What's all this fuss about hemp

For our purposes, hemp is the plant called cannabis sativa. There are other plants that are called hemp, but cannabis hemp is the most useful of these plants. In fact, cannabis sativa means useful (sativa) hemp (cannabis).

Hemp is any durable plant that has been used since pre-history for many purposes. Fiber is the most well known product, and the word hemp can mean the rope or twine which is made from the hemp plant, as well as just the stalk of the plant which produced it.

The word marijuana is a Mexican slang term which became popular in the late 1930’s in America, during a series of media and government programs which we now refer to as the Reefer Madness Movement’ It refers specifically to the medicine part of cannabis, which Mexican soldiers used to smoke.

Today in the U.S., hemp (meaning the roots, stalk, and stems of the cannabis plant) is legal to possess. No one can arrest you for wearing a hemp shirt, or using hemp paper. Marijuana (The flowers, buds, or leaves of the cannabis plant) is not legal to possess, and there are stiff fines and possible jail terms for having any marijuana in your possession. The seeds are legal to possess and eat, but only if they are sterilized (will not grow to maturity.)

Since it is not possible to grow the hemp plant without being in possession of marijuana, the United States does not produce any industrial hemp products, and must import them or, more often, substitute others. (There is a way to grow hemp legally, but it involves filing an application with the Drug Enforcement Administration and the DEA very rarely ever gives its permission.) This does not seem to have stopped people from producing and using marijuana, though. In many of the United States, marijuana is the number one cash crop, mostly because it fetches a very high price on the black market.

Hemp requires little fertilizer, and grows well almost everywhere. It also resists pests, so it uses little pesticides. Hemp puts down deep roots, which is good for the soil, and when the leaves drop off the hemp plant, minerals and nitrogen are returned to the soil. Hemp has been grown on the same soil for twenty years in a row without any noticeable depletion of the soil.

Using less fertilizer and agricultural chemicals is good for two reasons. First, it costs less and requires less effort. Second, many agricultural chemicals are dangerous and contaminate the environment — the less we have to use, the better.

The stalk of the hemp plant has two parts, called the bast and the hurd. The fiber (bast) of the hemp plant can be woven into almost any kind of cloth. It is very durable. In fact, the first Levi’s blue jeans were made out of hemp for just this reason. Compared to all the other natural fibers available, hemp is more suitable for a large number of applications.

Here is how hemp is harvested for fiber: A field of closely spaced hemp is allowed to grow until the leaves fall off. The hemp is then cut down and it lies in the field for some time washed by the rain. It is turned over once to expose both sides of the stalk evenly. During this time, the hurd softens up and many minerals are returned to the soil. This is called retting, and after this step is complete, the stalks are brought to a machine which separates the bast and the hurd. We are lucky to have machines today — men used to do this last part by hand with hours of back-breaking labor.

Both the fiber (bast) and pulp (hurd) of the hemp plant can be used to make paper. Fiber paper was the first kind of paper, and the first batch was made out of hemp in ancient China. Fiber paper is thin, tough, brittle, and a bit rough. Pulp paper is not as strong as fiber paper, but it is easier to make, softer, thicker, and preferable for most everyday purposes. The paper we use most today is a chemical pulp paper made from trees. Hemp pulp paper can be made without chemicals from the hemp hurd. Most hemp paper made today uses the entire hemp stalk, bast and hurd. High-strength fiber paper can be made from the hemp baste, also without chemicals.

The problem with today’s paper is that so many chemicals are used to make it. High strength acids are needed to make quality (smooth, strong, and white) paper out of trees. These acids produce chemicals which are very dangerous to the environment. Paper companies do their best to clean these chemicals up (we hope.) Hemp offers us an opportunity to make affordable and environmentally safe paper for all of our needs, since it does not need much chemical treatment. It is up to consumers, though, to make the right choice — these dangerous chemicals can also be used on hemp to make a slightly more attractive product. Instead of buying the whiter, brighter roll of toilet paper, we will need to think about what we are doing to the planet.

Because of the chemicals in today’s paper, it will turn yellow and fall apart as acids eat away at the pulp. This takes several decades, but because of this publishers, libraries and archives have to order specially processed acid free paper, which is much more expensive, in order to keep records. Paper made naturally from hemp is acid free and will last for centuries.

The pulp (hurd) of the hemp plant can be burned as is or processed into charcoal, methanol, methane, or gasoline. The process for doing this is called destructive distillation, or pyrolysis. Fuels made out of plants like this are calledbiomass fuels. This charcoal may be burned in today’s coal-powered electric generators. Methanol makes a good automobile fuel, in fact it is used in professional automobile races. It may someday replace gasoline.

Hemp may also be used to produce ethanol (grain alcohol.) The United States government has developed a way to make this automobile fuel additive from cellulosic biomass. Hemp is an excellent source of high quality cellulosic biomass. One other way to use hemp as fuel is to use the oil from the hemp seed — some diesel engines can run on pure pressed hemp seed oil. However, the oil is more useful for other purposes, even if we could produce and press enough hemp seed to power many millions of cars.

Marijuana has thousands of possible uses in medicine. Marijuana (actually cannabis extract) was available as a medicine legally in this country until 1937, and was sold as a nerve tonic — but mankind has been using cannabis medicines much longer than that. Marijuana appears in almost every known book of medicine written by ancient scholars and wise men. It is usually ranked among the top medicines, called panaceas, a word which means cure-all. The list of diseases which cannabis can be used for includes: multiple sclerosis, cancer treatment, AIDS (and AIDS treatment), glaucoma, depression, epilepsy, migraine headaches, asthma, pruritis, sclerodoma, severe pain, and dystonia. This list does not even consider the other medicines which can be made out of marijuana — these are just some of the illnesses for which people smoke or eat whole marijuana today.

There are over 60 chemicals in marijuana which may have medical uses. It is relatively easy to extract these into food or beverage, or into some sort of lotion, using butter, fat, oil, or alcohol. One chemical, cannabinol, may be useful to help people who cannot sleep. Another is taken from premature buds and is called cannabidiolic acid. It is a powerful disinfectant. Marijuana dissolved in rubbing alcohol helps people with the skin disease herpes control their sores, and a salve like this was one of the earliest medical uses for cannabis. The leaves were once used in bandages and a relaxing non-psychoactive herbal tea can be made from small cannabis stems.

The most well known use of marijuana today is to control nausea and vomiting. One of the most important things when treating cancer with chemotherapy or when treating AIDS with AZT or Foscavir, being able to eat well, makes the difference between life or death. Patients have found marijuana to be extremely effective in fighting nausea; in fact so many patients use it for this purpose even though it is illegal that they have formed buyers clubs to help them find a steady supply. In California, some city governments have decided to look the other way and allow these clubs to operate openly.

Marijuana is also useful for fighting two other very serious and wide-spread disabilities. Glaucoma is the second leading cause of blindness, caused by uncontrollable eye pressure. Marijuana can control the eye pressure and keep glaucoma from causing blindness. Multiple Sclerosis is a disease where the body’s immune system attacks nerve cells. Spasms and many other problems result from this. Marijuana not only helps stop these spasms, but it may also keep multiple sclerosis from getting worse.

One of the newest uses of hemp is in construction materials. Hemp can be used in the manufacture of press board or composite board. This involves gluing fibrous hemp stalks together under pressure to produce a board which is many times more elastic and durable than hardwood. Because hemp produces a long, tough fiber it is the perfect source for press-board. Another interesting application of hemp in industry is making plastic. Many plastics can be made from the high-cellulose hemp hurd. Hemp seed oil has a multitude of uses in products such as varnishes and lubricants.

Using hemp to build is by no means a new idea. French archeologists have discovered bridges built with a process that mineralizes hemp stalks into a long-lasting cement. The process involves no synthetic chemicals and produces a material which works as a filler in building construction. Called Isochanvre, it is gaining popularity in France. Isochanvre can be used as drywall, insulates against heat and noise, and is very long lasting.

Bio-plastics are not a new idea, either — way back in the 1930’s Henry Ford had already made a whole car body out of them — but the processes for making them do need more research and development. Bio-plastics can be made without much pollution. Unfortunately, companies are not likely to explore bio-plastics if they have to either import the raw materials or break the law. (Not to mention compete with the already established petrochemical products.)

Cannabis is the most durable of the hemp plants, and it produces the toughest cloth, called canvas. (Canvas was widely used as sails in the early shipping industry, as it was the only cloth which would not rot on contact with sea spray.) The cannabis plant also produces three other very important products which the other hemp plants do not (in usable form, that is): seed, pulp, and medicine.

The pulp is used as fuel, and to make paper. The seed is suitable for both human and animal foods. The oil from the seed can be used in as a base for paints and varnishes. The medicine is a tincture or admixture of the sticky resin in the blossoms and leaves of the hemp plant, and is used for a variety of purposes.

Hemp seed is a highly nutritious source of protein and essential fatty oils. Many populations have grown hemp for its seed — most of them eat it as gruel which is a lot like oatmeal. The leaves can be used as roughage, but not without slight psycho-active side-effects. Hemp seeds do not contain any marijuana and they do not get you high.’Hemp seed protein closely resembles protein as it is found in the human blood. It is fantastically easy to digest, and many patients who have trouble digesting food are given hemp seed by their doctors. Hemp seed was once called edestine and was used by scientists as the model for vegetable protein.

Hemp seed oil provides the human body with essential fatty acids. Hemp seed is the only seed which contains these oils with almost no saturated fat. As a supplement to the diet, these oils can reduce the risk of heart disease. It is because of these oils that birds will live much longer if they eat hemp seed.

With hemp seed, a vegan or vegetarian can survive and eat virtually no saturated fats. One handful of hemp seed per day will supply adequate protein and essential oils for an adult.

Hemp does not produce quite as much protein as soy, but hemp seed protein is of a higher quality than soy. Agricultural considerations may make hemp the food crop of the future. In addition to the fact that hemp is an easy crop to grow, it also resists UV-B light, which is a kind of sunlight blocked by the ozone layer. Soy beans do not take UV-B light very well. If the ozone layer were to deplete by 16%, which by some estimates is very possible, soy production would fall by 25-30%.

We may have to grow hemp or starve — and it won’t be the first time that this has happened. Hemp has been used to bail out many populations in time of famine. Unfortunately, because of various political factors, starving people in today’s underdeveloped countries are not taking advantage of this crop. In some places, this is because government officials would call it marijuana and pull up the crop. In other countries, it is because the farmers are busy growing coca and poppies to produce cocaine and heroin for the local Drug Lord. This is truly a sad state of affairs. Hopefully someday the Peace Corps will be able to teach modern hemp seed farming techniques and end the world’s protein shortage.

The cloth that hemp makes may be a little less soft than cotton, (though there are also special kinds of hemp, or ways to grow or treat hemp, that can produce a soft cloth) but it is much stronger and longer lasting. (It does not stretch out.) Environmentally, hemp is a better crop to grow than cotton, especially the way cotton is grown nowadays. In the United States, the cotton crop uses half of the total pesticides. (Yes, you heard right, one half of the pesticides used in the entire U.S. are used on cotton.) Cotton is a soil damaging crop and needs a lot of fertilizer.

The chemicals used to make wood chemical pulp paper today could cause us a lot of trouble tomorrow. Environmentalists have long been concerned about the effects of dioxin and other compounds on wildlife and even people. Beyond the chemical pollution, there are agricultural reasons why we should use cannabis hemp instead. When trees are harvested, minerals are taken with them. Hemp is much less damaging to the land where it is grown because it leaves these minerals behind.

A simpler answer to the above question is:

Because we are running out! It was once said that a squirrel could climb from New England to the banks of the Mississippi River without touching the ground once. The European settler’s appetite for firewood and farmland put an end to this. When the first wood paper became a huge industry, the United States Department of Agriculture began to worry about the tree supply. That is why they went in search of plant pulp to replace wood. Today someconservatives argue that there are more forests now than there ever were. This is neither true, realistic nor conservative: these statistics do not reflect the real world. Once trees have been removed from a plot of land, it takes many decades before biological diversity and natural cycles return to the forest, and commercial tree farms simply do not count as forest — they are farm land.

As just mentioned, many plant fibers were investigated by the USDA — some, like kenaf, were even better suited than cannabis hemp for making some qualities of paper, but hemp had one huge advantage: robust vitality. Hemp generates immense amounts of plant matter in a three month growing season. When it came down to producing the deluge of paper used by Americans, only hemp could compete with trees. In fact, according to the 1916 calculations of the USDA, one acre of hemp would replace an entire four acres of forest. And, at the same time, this acre would be producing textiles and rope.

Today, only 4% of America’s old-growth forest remains standing — and there is talk about building roads into that for logging purposes! Will our policy makers realize in time how easy it would be to save them?

Biomass fuels are clean and virtually free from metals and sulfur, so they do not cause nearly as much air pollution as fossil fuels. Even more importantly, burning biomass fuels does not increase the total amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. When petroleum products are burned, carbon that has been stored underground for millions of years is added to the air; this may contribute to global warming through the Greenhouse Effect, (a popular theory which says that certain gases will act like a wool blanket over the entire Earth, preventing heat from escaping into space.) In order to make biomass fuels, this carbon dioxide has to be taken out of the air to begin with — when they are burned it is just being put back where it started.

Another advantage over fossil fuels is that biomass fuels can be made right here in the United States, instead of buying them from other countries. Instead of paying oil drillers, super-tanker captains, and soldiers to get our fuel to us, we could pay local farmers and delivery drivers instead. Of course, it is possible to chop down trees and use them as biomass. This would not be as beneficial to the environment as using hemp, especially since trees that are cut down for burning are whole tree harvested. This means the entire tree is ripped up and burned, not just the wood. Since most of the minerals which trees use are in the leaves, this practice could ruin the soil where the trees are grown. In several places in the United States, power companies are starting to do this — burning the trees in order to produce electricity, because that is cheaper than using coal. They should be using hemp, like researchers in Australia started doing a few years ago. (Besides, hemp provides a higher quality and quantity of biomass than trees do.)

They cost money and are hard to make. In many cases, they do not work as well, either. Some prescription drugs which marijuana can replace have very bad, even downright dangerous, side-effects. Cannabis medicines are cheap, safe, and easy to make.

Many people think that the drug dronabinol should be used instead of marijuana. Dronabinol is an exact imitation of one of the chemicals found in marijuana, and it may actually work on a lot of the above diseases, but there are some big problems with dronabinol, and most patients who have used both dronabinol and marijuana say that marijuana works better.

The first problem with Dronabinol is that it is even harder to get than marijuana. Many doctors do not like to prescribe dronabinol, and many drug stores do not want to supply it, because a lot of paperwork has to be filed with the Drug Enforcement Administration. Secondly, dronabinol comes in pills which are virtually useless to anyone who is throwing up, and it is hard to take just the right amount of dronabinol since it cannot be smoked. Finally, because dronabinol is only one of the many chemicals in cannabis, it just does not work for some diseases. Many patients do not like the effects of dronabinol because it does not contain some of the more calming chemicals which are present in marijuana.

Read More