While hemp has an endless amount of good qualities, its demand may never quite exceed expectations.
Hemp, also known as the cannabis plant, is making a major comeback after its prohibition in 1937. Before that time, 30% of Americans were farming hemp, and the US had a good reputation for its quality. Now, 80 years after it was on the class 1 narcotic list (unjustifiably even higher than crystal meth and cocaine), legalization has renewed the industry.
In the early 20th century, growing hemp in certain states was mandatory because it was so useful. It was used to weave ship sails and wagon covers; even the Declaration of Independence is printed on hemp paper! Hemp-derived cellulose was used as a raw material for plastics, prompting Henry Ford to build a prototype car from hemp fibers.
But soon after the federal government created the “Marijuana Tax Act” and massive propaganda started to group marijuana and commercial hemp production together, all cultivation was halted. Industrial hemp and marijuana are actually different breeds of Cannabis sativa. Hemp has no value as a recreational drug, and even attempting to smoke hemp flowers just produces a massive headache. But due to lack of research and understanding, all cannabis got grouped together and banned.
However, in the past few years, there has been a big push to legalize marijuana due to its medicinal properties. The drug has been more thoroughly researched and has caused no deaths or long-term bodily harm, and is therefore being slowly re-introduced, state by state, in the US. There are no more rigorously researched arguments for both hemp production and marijuana, both medicinal and recreational. By separating hemp and marijuana as a case by case basis, interest groups are able to push for legislation piece by piece.
As of 2012, the US hemp industry was valued at $500 million in annual retail sales and growing for all hemp products, according to the Hemp Industries Association.
WHAT’S SO GREAT ABOUT HEMP?
Hemp is one of the most resilient plants on earth, known for its ability to grow practically anywhere and requires half the water and attention than similar crops. Hemp seeds are also full of vitamins B1 and 2, D, E, calcium, magnesium and the good kinds of fats (like you would find in avocados) omega 3 and 6.
The fibers from hemp plants can be used to create paper or fabric. In fact, fabrics made with at least one half hemp block the sun’s rays more effectively than any other fiber. The paper can also be recycled more often and more easily than wood-based paper. Think of the number of trees and ecosystems we could save by reducing logging for paper goods!
But arguably one of the best benefits of hemp is that it has a tiny environmental footprint. It requires very few pesticides and no herbicides. The crop suppresses weeds and loosens soil, perfect to cultivate before planting winter cereals. Hemp does, however, require a good deal of water.
The hemp plant is also very labor intensive. Attempting to use mechanics to harvest hemp plants would damage the plants, and so needs to be picked by hand, creating tons of jobs.
SO WHY IS HEMP AND MARIJUANA GROUPED TOGETHER SO OFTEN?
While it’s not difficult to understand how the confusion and misinformation began, many fears that the government has about legalizing hemp production are unwarranted. For instance, marijuana plants need a lot of space to grow, so the fear that hemp growers could “hide marijuana plants in their fields” is unlikely.
It’s also a terrible idea to smoke or eat hemp plants, and it’s a quickly learned lesson. Not only does smoking it result in headaches, but eating industrial hemp would be the equivalent of taking 2-3 high fiber laxatives.
WILL HEMP BE THE ECONOMY BOOSTER IT’S CRACKED UP TO BE?
According to one farmer, the demand for hemp is not all it’s made out to be. In fact, in the early 20th century, demand for hemp was already declining and people were finding cheaper and quicker methods, often turning to artificial fibers. While demand has grown recently, it hasn’t grown exponentially enough to be considered a “miracle crop”.
In 1999, 250 million pounds of hemp were produced, according to Food and Agriculture. As of 2011, that number has only risen to 280 million pounds. For reference, there are 10.8 million tons of wheat produced in Kansas alone every year, and 9 million tons of wood pulp produced in the entire US.
Hopefully, increased hemp production can replace some wheat and wood pulp harvests in the future for better, more environmentally sustainable crops.