Legalize Hemp

THERE IS NO MAGIC-BULLET SOLUTION to the dilemma of how to protect the world's forests. It is clear, however, that forest-preservation strategies -- in the United States and around the world -- must go beyond efforts to set aside land in national or privately run parks.

As Ned Daly describes in "Demanding Reduction in the Wood and Paper Markets," a crucial element of a comprehensive forest-protection strategy must be reducing the demand for wood products. That means less use of wood, recycling of wood products and substituting other, more ecologically-friendly fibers for many current uses of wood.

Among the most environmentally benign of available alternative fibers is industrial hemp. There is just one catch: it is illegal to grow in the United States.

It is time that hemp, which can be used for items ranging from paper products to carpets, from textiles to food oil, from construction material to paints, once again be made legal in the United States.

In March, a coalition of farmers, environmentalists and businesses petitioned the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to let U.S. farmers grow industrial hemp. (Essential Information, the publisher of Multinational Monitor, is among the petitioners.) The immediate reaction of the DEA and the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy was negative. The DEA and the White House should rethink their policy before taking further action.

The drug agencies' current opposition to hemp legalization is based on a groundless concern that legalizing hemp will make it harder to enforce legal proscriptions against using or growing industrial hemp's cousin, marijuana.

Whatever the merits of marijuana criminalization, legalizing industrial hemp should not in any way interfere with enforcement efforts against marijuana growers and users. Industrial hemp is bred to contain such a low level of THC, the psychoactive substance in marijuana, that it cannot reasonably be considered a drug. It is easily distinguished in fields from marijuana: marijuana plants are short and bushy, with many leaves and is harvested for its flowers and leaves; industrial hemp, tall and straight, with leaves at the top of the stalk, is harvested for its stalks before flowering occurs. There is virtually no possibility of marijuana being illicitly grown in the middle of a field of industrial hemp, because the cross-breeding between the two plants quickly eliminates the THC content in marijuana seeds. Despite these facts, and noting the genuine concern among many law enforcement agents about the effect of industrial hemp legalization on marijuana use and growing, the petitioners for industrial hemp legalization suggest a heavily regulated licensing scheme for industrial hemp seeds and growing permits that should satisfy residual law enforcement fears.

Legalizing industrial hemp has the potential to yield substantial environmental benefits, especially as a substitute for wood in paper making. Industrial hemp yields two-to-four times more pulp per acre under cultivation than do trees. Paper made from industrial hemp is also stronger, able to be recycled more times and longer lasting than paper from trees. Compared to wood, fewer chemicals are required to convert hemp into paper pulp.

Industrial hemp also could serve as an environmentally sound substitute for other products:

  • Hemp has valuable qualities as clothing material. It takes color and absorbs moisture better than cotton, is "breathable" and extremely durable, softens when washed and needs little ironing. It can be blended with cotton to obtain the benefits of both fibers. About 30 percent of pesticides used in the United States are sprayed on cotton; hemp, by contrast, can be grown with little or no use of pesticides, herbicides or fungicides, thanks to its natural resistances.

  • Hemp can be used in building materials such as fiberboard.

  • Hemp contains cellulose, a basic building block of many plastics. Hemp could be the basis for a range of plastic products now made from petroleum products.

  • Hemp seed oil could be used for motor oil or as all-purpose lubricant. It may also work as a substitute for petroleum diesel.

Other nations, including the United Kingdom and Germany, already recognize the benefits of industrial hemp, and permit hemp cultivation within their borders. It is time the United States joined the ranks of advanced nations and permitted the domestic production of industrial hemp.