What would the world be like if birds didn’t sing? It’s a frightening thought — an unearthly scenario — but one that the US Congress had to contemplate during hearings for the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, the law that made marijuana illegal in the United States and in the process also banned hemp, the industrial form of the marijuana plant.
During those hearings, American hemp companies testified against the proposed law, presenting arguments that were both reasoned and convincing. Attorney Ralph Lozier, representative for the National Institute of Oilseed Products, whose members produced the hemp seed oil used to make paints, varnishes, soap, linoleum and a number of other oil-based products, argued that hemp seed and oil should be exempted from the ban. "The drug is found only in the flowering tops of female plants," and not in the seeds and oils that his clients depended on for their livelihoods, Lozier said. In Russia, the people even used the seeds for food. "It is grown in their fields and used as oatmeal," he told the committee. The owner of the Rens Hemp Co., suppliers of hemp fiber to the US Navy, voiced his objection to the use of the word marijuana in the bill and asked that references to hemp in the "narcotic sense" be discontinued. He also complained that the law was overly complicated and the tax so high that it would put small hemp producers out of business. But it was the seed companies that got the committee’s ear. Their representative insisted that there could be no replacement for hemp bird seed. In 1937, hemp seed was the primary birdseed for both wild and domestic birds and in that year alone over 4 million pounds of hemp bird seed was sold in stores across the US. The birds loved it and wouldn’t sing without it. “We’ve never found another seed that makes a bird’s coat so lustrous or makes them sing so much,” he said.
It seemed that even Congress couldn’t imagine a world without song birds, and they agreed to amend the Marijuana Tax Act to allow bird seed companies an exemption. They could continue using hemp seeds for birdfeed provided they were "denatured," meaning the seeds must be sterilized so they could not form plants. Unfortunately, all the other hemp companies would have to find a new line of business. On Aug. 2, 1937, with the stroke of a pen, marijuana and hemp were officially outlawed in the US.
America ‘Just Says No’ to hemp
The United States is the only developed country in the world today that prohibits its farmers from growing hemp, and our economy is suffering because of it. Once a staple of US agriculture, hemp is indeed a miracle plant that can be used for textiles, paper, food, fuel and — hold on to you hats — can produce eco-friendly versions of any product currently made from petroleum, including gasoline.
While the rest of the world is ramping up hemp production, in the US, where it remains illegal, companies must import the thousands of hemp products grown, processed and manufactured in more than 30 countries across the globe. Britain, Germany and Canada have all lifted their bans, and China, the source of most of the hemp fiber used by the US clothing industry, has planted nearly 2 million acres of hemp. In the European Union, farmers are subsidized to grow hemp, which is legally recognized as a commercial crop by the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).
Most of America’s imported hemp products come from Canada, where hemp has been grown commercially since 1998 and has become one of the most profitable crops for its farmers. Agriculture expert Ray Hansen notes that while America farmers struggle to survive on less than $50 per acre for soy and corn, Canadian hemp farmers are raking in an average of $250 per acre.
Hemp is not a drug
There is still some confusion about the differences between hemp and marijuana, and I hope I can clear it up. Marijuana and hemp both come from the same species of plant, Cannabis sativa L., but from different varieties. Industrial hemp is grown for its seeds and fiber, not its drug potency, and so industrial hemp varieties are naturally low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical in marijuana that gives smokers a high. Industrial hemp also contains fairly high levels of another chemical, cannabidiol (CBD), that Dr. David P. West of the North American Hemp Council says actually "blocks the marijuana high." Even though industrial hemp by its nature is already low in THC, Canada and the European Union strictly regulate the THC levels of their industrial hemp, requiring it to be less than 0.3 percent. By comparison, marijuana that consists of the flowering tops of plants that have been selected over time for their drug potency can have THC levels ranging anywhere from about 2 to 20 percent. The THC levels in industrial hemp are simply too low for anyone to get high from smoking it.
The DEA ‘Just Says No’ to hemp
DEA spokesman Rusty Payne makes it clear that the government does not distinguish between hemp and marijuana. "If it contains any amount of THC, then it is illegal," Payne told me in a telephone interview last month. Among the DEA’s arguments against legalizing hemp is that criminals will hide real marijuana in hemp fields where kids might get it and where the DEA will have difficulty finding it as they fly over during aerial eradication sweeps. “Are we going to ask them to go through row by row, field by field, to distinguish between legal hemp and marijuana?" Tom Riley, of the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy, was quoted as saying. The answer to that question is, “Don’t be ridiculous!” For those in the know, which includes the DEA and the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy, the idea of hiding marijuana in a hemp field, where male and female plants would cross-pollinate and ruin the potency of the marijuana, is absurd. Besides, any child or adult making a foray into a hemp field to pilfer some pot will be sadly disappointed when instead of getting high they end up with a throbbing headache. While we are on the subject of DEA eradication efforts, it might interest you to know that the DEA may have another reason for defining hemp as an illegal drug. According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics Sourcebook, nearly 98 percent of all the marijuana seized under the DEA’s "Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program” is feral hemp, a non-psychoactive variety of marijuana that grows plentifully throughout the Southern and Midwestern United States. Many of these feral plants are remnants from government-subsidized plots grown during World War II. As Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Association to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML), points out, “The government is literally spending tens of millions of dollars to pull up weeds.” By including these millions of harmless roadside weeds to the number of marijuana plants seized and eradicated, the DEA can justify the millions of dollars spent on their eradication program while at the same time give the false impression that the War on Drugs is a success.
Passage of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970 put control of hemp into the hands of the DEA, rather than the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the DEA has denied every permit for large-scale hemp farming within America’s borders for the last 40 years.
Hemp for Victory
America’s ban on hemp was temporarily suspended during World War II, when hemp imports from the Philippines were disrupted by the war. Necessity, ordinarily the mother of invention, became the mother of forgiveness at this point in time. The dangers of the hemp plant were suddenly forgotten as the government stepped in to ask "patriotic" farmers to grow hemp for the war effort. The government provided subsidies for farmers to grow hemp, exempted their sons from military service so they could work in the hemp fields and even produced a film called, "Hemp for Victory" that was shown to farmers around the country.
"This is Manila hemp from the Navy’s rapidly dwindling reserves,” the narrator explains as the camera pans across coils of rope in the shipyards. "When it is gone, American hemp will go on duty again: hemp for mooring ships, hemp for tow lines, hemp for tackle and gear, hemp for countless naval uses both on ship and shore … hemp for victory.” Under this program, hemp was allowed to be grown from 1942 to 1945, and somehow during that time the problems associated with the "marijuana scare" never materialized. Hemp producer Matt Rens testified again at a Senate hearing in 1945. “In the 30 years we have operated and grown large acreages, we have never heard of one instance where there was an illicit use made of the leaves of this hemp plant." Still, In spite of the fact that industrial hemp posed no drug problem, when the war was over, hemp was again prohibited.
Hemp v. Oil
In 1937, our nation was at a crossroads not unlike what we face today. The two most respected journals in the United States, Popular Mechanics and Mechanical Engineering, were readying articles about the wonders of the hemp plant, the "Billion-Dollar Crop … that can be used to produce thousands of everyday items … from dynamite to Cellophane." Mechanical Engineering echoed the excitement, calling hemp “the most profitable and desirable crop that can be grown.” It seemed that America was headed toward an innovative new “green” economy that would “provide thousands of jobs for American workers across the land.” Unfortunately, behind the scenes other forces were at work (See my article "The Marijuana Conspiracy," Oct. 9). As the government was busy outlawing the "miraculous hemp plant" the DuPont Chemical Co. was cranking out patents for synthetic products to be made from petroleum. On the road to a green economy, America got hijacked and instead ended up with an oil-based economy and all the problems it would bring.
Plastic is not fantastic
From the 1930s until today, the synthetics industry has grown exponentially until practically everything you can name is made from petroleum-based plastic. Still, most people never consider the source of their CDs, mobile phones, tennis shoes and other products made from plastic. When oil prices skyrocket, our first worry is about the price of gasoline. But in reality, less than half of a 42-gallon barrel of oil is used for fuel. The other half is chemically altered to form the raw material used to make plastics to create more than 6,000 products. The good news is that just about any product — from nail polish to footballs — made from petroleum can be made from the environmentally friendly hemp plant (see chart below).
The problems arising from our use of petroleum-based plastics are numerous and serious. A major predicament is that once these plastics are created, they are pretty much here to stay. For instance, plastic bags and water bottles made from polyethylene (a combination of petroleum and natural gas) take 1,000 years to decompose on land and 450 years in the water. Producing one 16-ounce polyethylene bottle creates more than 100 times the toxic emissions to the air and water than it once took to make that same size bottle from glass. Ninety percent of all trash in the world’s oceans is plastic and it’s the cause of most of the death and illness of marine animals and birds who become entangled in or ingest the debris.
Today, two enormous islands of ever-accumulating plastic debris have amassed in the Pacific Ocean, containing garbage from all over the world. These swirling masses of refuse are larger than any landfill in the world, so huge in fact that they have come to be known as the Eastern and Western Pacific Garbage Patches, which together form the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The overall size of this ocean junkyard is not fully known. However, the size of the Eastern Patch that floats between Hawaii and California has been estimated at twice the size of Texas.
An attempt to ban plastic bags in California earlier this year was defeated after the American Chemistry Council spent millions of dollars in lobbying fees, radio ads and even a primetime television ad attacking the measure. The council represents the Dow Chemical Co., ExxonMobil Corp. and other plastic bag manufacturers.
Getting rid of the waste from petroleum plastic is not the only problem. Manufacturing petroleum plastic has its own set of difficulties. For one, the plastics industry is a giant polluter, contributing about 14 percent to the national total of toxic emissions. Producing plastics can also be hazardous to workers and the people living in neighborhoods surrounding its manufacturing plants, where explosions, chemical fires, chemical spills and clouds of toxic vapor are a constant danger.
Consumers can also be unwittingly exposed to these toxic chemicals when chemicals in plastic packages migrate from the packaging to the foods they contain.
This is a sampling of the estimated 6,000 items currently made from petroleum that can be made from hemp:
Henry Ford and George Washington Carver:
Cars made from plants
Industry makes strange bedfellows, or so it would seem when looking at the relationship between American automobile industrialist Henry Ford and African-American inventor George Washington Carver, who was born into slavery in 1864. When these two men from vastly different backgrounds came together, it was Ford who came away inspired by Carver’s genius. Carver’s prescient hypothesis was that the world’s dwindling natural resources (remember, this was almost 100 years ago) could be made in the laboratory using raw materials grown endlessly by farmers. When Carver suggested that plant cellulose could replace steel, the idea was scoffed at by everyone but Ford, who embraced the concept and put his researchers to work. In 1941, after 12 years of research and development using Carver’s hypothesis, Ford unveiled what he predicted would be the “automobile of tomorrow,” a plastic car made from plant cellulose fibers of wheat, straw, hemp and sisal. Not only was the plastic car body much stronger (Ford liked to prove this fact by publicly striking the car trunk with an ax to show it wouldn’t dent) but it was also 1,000 pounds lighter than its steel counterpart and therefore much safer and fuel efficient. A Popular Mechanics article that year noted that “no hint has been given as to when plastic cars may go into production.” In fact, Ford’s cellulose cars would never be produced. The Marijuana Tax Act had eliminated hemp, the best raw material for producing cellulose plastic, and besides, oil was plentiful and cheap.
Today, major car manufacturers GM, Chrysler, Saturn, BMW, Honda, Mercedes and Ford are using hemp composite door panels, trunks and head liners in their new models, and it seems that Ford’s dream of a hemp car can’t be too far off. When that happens, I would like to suggest that the first hemp car be named the “Carver,” for George Washington Carver, a man who achieved so much but received so little recognition.
On Nov. 2, Californians will have a chance to vote yes on Proposition 19, the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act, which will allow adults to grow and possess small amounts of marijuana for personal use. If passed, it will be the first step toward a green economy that has been so many years in the making. Just imagine what the world could be like today if we had chosen the path that makes the birds sing. There’s still time.
Alaine Lowell, is the producer and director of "Grow Dutch" (growdutch.net), a documentary about marijuana in the Netherlands. She is also the author, along with Dutch marijuana expert Wernard Bruining, of the soon-to-be-published "Going Dutch: How Marijuana Can Save the Economy." Excerpts from “Going Dutch” will be appearing at pasadenaweekly.com until the week of the election. Contact Alaine at firstname.lastname@example.org.