Dear EarthTalk: A number of products, including paper, clothing, food and beer, are made from hemp. What is it about hemp that makes it so versatile and why is it illegal to grow in the United States? Is it also illegal in Canada?
- Doug Jones
The first Gutenberg bible, Christopher Columbus' ropes and sails, the Declaration of Independence and the first American flag were all were made from hemp.
And both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew and sold hemp.
During World War II, the crop was of such strategic importance for making clothing that the U.S. government provided farmers with subsidies for hemp cultivation.
Hemp is a renewable and easy-to-grow crop that is tough enough to substitute for paper or wood and malleable enough to be made into clothing and even a biodegradable form of plastic.
Hemp oil is popular for its nutty flavor and healthful amounts of protein and omega fatty acids. Hemp is also an ingredient in many lotions.
Environmentalists and farmers appreciate hemp as an alternative to cotton for clothes and trees for paper.
Unlike cotton, hemp does not require large doses of pesticides and herbicides because it is naturally resistant to pests and grows fast, crowding out weeds. To make paper, trees must grow for many years, while a field of hemp can be harvested in a few months. Also, making paper from hemp uses only a fraction of the chemicals required to turn trees into paper.
Despite hemp's versatility, in 1970, the U.S. Congress designated hemp, along with its relative marijuana, as a "Schedule 1" drug under the Controlled Substances Act, making it illegal to grow without a license from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Although industrial hemp does not contain enough psychoactive ingredients to make a smoker "high," farmers who grow it can risk jail time.
Britain lifted a similar ban in 1993, and Germany and Canada followed suit soon after. The European Union began subsidizing hemp production in the 1990s.
With their American competition out of the running, Canadian farmers have been reaping hemp's financial rewards, especially following a ruling by a U.S. federal court that hemp-made products could be imported into the U.S. American farmers are intensifying their lobbying efforts to lift the U.S. ban. State legislatures in Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, North Dakota and West Virginia have all passed laws that would make hemp legal if the U.S. government were to allow it. But a hemp-farming bill introduced into Congress failed.
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