Hemp is a beautiful, tall and gracious looking annual plant that can reach heights of up to 4 meters. The only member of its genus, it belongs to the family of Cannabaceae. Taxonomists argue over whether to consider the various strains as subspecies or separate species and there is little consensus at present. For the time being variations are considered simply as that: different strains. Distinctions are made between Cannabis sativa (hemp) Cannabis sativa var. indica (marihuana) and Cannabis sativa var. ruderalis, (wild hemp). These strains are in fact quite different in appearance and in action and in my humble opinion (I am not a taxonomist) would warrant separation into different species. I am not usually one to be so fussy when it comes to classification, but in this case it is of great significance, as we shall see. Cannabis sativa is slightly branched, bearing palmate leaves with 3-9 slender leaflets that are covered in fine hairs. Its inconspicuous flowers grow in a clustered spike, male and female flowers appearing on distinct plants. Its growing cycle is only 120 days. The flower heads especially of C. Sativa are strongly resinous, producing a tar like oily substance rich in THC. The dense clusters of seeds are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and are a favorite bird food.
Apart from the fact that many animals like to forage on the plant, and seeds provide a nutritionally rich bird food, hemp is also excellent for the soil. Its deep roots help to aerate compacted soils. It is relatively resistant to many common viruses and plant diseases and requires little agrochemical treatment. Hemp is a pioneer plant that often grows as a weed. It is extremely undemanding and can be grown in very poor conditions and depleted soils and will actually improve the soil structure over a period of years. In Chernobyl and elsewhere it has been used for phytoremidiation to help clean up polluted lands as it has the ability to absorb various toxic substances from the soil and render them harmless. Its considerable biomass absorbs large quantities of the greenhouse gas CO2.
The story of Cannabis is full of ambiguity, though this confusion is caused by deliberate misinformation with far reaching effects on socioeconomics as well as on environmental matters. Hemp is the most universally useful plant we have at our disposal. The history of mankind's use of hemp can be traced to between about 5000 - 7000 BC. Remains of seed husks have been found at Neolithic burial sites in central Europe, which indicate that they were used in funeral rites and shamanic ceremonies. It is probable that at that time the distinctions between various strains were not as pronounced as they are today. Although some sources claim that all varieties of hemp contain the psychoactive compound THC, the actual percentage of this compound in the different species varies hugely. While there is almost no THC (0.2-0.3%) in the varieties grown for industrial uses such as oil and fibre, strains grown for their psychoactive effect have been bred to contain large amounts of THC (3-15%). Yet, in the eye of the law both varieties are treated as the same plant and in many countries both remain prohibited.
Up until and even during WWII, hemp was a widely grown crop, providing the world with an excellent and most durable source of fibre. Since it is an annual with a growing cycle of only 120 days it can be harvested several times a year, depending on local weather conditions.For many centuries hemp was one of the most important industrial crops which provided the fibres for rope and tough, durable canvass without which the age of exploration could never have set sail. The founding fathers of the United States, including the venerable George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were hemp farmers. Jefferson apparently had no qualms when he committed a blatant act of biopiracy by smuggling a particularly promising strain of hemp from China into Turkey, which was highly illegal and dangerous - the Chinese valued their hemp highly and made export of seeds a capital offence. To this day, China remains the main producer of industrial hemp.
Hemp also provided the fibre to make a durable paper - a far more sensible solution than the wasteful method of clear cutting old growth forests, or even the cultivation pine plantations that are ecologically speaking dead zones that take 20 years to mature before they can be harvested. Cannabis produces 4 times more fibre per acre and can be harvested several times per year. The first dollar bills were printed on hemp paper, your old family bible is probably printed on hemp paper and even the constitution itself was drafted on hemp paper.
Hemp has the strongest natural fibres, which can be used not just to produce rough cloth, such as sails or canvass, but also durable work clothes, like the original jeans. When the plants are grown closer together the fibre becomes shorter and finer, which allows for finer textiles. Today, there are some fashion designers that are experimenting with a wide range of textiles made from hemp for their stylish, trendy hemp lines, shirts, suits, bags, jeans and more. And, no- you can't smoke them to get high!
Hemp fibres are also finding application as a modern building material, an application that has been spearheaded and exploited successfully in France. Hemp fibres can be blended with water and limestone to create an extremely tough, light-weight, natural cement that has not only excellent insulating properties, but also shows more flexibility than conventional concrete, which makes it particularly useful as a building material in earthquake prone areas.
Henry Ford was eccentric in many ways, but he was also quite brilliant in his innovation. Back in 1941 he built a car that was not only entirely built from 'hemp plastic', but also ran on hemp fuel. Hemp oil, pressed from the seeds is also extremely versatile. It can be polymerized to create a solid plastic-like material, which is extremely durable, yet nevertheless is completely natural and biodegradable, which could replace plastics in numerous industrial processes.
Almost a century later, as we are hitting the worst oil crisis since we first embarked on our path of addiction to this finite resource, car manufacturers are again turning to hemp as a resource to provide light-weight, yet shock absorbent and environmentally friendly material for their cars. Due to the high biomass hemp would also make an ideal source of ethanol, the best bio-fuel alternative to gasoline, which is capable of fuelling engines without producing all those evil gases that are destroying our atmosphere and poisoning the air. At long last, some of the top car manufacturers are beginning to follow in Ford's steps.
Hemp oil is of a very high quality and industry is using it in paints, inks and varnishes. In recent years the food industry is also discovering its virtues. Hempseed oil is one of the richest sources of essential amino acids and essential fatty acids, providing an excellent balance between omega-3, -6 and -9 fatty acids. All of these substances are currently being discussed, not only in the alternative health scene, but also by the food industry, which is searching for suitable ingredients to create so called 'functional foods'. Essential fatty acids are extremely important to the proper functioning of cells. They play a role in reducing bad cholesterol and plaque, which is responsible for arteriosclerosis. Healthfood companies are beginning to experiment with hemp as a basis for a large range of products- from hemp seed bars, to gummi bears, to beer, to hemp cheese and many more. Hemp oil is also highly nutritious for the skin and makes a wonderful addition to homemade moisturizing blends and rejuvenating creams. (Read Andrew Weil's article on hemp oil http://www.ratical.org/renewables/TherapHoil.html)
The list of beneficial uses of hemp goes on and on. I have not even touched on the medicinal uses, mostly because these are associated with the more psychoactive strains of Cannabis. Suffice to say, that list is also endless.
It is not hard to see how immensely valuable hemp is and how it has the potential of solving many of our environmental problems, not to mention our health problems. Yet, we are continuously deprived of its benefits because farmers are prohibited from cultivating this crop. Obviously importing it or products made from it is very expensive and the high expense is a prohibitive factor to choosing hemp as an environmentally friendly alternative even where it is available. It makes no sense to import a crop like hemp, when it can be, should be and used to be grown in all temperate and hot regions of the world.
To be sure, plenty of Cannabis is also grown for recreational use. Opinions about Cannabis (Marihuana) range from it being 'a devil's weed and dangerous drug' to 'a divine gift of the gods'. Most often it is rated as a reasonably harmless hippy drug that induces a ravenous appetite and a silly grin or uncontrollable laughter. However, the illegal 'maffia' of pot growers is far from harmless. This 'Maffia', which is a direct outgrowth of the 'war on drugs', protects its crops at gun point. Furthermore, it uses heavy chemicals that kill wildlife and weeds in the areas surrounding their crop. Often cash generated from the sale of drugs is channelled into further evil causes, such as war and weapons- quite the opposite to the peace and love image the average 'pot head' likes to associate with his herb. Maffias are an outgrowth of prohibition - that lesson should have been learnt a long time ago, when alcohol became illegalized. These ugly facts aside, the issue of recreational use is a lot more complex and warrants a separate discussion.
So why is non-psychoactive Hemp illegal?
There is an old saying: if you want to get to the root of a problem, follow the money. This holds true for hemp. In this case we have to ask the question 'who benefits from hemp being illegal?' The logical answer is: the oil companies- and their share holders, of course. Hemp became illegalized at the time when oil was beginning to make an impact on the economy as a base material for many things that hemp could also be used for, including textiles and fibres (plastics), cosmetics and fuel. Obviously, a resource is more profitable if access to it is restricted and not every farmer can grow it himself. In an exceedingly clever PR move psychoactive marihuana and hemp were 'thrown into the same pot' as it were, and a massive campaign was launched to convince people of the dangers of marihuana alias hemp - a highly questionable assertion.
In the US the legal status of hemp has begun to shift, but the shift is very hesitant. While at state level legislation has been introduced in 31 states (to date) to legalise industrial hemp cultivation, farmers are still reluctant to grow it as they still face harassment from federal agents and even imprisonment and confiscation of civil assets and property, simply because federal policy cannot or will not distinguish between industrial and psychoactive varieties.
Hemp is the most useful plant ally we have - a sustainable resource par excellence, as some might have called it. Instead of cursing it we should be grateful and use all its manifold gifts to turn around the ecological demise of our planet. I believe there is still time, and I believe the time to do it is now.
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