“Hemp” is the name that is commonly used for the industrial (non-drug) usage of the cannabis plant, which is otherwise known as marijuana. The use of cannabis for hemp products literally goes back thousands of years, to the degree that the ancient Greek word for “canvas” was the same word as “cannabis.” In addition, hemp was also found in pottery shards that were used more than 10,000 years ago in China and Japan, and was also used in those regions for clothes, shoes, ropes and an early form of paper.

  The stalk of the cannabis or marijuana plant has no THC content whatsoever, which is to say that it has no mind-altering properties at all. In fact, you could get as much of a “high” from smoking the stalk of the marijuana plant as you could from smoking the newspaper you now are reading. In addition, today’s agriculturalists can cross-pollinate the entire plant to reduce its THC level virtually to zero. Nevertheless, because it is still considered to be marijuana, it is still illegal to grow hemp in our country.

But that has not always been true. During colonial times hemp was used for large numbers of products. For example, the sails used on the USS Constitution (or “Old Ironsides”) were made from hemp, and several of the drafts of the Declaration of Independence were printed on parchment made from this same natural substance. Hemp was also used back then in the making of rope, textiles, and gunny sacks, and was even used as money from 1631 until the early 1800s.

  Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and numbers of other famous planters had large numbers of acres planted in hemp, and Benjamin Franklin was one of the most active hemp paper merchants. In fact hemp was so useful, the first laws in the colonies addressing cannabis actually required the various townships to grow a certain amount of hemp, based upon the size of their populations.

  The December 1941 edition of Popular Mechanics said that Henry Ford grew hemp on his estate, and that he had made some “plastic” cars that were composed mostly of hemp, wheat straw and sisal. In addition, it is believed that Rudolph Diesel invented the engine that bears his name to run on a variety of fuels, especially those based upon vegetable and seed oils like those found in hemp.

  Today hemp can be used in thousands of commercial products. The fibers can be used for clothing like shirts and dresses, and for backpacks, shoes, sandals, wallets, hats, bedspreads, thermal insulation, animal bedding, mulch for vegetation and an almost unlimited number of other similar products. It can also be blended with silk, linen or cotton to make fine quality garments. Napoleon used hemp extensively for uniforms for his foot soldiers because of its low cost and durability, and the emperors of China frequently had it blended with silk to make their fine garments.

Hemp fibers also have many uses in the manufacture of such things as rope, twine, packaging material, paper products, plywood and carpets. Both BMW and Mercedes-Benz use biocomposites made mostly from hemp fibers in the manufacture of interior panels for some of their automobiles, and the fibers are also used today in Europe and China to strengthen cement.

  Hemp seeds themselves are a significant food source, since they are highly nutritious and contain beneficial omega fatty acids, amino acids and minerals. As a result, they are now commercially available in cereals, frozen waffles, hemp tofu, and nut butter. In fact my wife recently purchased some nutritious hemp granola for me at Trader Joe’s, and it tasted quite good! It can also be used as a non-dairy milk product similar to soymilk, and as a non-dairy hemp “ice cream.”

  The oil from the hemp seed has additional uses as lip balms, soaps and moisturizing agents for creams. In addition, since the hemp seed oil dries when exposed to the air, it makes a fine oil-based paint that is similar to linseed oil.

  If you want to learn more, simply put the word “hemp” into a search engine on the internet, and you will be amazed at the positive things you find. But if those uses for hemp do not persuade you in themselves, try these facts. Hemp is one of the earth’s fastest-growing plants, it requires little or no pesticides, and it replenishes the soil with nutrients and nitrogen. In 1916, USDA Bulletin No. 404 stated that one acre of hemp over time produces the same amount of paper pulp as 4.1 acres of trees. And, of course, it takes about 20 years to grow the trees, but it takes only one season of 120 to 180 days to grow the hemp. Furthermore, one can obtain about 250 percent more fiber per acre from hemp than from cotton, and about 600 percent more than from flax. And, since it is so fast growing, hemp produces more energy per acre for biodiesel or alcohol fuel than corn, sugar, flax or any other crop.

  So why is hemp not being manufactured and used by our merchants for these products? Well, actually it is. But under today’s federal laws, the hemp must be imported from countries like Canada, the United Kingdom, Romania, and China. So, since even the countries of the European Union can grow hemp under special licenses, the United States is now the only industrialized country in the world in which it is illegal to grow hemp. This situation has been so profitable for Canada that it experienced a 300 percent growth in hempseed products in 2007 alone.  

  Our government’s hypocrisy in saying hemp should continue to be prohibited is dramatically demonstrated by a 14-minute movie produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1942 called “Hemp for Victory.” During World War II hemp was used extensively for military uniforms, canvas, rope and other products. But when our supplies of hemp and jute in the Philippines and Indonesia were cut off by the Japanese, the United States Government appealed through this film to all “patriotic” farmers to grow hemp.  

So with pictures of our nation’s flags waiving in the breeze and our troops preparing for battle, and accompanied by the strains of songs like “Anchors Aweigh,” our farmers were instructed how and where to plant hemp, and how best to harvest it. After all, we needed “Hemp for light-duty fire hoses,” for “thread for shoes for millions of American soldiers,” for “parachute webbing for our paratroopers,” for supplying the “34,000 feet of rope for each of our United States Navy ships,” and for “countless uses on ship and shore.” “Hemp for mooring our ships!” “Hemp for tow lines!” “Hemp for Victory!”

  But after the war, hemp again in the eyes of the government went back to being a prohibited substance without any practical usage of any kind. 

  So please help us get away from this hypocrisy and economic stupidity by convincing our government to pass a law like the following: “Any cannabis plant that has a THC content of 0.3 percent or less is legal to cultivate, harvest, possess and sell in the United States of America.” Of course, anything with a THC content above 0.3 percent would continue to be governed by whatever laws and regulations are in place for marijuana.

  That new law would in itself allow these plants, seeds and fibers to be raised, harvested and used without any more state interference than now exists for raising any other products. And that act alone would reclaim an enormously profitable industry for our farmers, manufacturers, merchants and consumers. 

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)