Hemp Prohibition — Folly or Crime?

by John Stahl

Northern California
May 5, 2001

      I want to make one thing clear right from the start – the “crime” mentioned in the title does not refer to anyone’s use of hemp; it refers to the intolerably criminal abuse of power which prohibits the use of one of the most useful plants on earth.  The folly (to use the more polite expression) is so monumental that I hardly know where to begin with the expression of my astonishment, indignation, and outrage.  

      I may as well begin with my own work, which is making paper.  For nearly thirty years I have been making hand made paper from a great variety of non-wood fiber sources, starting with the classic cotton, and moving on to experiment with flax, hemp, kenaf, mulberry, and numerous weeds and recycled materials.  Cotton is very wonderful material for a papermaker: it is both soft and strong and readily available for free as textile scraps.  You have to be very careful to avoid synthetic materials and blends, because they do not beat down into pulp suitable for papermaking at all.  Paper is composed of cellulose fiber, which breaks down naturally when beaten in water, and is then ready to be formed into a fibrous mat by lifting on screens and then pressing.  Polyester, on the other hand, just gobs up into wads of plastic that has no business in any respectable paper.  No glues or chemicals of any kind are required for making paper.  This miracle which is paper was discovered about 300 BC in China.  The very earliest scraps of paper which date from this period have been analyzed as composed of hemp fibers.  

      In my work with paper, I have discovered that you can make paper out of just about any natural vegetable fiber, as cellulose is widely present in nearly all plants.  However, there are great variations in the quantities and qualities of cellulose.  Not only do some plants have more or less cellulose than others, but some plants have particularly long and strong cellulose fibers, while other plants have weak, short fibers that are only of very limited use in papermaking – perhaps in combination with other stronger fibers.  

      Cotton, as I have said already, rates very high, being almost pure cellulose from the start, with long fibers and few impurities which need to be cooked out.  On the other hand, there are two problems with the use of cotton.  In the first place, an enormous amount of pesticides are used on the cotton crops world-wide – I read somewhere that as much as 50% of all pesticides used in the world are used in the cultivation of cotton.  Secondly, cotton is just too expensive to be used for any large scale commercial use.

      Of course, no hand papermaker would have any reason to use such a poor material as wood chips for making paper.  Since the cost of a hand made sheet is almost entirely the labor cost, hand papermakers want to use the finest materials available, unless they have some artistic or research interest that over-rides the desire to make a high quality paper.  Wood contains practically no cellulose (about 30%), and there is so much lignin in the remainder that enormous amounts of highly toxic processing are required to produce a paper-like substance that will quickly degrade after about 50 years.  

      So why is wood used at all in the industry?   The answer to that question prompts just as much outrage and indignation as the prohibition of hemp!   To make a short answer of it, the same government that prohibits the use of hemp for papermaking (or at least its cultivation in the Land of the Free, which amounts to the same thing) subsidizes the logging industry by building roads at public expense and awarding lucrative logging contracts at far below the real cost of the resource extraction; the difference, of course, being picked up not only by current tax payers, but by future generations yet unborn.  Furthermore, the same government also tolerates the disposal of waste products into our rivers and streams which are killing us all with dioxin and other toxic chemicals.  Certainly there are continuous efforts to mitigate these problems and these levels of toxic disposal – the days when you could simply dump your effluent in the river are over (now you have to pay somebody off) – but it is way too little and way too late.  

      But enough about wood.  Let me summarize by saying that the net effect of these government policies is to make wood appear to be cheap (although that illusion is quickly fading), but, even at that, the disastrous environmental effect of the destruction of our ancient forest, munching up trees into junk mail and burying most of it as landfill, presents a very steep bill which, once again, will be presented to future generations.  

      There are a great many alternatives to wood pulp, many of them of very high quality indeed, but in most cases the cost of production makes them unattractive as candidates for any large scale paper manufacture.  Back in 1916 the USDA studied the problem, realizing that by the end of the century available forest reserves would be pretty well exhausted, and tried to find an alternative to the use of wood.  The answer, published in Bulletin 404, was to use hemp, which they calculated could produce 4.1 times as much pulp, on a sustained yield basis, as wood.  Not only was hemp of supremely high quality as a furnish for paper (more than double the cellulose as wood and much longer and stronger fibers), but it was also very economical in its cultivation, as it produced abundant crops year after year without the use of pesticides.  

      Since that time kenaf has also been proposed as an alternative, and the economics of kenaf rival that of hemp, while capable of producing paper almost as good as hemp.  Kenaf is amazing and wonderful stuff; I grow it myself, and use it in my paper, and I have nothing bad to say about it at all, with the possible exception that its use is confined to very temperate or semi-tropical latitudes, whereas hemp can be cultivated on the dark side of the moon (well, almost).  Seriously, hemp can be cultivated on what are known as “marginal lands” where little else of commercial value will grow.  

      I only know of two real objections to the use of hemp for paper making: it is an annual crop, which means that it is harvested all at once and must then be stored and delivered to the mill as needed, in contrast with wood, which is logged, chipped, and delivered to the mills on a daily basis.  That problem simply has to be factored into the economic equation of its use.  The other objection is that such enormous quantities of wood chips are pulped up into paper every day (about half of all trees harvested are pulped up into paper products) that no one could ever cultivate enough hemp to replace it.  That objection is foolish.  Even if only 5 or 10% of the world’s paper were made from hemp, that would still produce a very significant environmental improvement.  The obvious conclusion is to grow all the kenaf possible wherever it will grow, and then to grow as much hemp as possible everywhere else in the world.  

      But there is far more to this story than just paper!   According to the Popular Mechanics magazine of 1938, there are over 25,000 uses of the hemp plant.  The catalog has been paraded so many times that I don’t want to reproduce the whole thing in the present essay, but I will briefly outline the main headings: first there is the fiber, which includes textiles as well as paper.  Other products may be made from the fiber as well, such as automobile parts and building materials, but paper and textiles are the biggest items.  Next comes the seed and the seed oil, which have most of the balance of the 25,000 uses to their credit.  Someone has said that “anything you can make with a hydrocarbon you can make with a carbohydrate.” This means you can make everything from fuel to paints and varnishes, cosmetics, and a host of other industrial products.  

      But there is also the very important item of food products.  Once again, this story is not exactly late breaking news, but in case you haven’t heard it yet, the hemp seed is just about the most perfect nutritional food ever discovered – very high in protein and especially high in essential fatty acids (one hemp seed a day was supposed to have sustained the Buddha on his way to enlightenment).  

      That is enough of an introduction to move along to the real intention of the present essay (if you want more information about the uses of the hemp plant, any bookstore should carry dozens of books, from The Emperor Wears No Clothes, by Jack Herer, which started it all, to any of a numerous crop of more recent hemp books).  I am not finished with the catalog of uses of the hemp plant, by the way, but this is enough to get started.  

      So why, the obvious question comes to mind, does our government see fit to prohibit its cultivation?   (If you ever wondered what a “rhetorical question” was, this is a splendid example.) Yes, of course: the hemp plant resembles the dreaded marijuana plant, the scourge of youth, the demon weed, reefer madness.  This substance is considered to be so bad that a policy of “zero tolerance” is to be enforced.  Otherwise law abiding citizens are to be arrested and incarcerated at levels unheard of in the history of civilization.  Not enough room in the prisons to hold all the pot smokers?   We’ll just build more prisons; no problem.  Not content to deal with abuse as it comes up, the government mounts a campaign of seeking out marijuana users by an aggressive campaign of drug tests.  When it turns out that eating hemp seeds can produce a false positive on a drug test, our government is fully prepared to outlaw the ingestion of arguably the most nutritious health food ever discovered in order to prevent any possibility of undermining their drug testing agenda!  

      Before I address the issue of medical marijuana as the continuation of the catalog of beneficial uses of the hemp plant, let me address the issue upon the assumption that marijuana really is as harmful as our government pretends it to be.  The analogy with the Prohibition of alcohol has been made many times, but no one (in the government) seems to get it.  There is no one of any credibility (say a medical doctor or health professional) who would risk the ridicule of maintaining that marijuana is more harmful than alcohol.  Alcohol destroys the liver and also causes great emotional and psychological harm with excessive use.  Families are destroyed left and right, and lives are destroyed directly by drunk drivers.  Nonetheless, prohibition was rejected as a monumental failure for the following reasons: number one, it didn’t work — a whole black market industry developed which provided alcohol of dubious quality to anyone who wanted it, which brought on a whole array of social problems far worse than the original problem (compare the current arguments of “harm reduction” which favor regulating marijuana rather than leaving the entire industry in the hands of outlaws).  Secondly, the prohibition of alcohol was an unfair infringement on the rights of those who enjoyed its use in moderation.  Even alcohol is conceded to be harmless or even beneficial as long as it is used in moderation.  

      Moderation is the key, here.  Having a beer or two at the end of the working day, or enjoying a glass of wine with a meal, is not to be compared with the alcoholic who always has a glass going, all through the day, or who binges on it, destroying his health, getting into fights, losing his job and his family.  Both alcohol and marijuana are social drugs; if someone prefers to take a moderate amount of cannabis at the end of the day instead of drinking alcohol, that is a distinct improvement in every way.  

      So my conclusions are tiered one on top of another.  In the first place, there is no justification whatsoever for the Prohibition of marijuana at all, but even if there were, to carry this fanaticism over to the Prohibition of industrial hemp, and finally to even propose the outlawing of hemp as a foodstuff goes way beyond folly; it is criminal.  

      That conclusion, let me remind you, is based upon the assumption that marijuana really is harmful.  But I now want to proceed with my catalog of the beneficial uses of the hemp plant by including the medical benefits.  Before I go any further, however, I want to emphasize that I do not recommend smoking it.  While I believe in the principle of freedom and the rights of people to smoke marijuana if they so choose, it is clear that filling your lungs with smoke on a regular basis is very bad for your health.  Before marijuana was outlawed in the ’30s it was the second most prescribed drug in the pharmacopoeia (first place was held by hashish, a more potent preparation of marijuana).  It was produced in many forms: pills, elixirs, etc, so that it could be ingested rather than smoked.  Smoking became popular because it was more efficient and more controllable than eating it.  But in recent years, the vaporizer technology has been greatly improved to the point where it is no longer necessary for anyone to smoke cannabis in order to experience the benefits.  Vaporized marijuana causes far less problems than smoked, due to the absence of all the real toxic material in the smoke: carbon monoxide, tar, benzene, etc.  This concept is still very new; well, actually, it is not so very new, but early vaporizers were not very well designed and most people were disappointed in the experience.  The latest generation of vaporization devices (which generally feature a heat source with a precisely controlled temperature) offer a greatly improved delivery for a much more satisfactory experience all around.  (See, for example, www.arizer.com for one of the highly reviewed models.)

      There are a host of medical benefits of marijuana, from the relief of the inter-ocular pressure of glaucoma to the relief from nausea and other side effects of medications for AIDS and cancer, to the relief of pain in many forms, as well as many other benefits, some documented better than others (see, for example, The New Prescription by Martin Martinez, for a discussion of the range of medical benefits of cannabis).  One of the most common medical uses of cannabis is for relief of pain.  It has been used in this way for thousands of years with no known side effects.  In contrast with this safety record, pharmaceutical drugs which are prescribed for relief of pain — all of them, every single one — have been proven to cause very serious and life-threatening side effects, such as a dramatically increased risk of heart attack.  One typical finding shows that regular use of one of these pharmaceutical pain relievers will triple the patient’s risk of a fatal heart attack.  But that is no problem — at least the pharmaceutical drug companies are making obscene profits, and that’s the main thing.  So our government encourages patients to use expensive pharmaceutical drugs, for which it has been proven that regular use will certainly kill them, while any attempt to circumvent the pharmaceutical drug industry by using the much safer and cheaper alternative of cannabis (cheaper if you grow it yourself — never mind the high prices which are caused by the “drug war”) will be met with arrest and incarceration.  But the health care industry has no interest in curing anyone — “a patient cured is a customer lost” — all they want is your money.  When you run out of money, then you can die.  

      But it is continually objected that the medical benefits are just a smoke screen for the dreaded “recreational uses” of cannabis.  I prefer the term “social use” to “recreational use.”  It is not so much that users simply want to intoxicate themselves for some “recreational” use; marijuana is used as a social catalyst.  In some social environments, when guests or friends come to visit, one puts on a pot of coffee or tea.  In other cultures, alcoholic drinks are offered.  Even tobacco was originally a social drug.  I read in an old novel where someone meets a friend on the street and invites him to come up to his rooms “to smoke a cigarette.”  When I was young, I tried alcohol like everyone else, but I rejected it as unnecessarily toxic.  I didn’t like the way it smelled; I didn’t like the “high”; I didn’t like the effects.  Where alcohol stupefies the user and dulls all the senses, marijuana intensifies all sensory experiences.  Where alcohol makes users aggressive and sloppy, marijuana makes users peaceful and gentle.  Where an excess of alcohol can lead to a very unpleasant experience of sickness, drunk driving, and social alienation, an excess of marijuana usually just puts the user into a passive state which will wear off with no ill effects.  While I do not recommend driving while under the influence of marijuana, studies have shown that marijuana smokers usually compensate for their moderate impairment by driving especially slowly and carefully, in contrast with drinkers who usually drive faster and more recklessly.  

      So the principle benefit of using marijuana socially (apart from the direct social benefits, of course!) is the alternative to the use of the really harmful drugs like alcohol and narcotics.  I have known lots of people who used to use harmful drugs who now only use cannabis.  People who used to use crack cocaine and methedrine and/or alcohol find that they are able to satisfy their social (or “recreational”) need with just marijuana.  It is a true “gateway drug” after all!   Why would young people sniff glue if they could just as easily (and as cheaply) take cannabis with their friends?

      But before I end this essay I want to emphasize a few important points: While I believe that moderate amounts of marijuana are relatively harmless and even beneficial, I certainly do not deny that there is a “potential for abuse.” Certainly there are persons whose use of marijuana is excessive, but the zero tolerance of Prohibition is not the answer.  Education is the answer.  The Drug War is the source of all the evils it is ostensibly put forward to correct.  I believe that the vast majority of people want to live long, healthy, and happy lives.  If government would give up the impoverished policy of Prohibition and rely upon a campaign of education after the very successful model of cigarette smoking, then I believe that most people would end up with a pattern of use for themselves that would provide more benefit than harm.  


Short Articles

Current List

The Evanescent Press