Hemp is one of the most promising fibrous plants in the world, and was used commercially for hundreds of years in the United States. However, locals nowadays have mixed feelings about the plant due to its association with marijuana, its closest relative (both come from the same mother plant, Cannabis Sativa L.).
But hemp is different from cannabis. It can’t get you high, and some people rely on it for clothing, rope, and other products. Apparently, the plant served as an organic currency between 1631 and the early 1800s, when individuals used it to pay their taxes. With these facts in mind, why does hemp have such a bad rep?
Hemp Conspiracy Theory
Like its sibling variant, hemp has successfully weathered a rough past. A conspiracy theory surrounding the plant surfaced in the early 1900s, suggesting that the paper manufacturing industry waged an industrial war on hemp in order to protect lumber-based paper and products from being phased out. The conflict supposedly started when Harry Anslinger was appointed as head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs department. He was the nephew-in-law of Andrew Mellon (owner of Mellon Bank), who was the US Secretary of Treasury and a DuPont primary investor (DuPont specialized in chemical and paper processing operations).
During this time, hemp technology was becoming more efficient, and threatened a handful of emerging industries, including paper, chemical, petroleum, and pharmaceuticals. In order to turn people away from the plant, Anslinger linked hemp with anti-marijuana campaigns that were rampant during that period. Prohibition against the herb was eventually ordered after the passing of the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act. It’s important to consider that while Anslinger was directly responsible for the demonization of cannabis in the US, there is no tangible evidence that connects his crusade against cannabis to Mellon and DuPont’s financial interests.
Can it Really Be Used for Paper?
The short answer is yes – and here’s why industrial paper companies should consider doing it on a massive scale. Compared to wood, hemp contains low levels of lignin (organic polymers found in the cell wall of plants), which makes it easier to process into paper. Furthermore, it does not need to be bleached to achieve a bright color base. Traditionally, paper companies use toxic chemicals to keep paper white during processing. In paper form, hemp also boasts higher recycling value (up to 7-8 times), compared to tree-based paper (only three times).
As mentioned earlier, the use of hemp in the US dates back hundreds of years. It was used to cover wagons and served as a viable alternative to loose fabric for ship sails. Even the Declaration of Independence was originally drafted using hemp paper. One of the first paper mills in the US, which was owned by Benjamin Franklin, processed hemp. Before the 1880s, almost all schoolbooks in circulation were made using hemp paper.
Industrial Uses, Benefits, and Advantages
Hemp presents numerous advantages for industrial sectors due to its scalable properties and versatile applications. Cultivating the plant does not require chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. It is extremely sustainable when grown with other farm crops, like corn, because it can be rotated without affecting natural growing cycles. Compared to cotton, hemp has the ability to produce up to three times more fiber. It is also stronger, softer, and less prone to mildew. The plant can grow in all 50 states, due to its frost-tolerant properties and moderate water requirements. This is why wild hemp is so prevalent in the country.
When it comes to applications, almost the entire plant can be used for something useful. Hemp seeds are optimal sources of protein (and more economical than soybean). This part of the plant makes up over 50 percent of its weight, and may also be turned into flour for cookies, pastas, and breads. In the clothing industry, hemp is being used by manufacturers to make a range of clothes and fiber-based accessories. “You can make it into insulation as companies in the Netherlands and Ireland are doing. It can be used to make engineered building products like fiberboard and pressboard, and even be used to make ‘hempcrete’, a stronger, lighter, and more environmentally friendly version of concrete,” explained Mat McDermott from Tree Hugger.
Medicinally, the robust plant offers generous levels of cannabidiol (CBD) and low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). This makes it ideal for CBD extracts, which is currently receiving a ton of attention from the global cannabis community for its kid-friendly benefits. CBD is effective against a plethora of devastating illnesses, ranging from epilepsy to multiple sclerosis. The compound provides these benefits without your typical “marijuana high” that is commonly associated with THC-potent weed.
Hemp legalization is slowly making a comeback in the US. In 2014, a federal farm bill was passed (section 7606), citing that farmers may grow and harvest the plant in states with industrial hemp laws for research and development. Growers must closely adhere to their state’s agricultural guidelines on proper cultivation. Prior to this milestone bill, hemp was stuck in a grey area. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 prevented farmers from growing the plant, forcing businesses to rely on outside sources for a steady supply. Interestingly, industrial hemp is legal in the US, but growing it isn’t, which is why you can wear a hemp shirt in public and not get arrested.
Currently, the following 13 states may grow the green herb for research or commercial purposes: California, Colorado, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and West Virginia. To ensure support for such initiatives, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act was introduced in the House and Senate last year, under H.R. 525 and S. 134. The proposal aims to de-classify hemp as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, and would allow individuals to grow different forms of cannabis or hemp with a maximum THC concentration level of 0.3 percent (dry weight). If passed, it could usher in the start of the modern hemp revolution.
This post was originally published on April 27, 2016, it was updated on March 15, 2017.