In the final part of his Brief History of Weed series, Henry Vespa looks at the myriad profitable uses of Mother Earth’s wonder-plant, beyond smoking it…
Maybe it’s not all bad… Let’s try to finish this series on a high note (pun most definitely intended) and take a look at how the cannabis plant is making something of a comeback in popularity and (legal) use. As medical usage becomes more common, and getting stoned is increasingly permissible – or at least, non-criminal – so the third ‘role’ of the plant is coming back into fashion: as an agricultural cash crop.
I’ve already mentioned that way back in 1920 the U.S. Department of Agriculture was encouraging cannabis cultivation. The cannabis in question was hemp, a variety of cannabis sativa with less than 0.3% THC in contrast to marijuana’s 5-20% (sorry folks, no point toking on this one). But, you may ask, if it’s lacking the buzz, what’s the point? Well, hemp is a ‘miracle crop’ that actually deserves the name. Historically used for paper production, and rope and sails for nautical use (believe it or not, apparently the word “canvas” is derived from “cannabis”), the humble hemp plant has a range of uses that rivals pretty much any other natural resource. The fibres are good for clothing and textiles. The oil is used in cooking, moisturizer, paint, and biodegradable plastics manufacture. The seeds are often used as bird and animal feed, although they’re perfectly nutritious for us humans too, either raw, sprouted, or as hemp flour, tea or milk (similar to soy). Then there’s hempcrete. Yes, should you wish it, you can live in a house made of cannabis – hempcrete construction blocks (similar to cinder blocks in appearance and use) can be combined with other building materials to create insulated and durable accommodation – it’s not as dense as concrete, but it’s not as brittle either (who knows, maybe it should be the material of choice in earthquake zones? Cannabis construction, California, hmmm…)
The problem was that widespread cultivation was pretty much destroyed as an industry by the 1937 Marihuana Act. The legislation that primarily sought to curtail the drug uses of cannabis also clamped down on the plant’s non-psychoactive cousin; at the time THC wasn’t well understood as the high-inducing agent, so baby went out with the bathwater. Incidentally, if you enjoy a good conspiracy theory then how about the following very selective facts… The biggest backers/supporters/lobbyists for the Marihuana Act were W.R. Hearst (newspaper mogul), the Du Pont family (very rich people), and Andrew Mellon (Secretary of the Treasury and also a rich person). Hearst’s newspaper empire depended on paper (manufactured using wood pulp) and he also had timber and logging assets. The DuPont chemical company was developing nylon, the new synthetic wonder textile. Mellon was the richest man in America at that time and had heavily invested in nylon as a commodity. Who knows, maybe these three weren’t so bothered by the social evils of smoking weed and more about the impact of hemp on their business interests. Nice theory.
However – and here’s the good news – in 2014, hemp is being cultivated in the U.S. for the first time in almost eight decades. So why would Obama remove hemp from the list of controlled substances? Well, back to business interests as motivation: hemp cultivation is perfectly legal in Canada and the U.S.’s northern cousins are currently clearing almost $1billion per year in the hemp market. So now, 15 states are currently importing hemp seeds for pilot agriculture projects. Of course, this is also providing extra work for the DEA, who have stopped shipments of agricultural hemps seeds to both Kentucky and California and had to be reminded that it’s now legal – guess either old habits die hard, or maybe they just missed the memo? But, despite the lingering efforts of the prohibition agencies, it may just be a new dawn for the cannabis plant. After spending most of the last century being driven underground, could it be that the future is bright, that the future is now… green?