“Cotton is king,” Senator James Henry Hammond announced proudly in 1858.
Since then, cotton has been christened the “fabric of our lives.” And to this day, it’s still going strong.
Cotton production, in fact, is projected to quadruple by the year 2050.
Some interesting tidbits…
Cotton accounts for less than 2.5% of cropland and requires 16% of the world’s pesticides. It also needs, from seed to T-shirt, up to 5,000 gallons of water to produce two pounds of the stuff. (Two pounds, by the way, is about the equivalent of a shirt and a pair of jeans.)
Hemp production, on the other hand, requires half the amount of land and, when you add in processing, about a quarter of the amount of water to produce the same amount of fabric.
Which is, mind you, far more durable than the cotton king.
The hemp plant itself is also stronger, more resilient and easily overtakes most other weeds. It’s rare, in fact, that it requires any chemicals to thrive.
“It’s so prolific,” Brian Palmer writes in Slate, “that the overwhelming majority of cannabis plants uprooted by the Drug Enforcement Administration every year are a wild relative of hemp. It’s no coincidence they call the stuff weed.”
For those reasons, and many others, hemp is a superior product.
Humans have known this for thousands of years. In America, though, hemp had its chance to become a serious contender in the 1930s.
In fact, Popular Mechanics published a piece in 1938 called “New Billion-Dollar Crop.”
“Hemp is the standard fiber of the world,” the article reads. “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 percent cellulose, and can be used to produce more than 25,000 products, ranging from dynamite to Cellophane.”
Even so, hemp was made illegal shortly after this article was published.
It should be noted, before we dig deeper, that hemp and marijuana are two very different plants. Unlike marijuana, hemp does not and cannot get you high.
Therefore, whatever negative feelings Americans have about marijuana shouldn’t interfere with industrial hemp.
Unfortunately, it seems, that’s what has happened.
And in the Land of the Free, federal law still defends its irrational ban on hemp farming.
But, despite the idiocy, there’s a light at the end of this tunnel…
Fortunately, the tide is turning against hemp prohibition.
And it’s because of one oft-forgotten power the states have over the federal government — the power of nullification.
“Today,” Michael Boldin, founder of the Tenth Amendment Center, wrote last Tuesday, “the Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill to authorize the farming, and production of industrial hemp in the state for commercial purposes, setting the foundation to nullify in practice the unconstitutional federal prohibition on the same. The vote was 98-0.”
“In short,” Mike Maharrey, also from the Tenth Amendment Center, says, “this would cut the federal government completely out of the state’s hemp policy, as it should be. This is exactly what is already happening in Vermont, Colorado, and other states.”
We’ll get to the implications of this — and state nullification in general — in a moment.
First, let’s talk hemp.
According to a 2005 Congressional Research Service report, the U.S. is the only developed nation that hasn’t used industrial hemp for economic purposes. Instead, the United States instead is, ridiculously, the #1 importer of hemp fiber. And China and Canada are the top two exporters.
So, you’re probably wondering, then, just like us…
If it’s fine for everyone else, why was hemp made illegal in the U.S.?
After all, in 1942, only half a decade after the Marijuana Tax Act was passed (which banned both hemp and marijuana), the federal government temporarily lifted the ban on hemp.
This was, of course, so that hypocritical bureaucrats could launch their “hemp for victory” campaign, which encouraged farmers to grow hemp to harvest for rope, fire hose, sails, parachutes and uniforms for the war.
In 1957, though, as quickly as it was brought back, it was banned yet again. (Because, apparently, it’s only dangerous when convenient for the feds.)
There are two prevailing theories about why it was made first made illegal.
One is that it was banned because of a conspiracy between government officials and crony capitalists.
The second is that it was mostly a race issue. Many in the government saw marijuana as a dangerous enabler in race relations during times of extreme race tension. For that reason, and others, it was used as a tool to subjugate minorities.
Since hemp looks so similar to marijuana, so goes the second theory, the federal official’s life was made easier when he wasn’t required to know how to differentiate hemp and marijuana in a field. So they banned both.
Today, we’ll look at both sides to see how either hold up.
Steven Wishnia, a contributor at the Leftist rag Alternet, takes the latter argument: “It is far more likely,” he writes, “that marijuana was outlawed because of racism and cultural warfare.”
Of course, when someone from the Left shouts “racist!”, it’s crucial one does his or her due diligence… and doesn’t immediately take it at face value.
Why, if starving kids in Africa were given a kernel of corn each time someone was labeled racist by the Left, Alyssa Milano would soon be begging for solar-powered treadmills.
(By no means does this imply we’re huge fans of the Right, which also carries more collectivized baggage than a gaggle of drag queens on a road trip.)
That said, no one can reasonably say that racism wasn’t a constant and disgusting fixture at the time.
This 1930s ad from General Electric, for example, is a mild specimen…
Is it possible, though, that the racist public sentiment was turned into a political device?
Politicians, with special interests in their briefcases, likely knew they could easily demonize minorities and garner support for the prohibition of hemp and marijuana.
Everywhere you turned during that time, you were bombarded with reasons why marijuana was on the verge of corrupting your kids and, with one innocent toke, transforming your heavenly housewife into a jazz-hearin’ hussy.
“Marijuana: The devil’s weed with roots in hell!”
“Marijuana makes fiends of boys in 30 days.”
Hemp, they say, was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Collateral damage in a racist rampage.
The second theory is, as mentioned, that crony capitalists saw hemp as a threat to their respective industries.
Marijuana, this argument goes, was just a convenient way to demonize the industrial plant and make them both illegal.
Here’s this side of the argument, summed up by author Joseph W. Jacob…
The petro-chemical and pulp paper industries in particular stood to lose billions of dollars if the commercial potential of hemp was fully realized.
Hemp researchers Jack Herer and Chris Conrad have shown that much of the blame can be laid on a few individuals, particularly E.I. Du Pont and William R. Hearst. In the 1920s, the DuPont company developed and patented fuel additives such as tetraethyle lead, and the sulfate and sulfite processes for manufacture of pulp paper, and the numerous new synthetic products such as nylon, cellophane and other plastics. At the same time, other companies were developing synthetic products from renewable biomass resources, especially hemp.
For example, in the 1930s, Ford Motor Company engineers successfully operated a pilot plant at Iron Mountain (MI), where they produced alcohol, charcoal, tar and other stock chemicals from hemp.
Furthermore, the Schlichten decorticator promised to eliminate much of the need for wood pulp paper, thus threatening to reduce the value of timberland owned by Hearst, Kimberly-Clark, and others. DuPont, Hearst, and their associates lobbied and conspired to crush the competition posed by hemp, and they succeeded.
For example, from 1935 to 1937, I.I. DuPont personally lobbied the chief counsel of the Treasury Department, Herman Oliphant, and repeatedly assured him that DuPont’s synthetic petrochemicals (i.e. urethane), could replace hempseed oil in the marketplace. Some large pharmaceutical companies also stood to gain by the criminalization of cannabis, since their patented prescription tranquilizers (barbituates, etc.) would replace cannabis to some extent.
Maybe we’re biased. But this argument doesn’t seem completely ridiculous.
Industry monopolists will do, as you know, what it takes to protect themselves.
And there are a few coincidences that the former theory doesn’t fully explain (at least not enough to satisfy yours truly)…
Namely, we’re supposed to believe that hemp becoming illegal immediately after the decorticator was invented — which would’ve made hemp production practical for even small family farms — is merely a coincidence.
Therefore, we ask…
Nevertheless, that’s old news…
The bigger part of this story is that all of this idiocy is quickly coming to an end.
All because of the state’s ability to nullify dumb (and potentially racist) federal laws.
“There is a large movement among the states,” blogger Jeff A. Brenner explains, “that has been regularly reported in the alternate media, but pretty much ignored in the mainstream media, that may potentially cause a serious problem between the states and the federal government.
“This movement is the proposal of “nullification” bills in state governments to nullify, or violate, federal law. To understand what nullification is we need to understand how the Constitution of the United States works, which unfortunately, most Americans do not.”
We’ll go into more detail on this movement — and what it could mean for the future of the United States — in tomorrow’s episode.
Managing editor, Laissez Faire Today
P.S. Have something to say? Say it! Chris@lfb.org.