. But officials who made that accusation acknowledged they didn't know the lineup of large capitalist concerns expressing interest in hemp's industrial uses. The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, they aren't.

Take International Paper Co., the world's largest paper firm. Curtis Koster, IP's technology business manager, said the company is intrigued by hemp as a way to address what timber interests call the looming worldwide "fiber crisis."

The need for paper and other fiber products (such as fiberboard, packing materials and pulp) is skyrocketing in the Third World -- it seems demand for such products precisely tracks economic and educational progress. But the timber firms' costs of buying forest land, cutting trees and processing wood in the face of global environmental activism are zooming upwards, too.

So paper firms are eager for new sources of fiber -- and hemp probably is the best, said Koster, who recently joined the board of directors of a new pro-hemp business council. "It's the strongest, easiest to grow and has the broadest geographical range," he said. While trees require decades to grow, hemp matures in 100 days -- so over time, hemp yields two to four times as much fiber per acre as wood, Koster said.

"Wood fiber is very inferior to many other fiber products" such as hemp, said Koster, who speaks for himself and not his firm, and who chooses his words carefully. "There's no doubt excellent paper can be made from hemp . . . It's a remarkable thing God put on earth."

"The paper industry is by nature very cautious, but it's aggressively seeking data on hemp," said Med Byrd, a leading paper researcher at North Carolina State University. "That's a radical change." By maintaining its hard line against hemp, law enforcement "throws away science and common sense," he said. The pot controversy prevents his firm from officially expressing interest in hemp, said Koster. But he denounces federal agents' accusations that pro-hemp businesses are drug fronts -- he calls them "lies" that "make law enforcement look like baboons." "Should industry be interested in hemp?" Koster said. "Yes." He said he assumes hemp someday will be legal. But then industry would only be rediscovering a product as ancient as civilization.

Fish Nets to Apparel

By stripping apart the hemp stalk's sinewy fibers, man made the first rope. The Chinese invented fish nets with it in 4500 B.C., and later the first paper. Herodotus wrote of the fineness of hempen garments. Used to make books, maps and lamp oil, hemp was the top crop in Asia, Europe and America from 1500 to 1800. Sails were made of hemp because it doesn't mildew -- the word "canvas" is said to come from "cannabis."

Colonial Virginia and Connecticut made the cultivation of hemp mandatory. The first drafts of the Declaration of Independence were written on hemp. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned hemp plantations and promoted its benefits. Many farmers paid taxes in hemp bails. Dozens of U.S. towns were named for it -- including Hempstead, N.Y.

But in the 1930s, the federal government cracked down on marijuana. The paint industry, which used hemp, persuaded officials to exempt it. But a 1937 law exacted steep taxes on it -- $1 an ounce -- and the hemp industry died.

During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the "Hemp for Victory" program, inducing farmers to resume growing the crop for military use -- from boot laces to parachute webbing and backpacks.

The U.S. hemp industry died again after the war. While hemp still was grown in Europe and Asia -- and it's been legal to import it here if already processed -- it was a forgotten crop here. Until 1990, that is, when a book on hemp by author Jack Herer spurred interest by businesses imagining lucrative imports from countries such as China and Hungary.

The industry has exploded since then. In 1993, hemp's worldwide sales were $5 million; in 1995 they totaled $75 million, according to Hemptech, a California consulting firm that tracks the industry. Hemptech expects sales of $200 million in 1997, and $600 million by 2001.

One local hempster business is Fairfax-based Ecolution Inc., which imports hemp clothes and cosmetics from Eastern Europe. In its two years of operation, sales have jumped 500 percent, to $1.5 million.

Technological Hurdles

A lingering question about the young industry is whether it can develop a new generation of hemp-processing machines to churn out the product profitably. But industry executives say that's not a difficult task, technologically. Hemptech President John Roulac said some leading carpet firms -- already experimenting with hemp because it's so tough and mildew-resistant -- are investing in such efforts.

Many people in the apparel business say the obstacles are surmountable, and that with a little research and marketing, hemp could be one of the nation's top fabrics. "It's getting tremendous interest in the fashion industry," said Owen Sercus, a textile professor at Fashion Institute of Technology, a New York college tied to the industry. "It's going to be a gigantic market." Hemp is one of the most durable fabrics around -- hemp clothing typically lasts 10 years, compared with five for cotton -- and it also "breathes" better than any fabric, Sercus said. Because hemp fiber can be peeled like an onion, clothes can be made very thin, and it's machine-washable.

"Hemp produces a strong, clean yarn, with a structure that makes the cloth cool in summer, and warm and comfortable in winter," clothing company Giorgio Armani said last month in announcing a vast increase in hemp use in clothing lines. Many other companies -- such as Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Adidas -- also have stepped up hemp use.

Apparel firms fret about hemp's uncertain overseas availability, and the prospect of antagonizing the authorities, industry executives said. They recall then-White House drug czar Lee Brown criticizing Adidas's "cynical marketing" a year ago in naming a shoe "The Hemp." Adidas withdrew it.

But fashion executives say hemp is a marketing no-brainer because of its environmental benefits. Unlike cotton -- which may require hundreds of pounds of expensive fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides per acre -- hemp fields are chemical-free. Hemp also doesn't deplete the soil.

Hemp appeals to many farmers for the same reasons. Earlier this year the American Farm Bureau Federation -- the nation's largest farm group, with 4.5 million members -- joined the pro-hemp movement. A recent editorial in its publication called hemp "one of the most promising crops in half a century . . . [It] could be the alternative crop farmers are looking for."

Hemp also could spur new investment in rural areas because hemp-growing regions would need processing mills near the fields. "We're talking jobs," said Erwin Sholts, director of diversification at Wisconsin's agriculture department. "Why should we import a product in high demand when we can grow it here?"

Companion Crop

Farmers in Kentucky, a major hemp-grower as early as 1700, are among the most boisterous in supporting the crop. They've also set off bitter struggles signaling how emotional the debate can become.

The story there begins with farmers such as Andy Graves. One of Kentucky's biggest tobacco growers, he wants the right to uphold his father's tradition of planting hemp on their Lexington, Ky., farm, as a companion crop to tobacco, the backbone of the state's economy. "We'd like not to be so dependent on one crop, which may as well have a skull and crossbones on it," Graves said. "We're willing to try something new to save livelihoods." Graves's hopes soared in 1994, when then-Gov. Brereton Jones named a blue-ribbon panel to study hemp. But last year the panel's chairman, another prominent farmer, shut it down before even one substantive meeting, calling hemp "a complete fraud." The chairman and his allies concluded, with no evidence, that the pro-hemp farmers were in league with drug dealers, local newspapers reported.

In rural Kentucky, advocating hemp can even imperil careers. In tiny Simpsonville, a 5th grade agriculture teacher, Donna Cockrel, is fighting to keep her job after advocating that local farmers be allowed to resume growing hemp. The town's past is so tied to the crop that one street is named Hemp Ridge.

Her problems came in May, when she invited actor Woody Harrelson, a hemp advocate, to lecture students. The visit by Harrelson -- who wore hemp pants, hat and shirt -- electrified the school. Later Cockrel thrust a sheath of pro-hemp student essays into President Clinton's hand at a Louisville rally. Simpsonville police complained to school officials that Cockrel was leading students into drug use, and the officials tried to push her out of her job.

"They said I'm advocating drugs, but I'm not," she said. "I'm discussing a crop that's vital to our rural economy." Meanwhile, other pro-hemp farmers have pleaded their case at the Department of Agriculture -- but in vain. Jeffrey Gain, an Illinois farmer who chairs an independent panel set up by the Department of Agriculture to find new crop uses, said many USDA officials are enthusiastic about hemp, but stay silent.

USDA's official response to a query on hemp was indeed tortured. "Given the state of the law [banning hemp], that's the same side we're on" officially, USDA spokesman Jim Petterson said in an interview. "We haven't researched hemp in decades." "USDA is afraid of the controversy," said Gain, now a hemp advocate. "The DEA has control of the issue, and it's frustrating." Some food industry executives are vexed, too, because they want a domestic hemp supply to ensure the quality of consumable hemp.

They see a growing market for hemp edibles, in part because of recent studies extolling the nutritional benefits of one of hemp's key nutrients: omega-3 essential fatty acids. Hemp oil and fish are two of the world's best sources of this nutrient. Many studies show that fish-eaters and others with high fatty acid intake have lower heart disease rates, and apparently less risk of developing arthritis and some other diseases. These foods made from hemp seeds also have among the highest fiber and protein content of any food.

Richard Rose, president of Sharon's Finest, a California vegetarian food firm, expects sales of hemp food products to grow as fast as soybean foods have since the mid-1970s -- from a $50 million-a-year business to a $2 billion one.

Andrew Weil, a University of Arizona medical college professor and alternative medicine advocate, prescribes hemp oil to patients with auto-immunity and skin diseases. He's also convinced by data suggesting it can help protect against cancer. The Clinton administration should rethink its assumptions and grant Americans access to a healthful product, he said. "It's one of the most useful plants humans ever discovered," Weil said. "But we've denied ourselves use of it because of our [drug] obsession."


The ingredient in marijuana that makes you high is tetrahydrocannabinol, THC for short. Normally it makes up 4 percent to 7 percent of pot's weight but can account for as much as 20 percent. Industrial hemp is 0.1 percent to 0.4 percent THC, not enough to have an effect.

"Make the most you can of the Indian hemp seed and sow it everywhere."
-George Washington to his gardener, 1794


Law enforcement officials and hemp advocates disagree in key areas:


Police: Claim pro-hemp business figures are drug fronts. Their evidence: Some pot dealers have asked for federal approval to grow hemp experimentally; also, groups such as the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) want hemp legalized as a step toward making pot lawful.

Hemp advocates: Say they're law-abiding and seek profits, not dope.

The pro-hemp business group, the North American Industrial Hemp Council, doesn't accept pro-pot members.


Police: Say if hemp were legal, pot dealers would sneak onto hemp fields to grow the illegal weed, and that agents couldn't distinguish the plots. Say the fact foreign nations report no such problems is irrelevant, because pot is not much of a problem overseas.

Hemp advocates: Say the two plants are easily distinguishable. Pot growers cultivate plants to be low and bushy, and spaced a few feet apart -- the way to yield THC- rich flowers and leaves. Hemp plants are placed inches apart, growing 12 to 18 feet high, with sparse leaves on top. Harvesters want only the stalk. Advocates cite evidence from Britain, France, Germany, Ukraine and other hemp- growing nations reporting no police complaints about pot. Paul Mahlberg, an Indiana University molecular biologist and an expert on pot cultivation, said the two plants look so different investigators can easily tell them apART.


Police: Fear pollen from pot plants will fertilize hemp plants and raise the hemp field's THC content, turning the hemp into pot.

Hemp advocates: Say planting nearby pot and hemp fields would have the opposite effect: The hemp would reduce the pot's THC, making it undesirable as a drug. "The pot crop would always get weaker," Mahlberg said.

(c) Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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