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Hemp, Commerce, and Freedom

by Deuce of Clubs

If you heard about a plant that could help supply the basic necessities of life--food, shelter, and clothing- -and could cheaply and easily serve as a non-polluting alternative to many chemical and wood-based products and replace fossil fuels altogether, what would you do with it? For anyone of average intelligence, the obvious course of action would be to make use of the plant's many benefits in any way possible, as soon as possible. Unfortunately, for those of subnormal intelligence--which is to say, politicians--the obvious course of action is the opposite of the obvious one.

Though it may sound too good to be true, industrial hemp may be the most versatile raw material in the world. As a kid I used to be amazed by the advertising on the sides of Arm & Hammer boxes, which listed hundreds of uses for baking soda. Industrial hemp is even more versatile, with over twenty- five thousand known uses. Aside from its more well-known uses, such as rope, paper, and clothing, there is hemp ink, hemp soap, hemp shakes, hemp burgers, hemp cheese, even hemp breakfast cereal.

It is almost unbelievable, then, that our nation's leaders should forbid the growing of a such a useful plant, even more so when you know that hemp had the enthusiastic backing of our nation's original leaders. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, for example, couldn't say enough about the benefits of hemp, growing it themselves and encouraging others to do the same. (Hemp activists like to remind people that the Declaration of Independence was originally drafted on hemp paper.)

There was no official interference with hemp until the beginning of the era of big government. After the repeal of Prohibition, the Federal government's failed attempt to do away with alcohol, the Feds immediately repeated their mistake, outlawing marijuana in 1937. Unfortunately, marijuana's downfall took industrial hemp along with it, in spite of the fact that industrial hemp contains less than 1% of THC, the psychoactive ingredient contained in marijuana-- you could smoke industrial hemp all day, but you might just as well smoke the morning paper. Politicians not being known for fine distinctions, however, this country has been deprived of hemp's benefits ever since (except for a short period during World War II when the government actually made propaganda films as part of the "Hemp for Victory!" campaign to persuade farmers to grow hemp).

Today, anyone can legally make, sell, and buy hemp products in the U.S., but no one can legally grow it here. American manufacturers are forced to import hemp from other countries, an unnecessary outflow of U.S. dollars. "In the past few years, the industry has been exploding faster than importers can keep up with the demand," says Ted Kaercher, owner of Headquarters, a retailer of many hemp products. "In fact, U.S. Customs just raised the quota for importing hemp because distributors were running out of their allotted supply within three months of the calendar year."

Marjorie Holmes, of Everything Earthly, a Phoenix shop that sells hemp goods, sees the biggest obstacles to hemp legalization as "the Drug Enforcement Agency and lack of education." Yet any fears the DEA might have about hemp being a cover for marijuana are unfounded; even an untrained eye can easily distinguish a hemp plant from a marijuana plant. Industrial hemp's complete lack of psychoactive powers is not of interest to the DEA, however. They seem more concerned that any move toward legalizing an outlawed substance would be seen as a blow to the agency's near- dictatorial powers.

Even so, the states are beginning to fight back. According to Kathy Trout, of Tucson's Crucial Creations, Kentucky, Colorado, and California are trying to legalize the growing of hemp, and tribes on eleven reservations have petitions pending. The hemp issue is attracting the attention of people from many different (though often opposed) camps, including environmentalists, Libertarians, physicians, and entrepreneurs.

Unfortunately, the effort faces a major stumbling block in that people commonly think of the hemp legalization activism as merely a front for disgruntled potheads. Activists often do a lot to contribute to that image, an image that was evident at November's showing of Hemp Revolution, a film by Australian director Anthony Clarke at the Valley Art Theater. Having run for public office as a Libertarian myself, I've had my share of contact with marijuana law reform groups, and I'd rate the film and its accompanying "hemp fashion show" as a reasonably accurate microcosm of the hemp legalization effort.

The fashion show featured local hemp activists modeling clothing made from hemp fabric. There was definitely a preaching-to-the-crowd atmosphere--there seemed to be about as many "models" as spectators among the crowd of perhaps five or six dozen. Anyone who wandered in off the street to see what the hemp revolutionaries are doing would probably have gotten the definite impression that a lot of reefer is what they're doing, because there were pothead stereotypes aplenty: tie-dyed Deadheads, dreadlocked rasta dudes, and of course your off-the-rack Cheeches and Chongs. Not the whole crowd, of course (I saw some clean-cut average Joes, including some of the event organizers), but enough to prevent anyone from thinking they'd wandered into a temperance meeting.

The clothing itself--some made entirely from hemp, others hemp/cotton blends--seems well-made and fairly stylish, but many items are decorated with the inevitable pot leaf designs. Whenever I see that sort of thing I can't help recalling the dopes in my high school art classes, who used to draw, paint, and silk screen pot leaves on just about everything they owned. In ceramics class, they made ceramic bongs; in plastic shop, they made plastic bongs; in wood shop, they made stash boxes. It was my junior year before I finally discovered that Black Sabbath's "Sweet Leaf" was not our school fight song. I'm always a little less than impressed, then, when I see someone wearing a pot leaf. Fortunately, someone had the good sense to emblazon some of the clothes with the facsimile signature of dedicated hemp grower Thomas Jefferson--now there's an angle worth playing. Unfortunately, it's an angle that is underplayed and overshadowed by stoner stereotypes. The fashion show's message--for me, at least--was all but drowned out by the background music, which consisted almost exclusively of songs about smoking pot by such groups as Cypress Hill, those Johnny Appleseeds of weed, whose albums are full of marijuana anthems even less subtle than "Sweet Leaf."

After the fashion show, director Anthony Clarke stepped up to the mike and played "Waltzing Matilda" and "The Star- Spangled Banner" by squeezing his hands together (in junior high we called it hand farting), supplying notes out of hand's range with a vocal falsetto or bass, as appropriate (though in such a setting it's hard to imagine what inappropriate might be). Once again the image problem--I mean, if hand farts aren't classic pothead entertainment, I don't know what is. (Speaking of pothead entertainment, the soundtrack to Clarke's film features veteran burnout Jackson Browne. I remember hearing a bootleg album of his called Pipeline, which captured for the ages the special magic of a Jackson Browne so slammed he couldn't even remember the words to his own songs.)

Another image problem the hemp effort faces is its leftist taint. Clarke's previous films, Panama Deception and Cover-up: Behind the Iran-Contra Affair, may give some indication of what his politics might be. But the hemp issue is not a leftist issue, and it is both unwise and strategically unsound to suggest otherwise. Though most of Clarke's interviewees kept to the subject of the benefits of industrial hemp (even University of Arizona's Andrew Weil, who sports a big Southcottian beard like Marx himself), the Marxist line was represented by longtime goof Terence McKenna, who characterized hemp as antithetical to "capitalist, market-based society." If that were the case, it's hard to see why the Libertarian Party supports its legalization. The hemp issue is more of a liberty issue than anything, and that, properly communicated, would give it an across-the-board appeal.

In his narration Clarke acknowledges that some hemp supporters may have what he calls "ulterior motives" (though he was probably talking about recreational pot smokers rather than Marxists), but most of the audience seemed distinctly more interested in marijuana than hemp. Of the many uses of hemp listed in the narration, the only one they cheered was "inspiration" (illustrated by an old Asian man puffing on a gigantic fatty). They responded with even more applause to the scene of a huge effigy of a joint being carried in procession like a holy image. These aren't the kinds of images that are going to persuade ordinary people to support the legalization of industrial hemp, let alone marijuana. This is bad news for the hemp cause, since hemp nearly always gets tarred with the same brush as marijuana. The smart strategy would be to draw a sharp distinction between the two. The shampoo commercial of the 70s--"With beer...but don't drink it!" should be adopted and adapted as the hemp product commercial of the 90s: "With hemp...but don't smoke it!"

Like the woman selling rabbits in Roger and Me whose sign "Food or Pet" turned away customers, hemp activists' lumping together of hemp and marijuana is like a sign saying "Clothes or Pot"--it alienates people whose attitudes toward marijuana have been formed by government and media propaganda. The chances for the legalization of hemp will be much better if activists forget about marijuana, at least for the time being, and emphasize the environmental and utilitarian benefits of hemp, which are many.

Do people want to save trees? Tell them that hemp could completely replace wood pulp in the making of paper, cardboard, and particle board, leaving more of the world's forests intact. In addition, hemp grows at an extremely rapid rate ("like a weed," as Hemp Revolution put it, drawing giggles from the crowd), reaching maturity in only two months, and is therefore a much more renewable resource than trees. Are people worried about the contamination of ground water? Tell them that processing wood pulp into paper requires toxic chemicals--chemicals which often find their way into waterways and ground water supplies--while the making of hemp paper requires none of these chemicals. Nor do hemp plants require chemicals to fight insects or even weeds--the plants grow close together and have flowers at the top of the plant, which shut out light, which chokes out weeds. Do people want to eliminate automobile pollution? Tell them that hemp is a cheap and indefinitely renewable replacement for fossil fuels: hemp fuel burns so cleanly that automobile pollution could be a thing of the past. Researchers interviewed in Hemp Revolution said they ran an ordinary automobile on hemp fuel for 3,500 miles, took the engine apart and found almost no residue.

People not explicitly interested in environmentalism could be drawn to the hemp cause for utilitarian reasons. The growing of hemp would create jobs and free us from having to import such a cheap and easy to grow crop. Tobacco growers could switch to hemp, get off the Federal gravy train, and devote their fields to a crop that benefits people instead of killing them. Hemp is also a great rotation crop because only the fiber (the stalk of the hemp plant) is harvested, leaving the flower and root behind to enrich the soil.

Such--rather than pro-pot propaganda--are the kinds of facts that could convince open-minded people to support the legalization of hemp. Yet, having lampooned the marijuana contingent, I don't want to leave the impression that I favor anti-marijuana laws. The legalization of marijuana would have its benefits as well. For one thing, our courts and prisons would no longer be clogged with people whose only crime is smoking or selling marijuana. One-fifth of all criminal convictions in this country are marijuana- related. Obviously the criminalization of marijuana has been just as big a failure as the outlawing of alcohol seventy years ago. Laws do not change human desires, and the desire for alcohol and other mind-altering substances has proven stronger than fear of punishment. Furthermore, just as Prohibition virtually created the American gangster, U.S. narcotics policy has made millionaires of thugs and criminals of hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens. Instead of seeing the foolishness of their position, the politicians instead waste more of other people's money on the building of more prisons. And who's out terrorizing the highways anyway, potheads or hopheads? It's alcohol that's the killer on the streets, yet the politicians aren't trying to reinstate Prohibition--so why do they refuse to decriminalize marijuana?

Everyone under the age of 40 or so has heard plenty of (mostly health-related) arguments against pot smoking. I've known lots of potheads in my time, and while I don't know much about how pot has affected their health, I do know that most of them tended to become great layabouts and procrastinators, whose inner life came to consist of having a few bong hits while watching Kung Fu. Yet arguments against recreational marijuana use in no way apply to the medical use of marijuana, which can relieve the nausea of AIDS patients and keep glaucoma in check. One of the speakers at the Valley Art show was a man billed as "Glaucoma Jim," who must ingest large amounts of marijuana in order to keep his vision. If he should be arrested and deprived of his marijuana, his doctors have told him, he will almost immediately become ill and his eyes will fail. "In three hours I'll be hurling," he says. "In 3 days I could lose my eyesight."

That the government can without reason withhold medicine from the sick illustrates the general deterioration of freedom in the United States. There's no reason--no constitutional reason, at least--why U.S. citizens should be denied the right to choose clean hemp fuel instead of polluting oil products (you don't suppose the giant oil companies have a vested interest in throwing their massive lobbying weight against the legalization of hemp, now, do you?) or chemical-free hemp building materials and paper products instead of forest-destroying, groundwater-polluting wood products.

The hemp issue's best--perhaps only--chance of success, however, is to ground itself in the larger issue of freedom. On its own merits it probably cannot succeed, because under the current system Congress is owned by bureaucracies such as the ATF and special-interest groups such as the petrochemical corporations, whose power and wealth would be threatened if people were free to produce industrial hemp. The success of the "hemp revolution," therefore, depends the success of a larger revolution, one aimed at resurrecting and restoring the freedom once enjoyed by American citizens. Those politicians who do not educate themselves about freedom today may tomorrow learn much more than they ever wanted to know about that most ancient of all hemp products--rope.

This article originally appeared in Java Magazine
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