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A Grown-Up Conversation About Hemp

Jim Finnel

Fallen Cannabis Warrior & Ex News Moderator
Hemp is an environmentally friendly, sturdy and durable plant with an interesting history. But before getting into the history, I'd like to clear things up because when people hear hemp, they automatically think marijuana. Comparing hemp to marijuana is like telling Grandma Steward that the beautiful ornamental poppies in her yard could be used for recreational purposes, too. I think she would be quite appalled at the comparison.

One way hemp and marijuana differ is in the levels of molecular compounds each contains. Hemp has a high percentage of an anti-psychoactive compound - meaning can't get you stoned - which counteracts the very low level of the psychoactive compound; whereas marijuana is the other way around. Basically, if someone tried to smoke hemp, it would show a great lack of intelligence on his or her part. Furthermore, if someone tried to eat hemp, that person should make sure to be close to a toilet because hemp is so fibrous that eating it is like the equivalent of taking three, or more, strong laxatives - and you still don't get a buzz.

Since that discussion is out of the way, we can move on to more grown-up information - like the environmental benefits, uses and history of hemp.

The environmental benefits from growing hemp include: less water use, shorter growing season, no pesticide or herbicide use, no need for chlorine bleaching when being processed, and it purges the soil of weeds for future crops to be planted in the same field.

Traditional uses of hemp include: using it for canvas, rope and clothing. Through technological advances, it can also be made into building products, like medium-density fiber board, beams or studs, or used for cars - the largest use for hemp fiber in Germany is for automotive panels. Hemp can also be consumed internally for its nutrient-rich properties.

Hemp oil and seeds contain unsaturated essential fatty acids and amino acids. The amino acids in hemp oil are similar to "complete" proteins like milk, eggs or meat. In recent years hemp oil and seeds in food have come under legal attack in the U.S. due to a trace level of the psychoactive compound found in hemp; the plant is regulated to contain 0.3 percent or less of the compound. In 2004, after years of court appeals, a Ninth Circuit judge ruled that the sale and import of industrial hemp remain legal. Meaning we can buy it from other countries, but it is still illegal for farmers to grow industrial hemp in the U.S. However, it was not always illegal to grow hemp in the U.S.

In fact, during World War II the U.S. Department of Agriculture started a campaign with the slogan "Hemp for Victory" to encourage farmers to grow hemp for rope, canvas and uniforms for soldiers. Farmers started growing hemp and it became a large crop - second to cotton in some southeastern states. So, what happened?

What changed was a definition. A law called the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act taxed people who were growing marijuana and hemp. Except our predecessors understood the difference between hemp and marijuana, so growing hemp was also taxed, yet legal. The definition changed in 1970 when a governmental department, along with help from chemical industry lobbying, changed the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act definition to include industrial hemp in the same category as the narcotic marijuana, therefore making it illegal to grow hemp in the U.S. Unfortunately, not many noticed the change in law at that time because the hemp industry has lost steam, and there wasn't really anyone to argue the case.

Nowadays, industrial hemp is gaining back its value and importance. In 1998, Canada started growing hemp and profits by selling it to consumers in the U.S. Recently, North Dakota state law legalized industrial hemp production because of the potential of the crop to help farmers. Even though the law passed there, farmers still have to get federal permission to grow hemp. So for now we'll just have to continue purchasing hemp from other countries and hope economic and scientific evidence will be considered, eventually allowing industrial hemp to be grown in the U.S.

Eartha Steward is written by Carly Wier, Holly Loff, and Beth Orstad, consultants on all things eco and chic at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation in our mountain community. Eartha believes that you can walk gently on our planet, even if you're wearing stylie shoes.

Ask Eartha: A grown-up conversation about hemp
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