Voters in the state of Alaska recently made marijuana illegal again for the first time in 15 years. If Alaska turns out to be like the other 49 states, the law will do little to curb use or production. Even the drug czar himself, William Bennett, has abandoned the drug war now that his "test case" of Washington, D.C., continues to see rising crime figures connected with the drug industry.
Despite the legal trend against marijuana, many Americans continue to buck the trend. Some pro-marijuana organizations in fact tell us that marijuana, also known as hemp, could, as a raw material, save the U.S. economy. That's some statment. Not by smoking it--that's a minor issue. Would you believe that marijuana could replace most oil and energy needs? That marijuana could revolutionize the textile industry and stop foreign imports? Those are the claims.
Some people think marijuana, or hemp, may be the epidome of yankee ingenuity. Mr. Jack Herer, for example, is the national director and founder of an organization called HEMP (that's an acronym for "Help End Marijuana Prohibition") located in Van Nuys, California. Mr. Herer is the author of a remarkable little book called, The Emperor Wears No Clothes, wherein, not surprisingly, Mr. Herer urges the repeal of marijuana prohibition.
Mr. Herer is not alone. Throughout the war on drugs, several organizations have consistently urged the legalization of marijuana. High Times magazine for example, The National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws or NORML for short, and an organization called BACH--the Business Alliance for Commerce in Hemp.
But the reason the pro-marijuana lobby want marijuana legal has little to do with getting high, and a great deal to do with fighting oil giants like Saddam Hussein, Exxon and Iran. The pro-marijuana groups claim that hemp is such a versatile raw material, that its products not only compete with petroleum, but with coal, natural gas, nuclear energy, pharmaceutical, timber and textile companies.
It is estimated that methane and methanol production alone from hemp grown as biomass could replace 90% of the world's energy needs. If they are right, this is not good news for oil interests and could account for the continuation of marijuana prohibition. The claim is that the threat hemp posed to natural resource companies back in the thirties accounts for its original ban.
At one time marijuana seemed to have a promising future as a cornerstone of industry. When Rudolph Diesel produced his famous engine in 1896, he assumed that the diesel engine would be powered by a variety of fuels, especially vegetable and seed oils. Rudolph Diesel, like most engineers then, believed vegetable fuels were superior to petroleum. Hemp is the most efficient vegetable.
In the 1930s the Ford Motor Company also saw a future in biomass fuels. Ford operated a successful biomass conversion plant, that included hemp, at their Iron Mountain facility in Michigan. Ford engineers extracted methanol, charcoal fuel, tar, pitch, ethyl-acetate and creosote. All fundamental ingredients for modern industry and now supplied by oil-related industries.
The difference is that the vegetable source is renewable, cheap and clean, and the petroleum or coal sources are limited, expensive and dirty. By volume, 30% of the hemp seed contains oil suitable for high-grade diesel fuel as well as aircraft engine and precision machine oil.
Henry Ford's experiments with methanol promised cheap, readily renewable fuel. And if you think methanol means compromise, you should know that many modern race cars run on methanol.
About the time Ford was making biomass methanol, a mechanical device to strip the outer fibers of the hemp plant appeared on the market. These machines could turn hemp into paper and fabrics quickly and cheaply. Hemp paper is superior to wood paper. The first two drafts of the U.S. constitution were written on hemp paper. The final draft is on animal skin. Hemp paper contains no dioxin, or other toxic residue, and a single acre of hemp can produce the same amount of paper as four acres of trees. The trees take 20 years to harvest and hemp takes a single season. In warm climates hemp can be harvested two even three times a year. It also grows in bad soil and restores the nutrients.
Hemp fiber-stripping machines were bad news to the Hearst paper manufacturing division, and a host of other natural resource firms. Coincidentally, the DuPont Chemical Company had, in 1937, been granted a patent on a sulfuric acid process to make paper from wood pulp. At the time DuPont predicted their sulfuric acid process would account for 80% of their business for the next 50 years.
Hemp, once the mainstay of American agriculture, became a threat to a handful of corporate giants. To stifle the commercial threat that hemp posed to timber interests, William Randolph Hearst began referring to hemp in his newspapers, by its Spanish name, "marijuana." This did two things: it associated the plant with Mexicans and played on racist fears, and it misled the public into thinking that marijuana and hemp were different plants.
Nobody was afraid of hemp--it had been cultivated and processed into usable goods, and consumed as medicine, and burned in oil lamps, for hundreds of years. But after a campaign to discredit hemp in the Hearst newspapers, Americans became afraid of something called marijuana.
By 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act was passed which marked the beginning of the end of the hemp industry. In 1938, Popular Mechanics ran an article about marijuana called, "New Billion Dollar Crop." It was the first time the words "billion dollar" were used to describe a U.S. agricultural product. Popular Mechanics said,
. . . a machine has been invented which solves a problem more than 6,000 years old. . . . The machine . . . is designed for removing the fiber-bearing cortex from the rest of the stalk, making hemp fiber available for use without a prohibitive amount of human labor.Well since the Popular Mechanics article appeared over half a century ago, many more applications have come to light. Back in 1935, more than 58,000 tons of marijuana seed were used just to make paint and varnish (all non-toxic, by the way). When marijuana was banned, these safe paints and varnishes were replaced by paints made with toxic petro-chemicals. In the 1930s no one knew about poisoned rivers or deadly land-fills or children dying from chemicals in house paint. People did know something about hemp back then, because the plant and its products were so common.
Hemp is the standard fiber of the world. It has great tensile strength and durability. It is used to produce more than 5,000 textile products ranging from rope, to fine laces, and the woody "hurds" remaining after the fiber has been removed, contain more than seventy-seven per cent cellulose, and can be used to produce more than 25,000 products ranging from dynamite to cellophane.
All ships lines were made from hemp and much of the sail canvas. (In fact the word "canvas" is the Dutch pronunciation of the Greek word for hemp, "cannabis.") All ropes, hawsers and lines aboard ship, all rigging, nets, flags and pennants were also made from marijuana stalks. And so were all charts, logs and bibles.
Today many of these items are made, in whole or in part, with synthetic petro-chemicals and wood. All oil lamps used to burn hemp-seed oil until the whale oil edged it out of first place in the mid-nineteenth century. And then, when all the whales were dead, lamplights were fueled by petroleum, and coal, and recently radioactive energy.
This may be hard to believe in the middle of a war on drugs, but the first law concerning marijuana in the colonies at Jamestown in 1619, ordered farmers to grow Indian hemp. Massachussetts passed a compulsory grow law in 1631. Connecticut followed in 1632. The Chesapeake colonies ordered their farmers, by law, to grow marijuana in the mid-eighteenth century. Names like Hempstead or Hemphill dot the American landscape and reflect areas of intense marijuana cultivation.
During World War II, domestic hemp production became crucial when the Japanese cut off Asian supplies to the U.S. American farmers (and even their sons), who grew marijuana, were exempt from military duty during World War II. A 1942 U.S. Department of Agriculture film called Hemp For Victory extolled the agricultural might of marijuana and called for hundreds of thousands of acres to be planted. Despite a rather vigorous drug crackdown, 4-H clubs were asked by the government to grow marijuana for seed supply. Ironically, war plunged the government into a sober reality about marijuana and that is that it's very valuable.
In today's anti-drug climate, people don't want to hear about the commercial potential of marijuana. The reason is that the flowering top of a female hemp plant contains a drug. But from 1842 through the 1890s a powerful concentrated extract of marijuana was the second most prescribed drug in the United States. In all that time the medical literature didn't list any of the ill effects claimed by today's drug warriors.
Today, there are anywhere from 25 to 30 million Americans who smoke marijuana regularly. As an industry, marijuana clears well more than $4 billion a year. [This must have been a misreading of his notes--for 1990, the minimum figure would have been at least $40 billion for the entire nation. (phone interview with Jack Herer)] Obviously, as an illegal business, none of that money goes to taxes. But the modern marijuana trade only sells one product, a drug. Hemp could be worth considerably more than $4 [$40] billion a year, if it were legally supplying the 50,000 safe products the proponents claim it can.
If hemp could supply the energy needs of the United States, its value would be inestimable. Now that the drug czar is in final retreat, America has an opportunity to, once and for all, say farewell to the Exxon Valdez, Saddam Hussein and a prohibitively expensive brinkmanship in the desert sands of Saudi Arabia.
This is Hugh Downs, ABC News, New York.