June 21, 2007
Is weed the new green?
“PLANS are afoot for a great expansion of the hemp industry.” So proclaimed the Department of Agriculture in its rousing 1942 movie, “Hemp for Victory”, which urged farmers to rally to the cause: “Hemp for mooring ships! Hemp for tow lines! Hemp for tackle and gear!” The plant’s long, strong fibres twist easily into rope, which made it useful for parachute webbing. The war effort was imperiled when Japan’s seizure of the Philippines curtailed America’s supply.
But despite the enthusiasm of wartime planners, hemp never took root (as it were). Taxes and regulations, introduced in 1937 but minimally enforced during the war, kicked in again during the 1950s. Hemp is a variety of the cannabis plant, which also produces marijuana—though industrial hemp has a much smaller concentration of the mind-blowing compound, THC, than the smokable stuff. America’s puritans, not to mention nylon-makers, wanted production shut down.
Nowadays farmers are banned from growing hemp without a permit from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which usually refuses to grant one. So many hemp products in America—food, lotions, clothing, paper and so forth—are imported from China or Canada, where farmers have been allowed to grow hemp commercially since 1998.
Could hemp make a comeback? America’s greens have fallen for the stuff, and not just because plenty like the occasional puff. Hemp grows so easily that few pesticides or even fertilisers are needed. “Feral” hemp is said to grow by the roadside in Iowa and Nebraska. Barbara Filippone, owner of a hemp fabric company called Enviro Textiles, says demand has rocketed—sales are growing by 35% a year. Nutiva, a California-based hemp company that sells hemp bars, shakes and oils, saw sales rise from under $1m three years ago to $4.5m last year. “Hemp is the next soy,” predicts John Roulac, Nutiva’s founder.
American farmers would love to grow hemp. North Dakota, which in 1999 became the first state to allow industrial hemp farming, has taken the lead. This week two farmers from the state filed a lawsuit to force the DEA to issue permits to grow hemp; the farmers had applied for permits back in February, thus far to no avail. Ron Paul, a Texas congressman and presidential candidate, could win over farmers in Iowa because of his pro-hemp lobbying. In February he introduced a bill in Congress that would allow Americans to grow it.
If hemp grows so easily, what about using the crop as a biofuel? A Mercedes-Benz “hemp car” did make its way across America six years ago. (Among other uses in cars, “Pimp My Ride”, an MTV show, recently featured a 1965 Chevy Impala that runs on biodiesel and has hemp upholstery.) Perhaps this is just the niche for Willie Nelson. He already has his own biodiesel line, called BioWillie, and is not unfamiliar with other uses of the cannabis plant.