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Hemp: From Mythos to Monoculture

Now that hemp has finally arrived at its long-sought status as a legal crop and commodity, to what extent will it deviate from the utopian vision that animated the advocates who fought for it a generation ago?

A tension that has always existed between two currents in the subculture of hemp advocacy is increasingly weighted toward the more mundane — activists versus entrepreneurs, idealism versus pragmatism, agrarianism versus agribusiness. And finally the original paradigm of a crop with multitudinous uses as “food, fuel and fiber” versus the hegemony of CBD.

Can a capitalist commodity live up to the promise of hemp’s early promoters and zealots? How real was that promise to begin with? A generation later, how do we parse the exuberant claims of the “hempsters” — including their conspiratorial interpretations of the history of prohibition?

The animating mythos — and the conspiracy theory

At the time that the nation’s first drug czar Harry Anslinger launched his crusade to prohibit cannabis in the 1930s, the hemp industry was on the cusp of an anticipated boom. Years of slow decline due to the abandonment of sailing ships (dependent on hemp for sails and rigging) stood to be reversed by advances in decorticator technology. This device efficiently separates fiber from hurds, opening possibilities for more efficient application of the crop in production of paper, clothing and fabrics.

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Harry Anslinger

There is little doubt that this was derailed by cannabis prohibition. But was it a conscious design?

Yes it was, according to The Emperor Wears No Clothes, the metaphorical bible of the hemp subculture, written and researched by the movement’s grandfather — the late, legendary Jack Herer, a Venice Beach smoke shop operator turned auto-didact researcher. First appearing in 1985, the book has gone through several printings, as Herer and his collaborators have added material. This process has continued since Jack’s passing in 2010. Much valuable archival and research material was reprinted in the early editions.

The Emperor argues that we could be living in a hemp-based ecological utopia today had it not been for prohibition — and that this alternative reality is still within our reach if prohibition can be overturned. It claims that hemp can “reverse the greenhouse effect and save the world.”

Herer portrays a plot to suppress the hemp industry by Anslinger, in league with financier Andrew Mellon, the DuPont chemical combine, and newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Their collusion is seen as leading to the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, which effectively banned cannabis — both hemp and marijuana. Herer called it “The Marijuana Conspiracy,” and his followers often dubbed it the “Great Hemp Conspiracy.”

Mellon was Anslinger’s father-in-law who as Treasury Secretary in 1930 oversaw creation of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and appointed Anslinger to lead it. The Du Pont company was just at this time developing synthetic fabrics that could have to compete against hemp. Financial links between Mellon and the Du Ponts are alleged (although Mellon, it should be noted, was no longer Treasury Secretary in 1937 when the Tax Act was passed).

As is often the case with conspiracy theory, some of the purported connections are sketchy. Mellon is portrayed as the “chief financial backer” of Du Pont. This appears to be a serious overstatement. In his exhaustive 1974 study, Du Pont Dynasty, author Gerard Colby notes that in 1924 top family scion Alfred I. du Pont received a $2 million tax refund from the IRS, apparently at the intervention of Secretary Mellon. But there are no claims of significant Mellon National Bank investment in the Du Ponts — on the contrary, the two families were perceived as “rivals.” By the time Colby was writing, the Du Ponts were said to hold some 7% interest in the Mellon National Bank — but not the other way around, and not back in the 1930s.

The Hearst newspapers were then the leading amplifier for Anslinger’s propaganda campaign against “marihuana,” portraying it in lurid and unabashedly racist terms as a dangerous drug associated with Mexican immigrants and the criminal underclass. A Hearst financial motive is also hypothesized. Hemp paper supposedly threatened the market for newsprint from the Hearst Corporation’s timber holdings. The Hearst empire included timber holdings in California — but not enough to meet its own need for newsprint. According to W.A. Swanberg’s 1961 biography Citizen Hearst, the newspaper chain was a net purchaser of newsprint, and in the ‘30s actually fell into debt to Canadian paper producers.

Racism: method or motive?

Herer also claimed that Hearst’s animosity for marijuana and Mexicans was personal, because 800,000 acres of timberland he owned south of the border had been expropriated by Pancho Villa and his notoriously marijuana-smoking revolutionaries. Their marching song, “La Cucaracha,” referred explicitly to “marijuana que fumar.”

Another exhaustive biography, The Life & Times of Pancho Villa by Friedrich Katz (1998), confirms that Hearst did indeed own a large hacienda in Chihuahua, heartland of the Villista insurgency. But he was able to reach accommodations with the Villistas, so his lands were untouched. And while Hearst backed various factions at different times in Mexico’s long and chaotic revolution, one of those was none other than Pancho Villa! In a 1914 editorial, Hearst himself endorsed Villa for Mexico’s presidency, hailing him as the best bet “to establish a stable and reliable government.”

And this brings us to a fundamental question of interpretation: Was racism a tool in a conspiracy that had other motives? Or was racism itself the motive? Was the stigma associated with Mexican immigrants exploited to tar cannabis? Or were immigrants, criminals, and cannabis already linked in the paranoid minds of Anslinger and Hearst, regardless of any ulterior economic motive?

Anslinger’s Congressional testimony smacks more of the ugly zealot than the scheming charlatan. In one statement, Anslinger warned that Mexican immigrants were selling joints to “white high school students,” and added: “I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigarette can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents. That’s why our problem is so great; the greatest percentage of our [cannabis-smoking] population is composed of Spanish-speaking persons, most of who are low mentally, because of social and racial conditions.”

Circumstantial evidence

There is little doubt that Anslinger lied in his Congressional testimony to get the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act passed. Asked if his bill would harm legal hemp farmers, he replied under oath that “they are not only amply protected under this Act, but they can go ahead and raise hemp just as they have always done.”

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Industrial hemp decorticator

This line has been quoted in some of the recent state laws re-legalizing hemp, as evidence of how deception was used to suppress the industry.

There’s also no doubt that US media at the time were hyping an imminent hemp boom that never happened. The February 1938 issue of Mechanical Engineering magazine ran an enthusiastic feature calling hemp “the most profitable and desirable crop that can be grown.” A Popular Mechanics article that same month lauded hemp as a “new billion dollar crop.”

Ironically, this was just six months after the Marihuana Tax Act cemented the fate of such aspirations.

Herer and fellow “hempsters” also pointed to the US Department of Agriculture’s Bulletin 404, which emphasized the potential for hemp hurds as well as fiber in paper production, and looked to the crop as an alternative that could save America’s forests. Hurds, or shives, are the woody material attached to the fiber, generally disposed of as waste. Use of hurds would make hemp twice as efficient a raw material for paper.

A smoking gun?

But this still all amounts to circumstantial evidence. When pressed for a metaphorical “smoking gun,” the hempsters will point to a passage in Du Pont’s annual report of 1937 — the same year the Marihuana Tax Act was passed. Anticipating an imminent revolution in synthetic fibers, the report stated: “The revenue raising power of government may be converted into an instrument for forcing acceptance of sudden new ideas of industrial and social reorganization.”

Was this a veiled reference to the Marihuana Tax Act — which placed such a heavy tax burden on hemp as to effectively ban it, clearing the way for the “new ideas” of synthetic fibers?

It was not portrayed that way to Congress. Treasury Department counsel Clinton Hester testified that the purpose of the Tax Act was “to employ the Federal taxing power not only to raise revenue from the marihuana traffic, but also to discourage the current and widespread undesirable use of marihuana by smokers and drug addicts and thus drive the traffic into channels where the plant will be put to valuable industrial, medical, and scientific uses.”

In any case, just two years after the Tax Act was passed, the same publications that had been predicting a hemp boom were touting Du Pont’s antiseptic creed of “Better Living Through Chemistry.” Company president Lammot du Pont II boasted in the June 1939 edition of Popular Mechanics: “The chemist has aided in conserving natural resources by developing synthetic products to supplement or wholly replace natural products.”

The legacy of toxic pollution at Du Pont’s plants in New Jersey and West Virginia — still being cleaned up by the Environmental Protection Agency today — casts an ironic light on this conservationist verbiage.

However, the worst of the pollution was from the company’s old mainstay of munitions production rather than synthetic fabrics. And the police maxim Cui bono? — who benefits from the crime? — is supposed to be an aid to investigation, not itself proof of guilt.

When evaluating the Great Hemp Conspiracy, another foreign phrase comes to mind, this one an Italian folk-saying: “Se non e vero, e ben trovato.” Basically, “It may not be true, but it’s a good story.”

The conspiracy reconsidered

Chris Conrad, a longtime California cannabis advocate, was one of Herer’s collaborators on The Emperor. He’s listed as an editor in early editions, and he later published his own addition to the scholarship, Hemp: Lifeline to the Future (1994).

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1973, by Jack Herrer

A generation later, he has a somewhat distanced vantage point on the worldview the hempsters were propagating. “The purpose of this discussion was to excite people, which conspiracy theories have the ability to do,” he says. “It expresses the core ecological crisis that is facing the planet right now and ties it to this one moment of history in 1937.”

But he still stands by the fundamentals. “The missing evidence is documenting a meeting where this was planned in secret by Du Pont and Treasury. I doubt we will ever find that, given the secret nature of corruption and conspiracy. Nylon was a corporate secret. The bill was written by Treasury in secret. Why would there be a public meeting about it? That deal would be cut on the golf course, or at a gentleman’s club, and sealed with a handshake — not written down … The reasonable inference comes from the context of a technology war between hemp and logging/petrochemicals.”

Eric Steenstra, president of the DC-based hemp farming advocacy group Vote Hemp, offers a similar perspective on the Great Hemp Conspiracy. “The jury is still out on that question, but there’s nothing to say Jack was completely wrong and a lot to say he was right. We never found the smoking gun that Anslinger sat down with Hearst and Mellon and conspired to kill cannabis, but there is no question about the damage they did. It has taken us years of effort to get this plant back to its rightful place and make people understand that cannabis is not this evil demonic thing.”

Can hemp really save the world?

A central pillar of the “hemp can save the world” creed was the middle leg of the “food, fuel and fiber” troika. The hemp movement took off just as consciousness was growing about the greenhouse effect, and it was argued that hemp-derived ethanol or biodiesel could be key to avoiding planetary climate disaster.

Henry Ford — himself no more enlightened than Hearst or Anslinger in his social and racial views — recognized the industrial applications of hemp. He built a prototype car made chiefly of plant fiber, conceived as an adaptation to conserve metal in wartime. This prototype was featured in the December 1941 issue of Popular Mechanics — the same month the US entered World War II. A photo caption plugged it as the car that Ford “grew from the soil.” Although Herer and his hempsters portrayed it as made entirely from hemp, the caption said it was constructed of “flax, wheat, hemp and spruce pulp.”

Ford also looked to ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, as a potential fuel, before the industry congealed around gasoline — although, again contrary to hempster dogma, he was not thinking foremost of the cannabis plant. He’s reported to have told the New York Times in 1925: “There’s enough alcohol in one year’s yield of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for a hundred years.” In 1919, he reportedly told the Christian Science Monitor, “The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumac out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust — almost anything.”

The two most significant biofuels (as they are called today) are ethanol and biodiesel, and both can be derived from hemp. At the height of the Iraq military intervention, when oil prices were through the roof, there was a big push to promote biofuels. The Environmental Protection Agency established mechanisms in 2007 to mandate their use in the automotive sector, as a part of its Renewable Fuel Standard Program. Today most gasoline sold in the United States is cut by about 10% with ethanol — generally derived from corn.

Now that hemp cultivation has been legalized by the 2018 Farm Bill, there might be a push to expand the biofuel content in gasoline — derived from the new crop. Might, that is, if oil prices were not depressed, in direct contrast to the situation in 2007.

Eric Steenstra acknowledges this reality: “Petroleum is still dirt cheap, so it doesn’t seem like the economic conditions are there. Hemp biodeisel is a lot more expensive than gasoline.”

Doubts about sustainability

Contrary to the hempster zealots of a generation ago, Steenstra does not view hemp-derived fuel as a panacea. “It still takes a significant amount of resources — fertilizers in the soil, petroleum in the tractor, energy to convert it,” he told Project CBD. “In the process of growing hemp and converting it into biofuel, the sustainability factor may not be super-high. I’m not sure it is for any energy source.”

Nor is it clear that on balance biofuels put any less carbon into the atmosphere than gasoline. The burning of biofuels does release carbon, but they are still considered “carbon neutral” under United Nations climate process and US Energy Department accounting. As the Energy Department’s ethanol webpage puts it, “as the biomass grows, it absorbs CO2, which may offset the CO2 produced when the ethanol is burned.”

However, others have questioned this logic. FactCheck.org in 2015 amusingly made note of dueling TV ads (issued ahead of an EPA decision on extending the ethanol mandate), which made flatly contradictory claims. One, by the ethanol lobby’s Fuels America coalition, asserted that ethanol produces “34-88% lower carbon than gasoline today.” Another, by the anti-biofuels lobby Smarter Fuel Future, stated: “Mandating corn for ethanol doubles greenhouse gas emissions compared to gasoline, over 30 years.”

FactCheck had to admit it comes down to how you do the math, creating a “a fog of uncertainty.”

Chris Conrad weighs the accounting. “Growing produces oxygen, and there’s no drilling, so no environmental destruction in the beginning of the process,” he says. “But you still have to process ethanol, and you’re still burning it, so you still have CO2 emissions. In the growing season, you’re removing CO2 from the air, and some 10% of the plant mass stays in the ground, in the roots. But does this compensate for what is released when the fuel is burned?”

And even if getting American cars on hemp biofuel was either economically viable or ecologically desirable, Conrad acknowledges that “you’d have to overhaul the vehicular system to make it work. That infrastructural change could take a generation or longer.”

The dark side of biofuels

Brazil is often pointed to as a biofuels success story. Following the oil shock of the 1970s, the government launched Proálcool, or National Fuel Alcohol Program, which called for processing ethanol from sugar-cane waste for use in automotive transport. The program reached a peak in 2009, when over 60% of Brazil’s motor fuel demand was met with ethanol.

But that was just as long-inflated global oil prices were rapidly dropping due to the Great Recession, and new North American supplies coming online due to the development of fracking technology. Unfortunately for Brazil’s economy, this was soon followed by a crash in sugar prices, due to the growing ubiquity of cheaper substitutes such as high-fructose corn syrup.

As land was taken out of sugar production, there was less waste for conversion to ethanol — and depressed oil prices meant less incentive for ethanol. So by 2013, only 23% of Brazil’s auto fleet was running even partially on ethanol.

And the biofuels boom had unanticipated negative impacts. During the high noon of biofuel demand, the UN Food & Agriculture Organization raised concerns about global food shortages due to land being diverted from production of staples to fuel crops. In 2012, FAO director José Graziano da Silva called on Washington to suspend its production targets for ethanol and urged a global freeze in biofuel investment. (By then, investment was cooling down anyway, as oil prices fell.)

Indeed, 2007 saw a “tortilla crisis” in Mexico, as spiraling prices for the ubiquitous staple sparked protests. Analysts blamed it on the diversion of US corn (that had been bound for export to Mexico since NAFTA) into domestic ethanol production.

There were also concerns about the biofuel craze spurring human rights abuses. In 2009, the group Human Rights Everywhere reported cases of peasants in Colombia evicted by paramilitary groups from lands where they’d long cultivated bananas, corn and rice. When they returned to try to reclaim the lands, they found that new owners had converted them into oil-palm plantations for biofuel production. Colombia was at that time the world’s second biggest biofuels producer after Brazil. The UN called for a suspension of biofuel investment in Colombia.

Climate conundrum

Casting further doubt on the notion of biofuels as a climate solution, a February 2008 story in Science, “Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt,” pointed out that croplands do not release oxygen or absorb carbon nearly efficiently as forest. And of course vast amounts of carbon are released when forests are burned. The authors asserted that the clearing of rainforests for biofuel crops was offsetting any gain from biofuel displacement of fossil fuels.

Similar conclusions were reached in an October 2009 story in Science, “Fixing a Critical Climate Accounting Error.” The authors asserted that the formula for calculating carbon emissions used by the UN climate process “erroneously treats all bioenergy as carbon neutral regardless of the source of the biomass, which may cause large differences in net emissions.”

With such criticisms in mind, activists staged a civil-disobedience protest at the World Biofuels Market in Brussels in March 2008. They rejected the term “biofuels” in favor of “agrofuels,” to emphasize their link to global agribusiness. Three were arrested for blocking the doors to the venue while proclaiming “Agrofuels are a scam!”

However dim the prospects for a hemp biofuel industry may now seem, the prospect of an eventual new oil shock is not impossible — and if it happens, legal hemp could be well positioned for a significant piece of the biofuel action. Should that be the case, could we see headlines about forest destruction and rights abuses linked to hemp? This would certainly be a very bitter irony, given the intense idealism of the crop’s boosters in the heyday of Herer.

A biofuel skeptic

Rachel Smolker is the Vermont-based US representative of the international group Biofuel Watch, and she is forthright in her opposition. “We don’t support using oil, but biofuels are a false solution,” she tells Project CBD.

“You don’t hear so much about biofuels from environmentalists today, because they’ve come to realize it was a bad idea. But the industry itself continues to peddle its wares and the departments of energy and agriculture continue to be very enthusiastic and are dumping massive amounts of money into it in the form of subsidies and tax credits.”

She portrays the “corn lobby” as behind the EPA’s current 10% ethanol mandate — and she’s particularly skeptical about corn as a biofuel source.

“Some of the corn ethanol plants are run on coal or natural gas, and corn is an extremely fertilizer-intensive crop,” Smolker says. “So when you do a holistic analysis of corn it doesn’t come out looking real good in the greenhouse gas balance.”

“Growing corn and refining it releases less greenhouse gases than drilling for oil,” she acknowledges. “It’s an ongoing debate. Do you include emissions from fertilizer manufacture? There are a lot of tricks that can be played in the accounting.”

She also notes that ethanol is less efficient than gasoline, which hurts mileage.

One hype after another

Since corn ethanol was introduced on a large scale, Smolker says “it’s been one hype after another. There was the cellulose hype, but there’s still no commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol on the market.”

And hemp? Smolker is dismissive. “Hemp is just one more crop that’s been proposed, along with algae and wood and corn and soybeans.”

Hemp may be less fertilizer-intensive than corn, but that doesn’t make it exempt from the fundamental problems, in Smolker’s view.

“It takes a lot of land to convert any kind of biomass into enough fuel to run automobiles, so I don’t think that’s going to make a huge amount of difference in terms of the overall equation of using plants for fuel.”

She emphasizes that really addressing the climate crisis is going to entail systemic change — not just a change in what fuel we use.

“Here in US, per capita consumption of energy and emissions of greenhouse gases are way ahead of everywhere else,” she sums up. “People need to stop driving and flying all over the place, and we need to fund public transportation and change the way we live. It is going to require a very dramatic shift in our priorities and using a lot less energy. COVID is actually providing an opportunity to rethink a lot of things. We have to get away from the idea that we’re going to have some magic energy solution that’s going to allow us to keep doing what we’re doing. The living surface of the biosphere cannot supply us with the means to meet that kind of energy appetite, and if we keep trying to do that we’re going to be in big trouble.”

Thumbs up for hempcrete

OK, so can hemp at least help to save the world?

Eric Steenstra is quick to promote the manifold uses of the hemp plant that clearly do have beneficial ecological applications. He enthusiastically notes the growing use of “hempcrete,” a construction material made of hydrated lime (a calcium compound) and hemp hurds.

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Adnam’s hempcrete building, U.K.

“It has a higher insulative property than many other construction materials,” Steenstra says. “Meaning it inhibits transfer of temperature from one side of the wall to the other very effectively. This means energy efficiency, because you don’t need as much energy to heat or cool your home. It’s mold-resistant and fire-resistant, and it captures carbon. The carbon in the hemp is locked in by the lime and doesn’t get released as the building ages.”

He points to the Adnams Brewery, at Southwold in England’s Suffolk county, which has built its principal warehouse and distribution center from hempcrete produced by the European firm Tradical. Since its construction in 2006, the distribution center has been hailed as an exemplar of ecological design.

US Hemp Building Association has been founded to promote hemp as a construction material, linked to an International Hemp Building Association.

Germany’s BMW has revived Henry Ford’s “car grown from the ground” idea and is now making door panels and other interior elements of its new electric cars out of hemp fiber (mixed with a small degree of plastic). “It reduces the weight of the car, makes it more efficient,” says Steenstra. “It gets better mileage, and it’s also safer in crash tests. And it’s recyclable at the end of the car’s life, whereas fiberglass isn’t.”

Calgary-based Motive Industries has developed a prototype electric car with the body made almost entirely from hemp. When it was unveiled at a Vancouver trade show in 2010, Reuters noted that it prompted predictable derision: “Didn’t Cheech and Chong already try this?”

Some potential applications are more surprising. In 2013, a group of scholars led by Dr. David Mitlin of New York’s Clarkson University released their findings in the journal ACS Nano on use of hemp fiber as a replacement for graphene in supercapacitors that can store vast amounts of energy — critical to the use of solar panels on a wide scale.

Graphene is derived from graphite. One of the world’s top sources of graphite is the arid northern Mexico state of Sonora, where the mining industry has gravely contaminated the state’s disappearing waters — especially impacting the Yaqui indigenous people.

An eco-friendly crop

Vote Hemp is plugging the research of Hanah Rheay at New Mexico State University into use of hemp to remove pesticide residue, radionuclides, and other toxins from soil.

But Steenstra also stresses the ecological benefits of the more traditional fiber and food uses. “Cotton is the world’s most sprayed crop, and uses a lot of water,” he says. “So there’s an ecological angle from a textile standpoint.”

A 2005 report by the Stockholm Environment Institute confirmed what hemp advocates had long maintained — that hemp requires far less pesticide than cotton, and is far less water-intensive.

Steenstra cites food products that are now hitting the market, such as shelled hempseed (sometimes called hemp nut or hemp hearts). Hempseed is a prodigious source of nutritious essential fatty acids, especially omega 3, which is deficient in the typical Western diet.

While the Food & Drug Administration has been dragging its feet on approval of hemp-derived CBD as a food supplement, upon passage of the Farm Bill in December 2018 it promptly issued “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) notices for three hemp food products — hulled hempseed, hempseed protein powder, and hempseed oil. (Hempseed does not contain CBD.)

“Big mainstream food companies don’t like a lot of risk, so they will now look at hemp as an ingredient. The hemp food market has been growing slow and steady, but now but major companies are about to jump in,” Steenstra says.

He adds, just a bit wistfully, “Hemp really does have thousands of uses. I wish Jack was here to see what’s happening with the industry.”

On the precipice

Chris Conrad echoes similar sentiments. “If you look into it as a carbon-sink crop; for housing; to reduce pesticide and herbicidal use; to replace plastics that are choking the planet; to reduce reliance on petrochemicals; to reduce logging and deforestation by substituting for timber in paper, fiber and housing products; to supply industry with raw material like hempcrete for housing and hempseed for nutrition and nutraceuticals; hempseed oil soaps instead of nitrate detergents; plus medical marijuana replacing many pharmaceuticals . .  hemp could turn things around in a very positive way and also create wealth and jobs for society.”

Conrad’s zeal has been tempered somewhat by political realities since the hempster heyday. “We’ve seen hemp crops fail, markets crash, et cetera. So we know that this is not the quick fix we had thought,” he admits. “Mind you, my idea of a quick fix was that it would take 30 to 50 years to implement. Now, 30 years into my campaign, we’ve only had two years of full-on legal hemp farming and the infrastructure is still virtually non-existent. Only the seed oil, cannabinoid and medical marijuana markets have made significant progress, and people are only waking up to hempcrete.”

Conrad laments that California, one of the states that could benefit most from the fire resistance and earthquake resistance of hempcrete, doesn’t have any houses built from it. “Meanwhile,” he continues soberly, “the polar caps are melting, we are facing an ‘extinction event,’ and there has been more retro-plastic produced in the past 15 years than in the preceding century. We are on the precipice.” [By “retro-plastic,” he means plastic derived from petroleum rather than hemp.]

“So, it’s hard to be as enthusiastic as we once were,” Conrad confides. “The obstacles have been greater, and the circumstances grow ever more dire.”

But his fundamental faith is unshaken. “What I still think is that we will not save the planet or survive as a species without getting back to hemp. And, even if we completely blow it, future generations will need hempseed to eke out their survival, and the planet will naturally go back to the plant kingdom, including hemp.”

Whither the agrarian vision?

Jack Herer was writing amid the farm crisis of the 1980s, and hemp was hailed by his followers as a salvation for the country’s beleaguered family farms. The idea was aggressively taken up by Willie Nelson, who launched the Farm Aid annual benefit concert and advocacy organization. The country music legend has become perhaps America’s foremost booster of hemp as boon to the small farmer.

As farmers prepare for their second legal hemp harvest in the US, how has it actually been working out?

Lorette Picciano is executive director of the Rural Coalition, a DC-based organization that advocates for rural communities in both the US and Mexico, with an emphasis on African American, Native American and Latino farmers. Agribusiness has not taken over hemp cultivation, as some had feared, but Picciano does see another threat.

“Hemp farmers are at risk of becoming contract-growers for the CBD industry,” she says. “You get seeds from someone and you have to sell the crop back to them, you can’t just sell it on the open market. The industry is developing around CBD because fiber requires much more investment in the processing side of it.”

Picciano sees this as partially the bitter fruit of globalization. “With NAFTA and free trade, the cotton industry migrated overseas to Mexico and Asia,” she says. “You can’t compete with labor from those countries, so it’s really hard to compete in the fiber industry. Nobody’s willing to make that investment right now.”

Also not helping is the mandatory testing of all hemp crops to assure they are within the arbitrary 0.3% THC limit. Farmers face a 15-day deadline from the time of testing to either harvest or destroy their crop, and if the test shows it to be “hot” (above 0.3% THC), it must be the latter. Picciano says this produces a mentality of “If you cannot afford to lose your harvest, don’t get into hemp.”

Despite the risks growers face, hemp was not included in the USDA relief program for farmers impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. “All in all, it’s a tough and risky road for the farmers,” Picciano sums up.

Beyond CBD — the new hemp economy

Jeff Witte is the New Mexico secretary of agriculture who formerly served as president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA). Asked about how the new hemp economy is working out for his state’s farmers, he offers these thoughts: “In New Mexico, we’re in our second year. The first was bit of challenge for everybody. Growers found out hemp is a high-labor crop, there were a lot of issues with weeds and insects. So this year has seen a reduction in acreage and the number of licenses being applied for. A big roadblock was not enough processing facilities for CBD oil, and that’s the sense I got from across country. Supply was backing up. The processing industry is still in its infancy.”

Witte sees a future for hemp beyond the CBD market. “Everyone recognizes that it’s a very diverse crop — not only for CBD. We all know Henry Ford made a car out of hemp products. But we haven’t got the processing industry in place. You can’t take a crop that hasn’t been grown for almost a century and expect to have that in place. We’re a few years away from a market for oil, for plastic, for insulation, for whatnot.”

Meanwhile, even with lowered sights, he still sees a vital niche for hemp. “The expectations of 30, 40, 50 thousand dollars per acre — that did not work out. It’s not a get-rich-quick thing. But it’s going to be a good rotation crop, with chile, cabbage, lettuce. If you keep using the same crop year after year, you burn out the soil. Hemp could be one of those rotation crops, where farmers can have a great diversified program. And one crop may not make it, may not hit the market right, so this gives them the opportunity to be in the right place with different crops.”

Witte is still optimistic about keeping hemp cultivation principally on small farms. “In New Mexico, the largest number of licenses we issue are for 10 acres or less, and the fewest for above 50 acres. We haven’t seen a lot of conglomerates coming in yet. Ninety-eight percent of our farms are locally owned family operations. If you’re geared toward mechanization, hemp is not the crop to jump into — you need to do the weeding by hand, our farmers say. The equipment just isn’t available.”

Witte says hemp is being cultivated in 19 of New Mexico’s 33 counties. “A lot of small acreage in the Rio Grande Valley is now dedicated to hemp. Hemp is doing very well in the Mesilla Valley on small acreage, intensive agriculture.”

And Witte is likewise optimistic about expanding prospects as new industrial applications emerge. In an echo of the old utopian hempster spirit, he envisions: “A lot of processing opportunities are going to come out of this crop that we haven’t even imagined today.”


Bill Weinberg, a Project CBD contributing writer, is a 30-year veteran journalist in the fields of drug policy, ecology and indigenous peoples. He is a former news editor at High Times magazine, and he produces the websites CounterVortex.org and Global Ganja Report.

Copyright, Project CBD. May not be reprinted without permission.

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