Hemp, the plant that can save Mother Earth
The following is a transcript of a remarkable commentary on hemp, the
world's premiere renewable natural resource, by journalist and commentator Hugh
Downs speaking for ABC News radio out of New York in November, 1990. Mr. Downs
did his homework exceedingly well for this report--he succeeded in including a
great deal of useful information in the short timespan of only nine minutes,
forty seconds. Seeking to leverage off the clarity of his research, nine
footnotes have been added to the text to provide people with a cross-section of
the reference material substantiating the facts Mr. Downs articulates.
(Note: I don't know who wrote the preceding paragraph, but only the 1st
footnote was included with this file when I got it. If anyone has a copy of the
rest of them, I'd very much apreciate your sending it my way.)
Transcript of Hugh Downs commentary on hemp, for ABC News, NY, 11/90:
Voters in the state of Alaska recently made marijuana illegal again for the
first time in 15 years. If Alaska turns out to be like the other 49 states, the
law will do little to curb use or production. Even the drug czar himself,
William Bennett, has abandoned the drug war now that his "test case" of
Washington, D.C., continues to see rising crime figures connected with the drug
Despite the legal trend against marijuana, many Americans continue to buck
the trend. Some pro-marijuana organizations in fact tell us that marijuana, also
known as hemp, could, as a raw material, save the U.S. economy. That's some
statment. Not by smoking it--that's a minor issue. Would you believe that
marijuana could replace most oil and energy needs? That marijuana could
revolutionize the textile industry and stop foreign imports? Those are the
Some people think marijuana, or hemp, may be the epidome of yankee
ingenuity. Mr. Jack Herer, for example, is the national director and founder of
an organization called HEMP (that's an acronym for "Help End Marijuana
Prohibition") located in Van Nuys, California. Mr. Herer is the author of a
remarkable little book called, "The Emperor Wears No Clothes," wherein, not
surprisingly, Mr. Herer urges the repeal of marijuana prohibition.
Mr. Herer is not alone. Throughout the war on drugs, several organizations
have consistently urged the legalization of marijuana. "High Times" magazine for
example, The National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws or NORML for short,
and an organization called BACH--the Business Alliance for Commerce in Hemp.
But the reason the pro-marijuana lobby want marijuana legal has little to do
with getting high, and a great deal to do with fighting oil giants like Saddam
Hussein, Exxon and Iran. The pro-marijuana groups claim that hemp is such a
versatile raw material, that its products not only compete with petroleum, but
with coal, natural gas, nuclear energy, pharmaceutical, timber and textile
It is estimated that methane and methanol production alone from hemp grown
as biomass could replace 90% of the world's energy needs. If they are right,
this is not good news for oil interests and could account for the continuation
of marijuana prohibition. The claim is that the threat hemp posed to natural
resource companies back in the thirties accounts for its original ban.
At one time marijuana seemed to have a promising future as a cornerstone of
industry. When Rudolph Diesel produced his famous engine in 1896, he assumed
that the diesel engine would be powered by a variety of fuels, especially
vegetable and seed oils. Rudolph Diesel, like most engineers then, believed
vegetable fuels were superior to petroleum. Hemp is the most efficient
In the 1930s the Ford Motor Company also saw a future in biomass fuels. Ford
operated a successful biomass conversion plant, that included hemp, at their
Iron Mountain facility in Michigan. Ford engineers extracted methanol, charcoal
fuel, tar, pitch, ethyl-acetate and creosote. All fundamental ingredients for
modern industry and now supplied by oil-related industries.
The difference is that the vegetable source is renewable, cheap and clean,
and the petroleum or coal sources are limited, expensive and dirty. By volume,
30% of the hemp seed contains oil suitable for high-grade diesel fuel as well as
aircraft engine and precision machine oil.
Henry Ford's experiments with methanol promised cheap, readily renewable
fuel. And if you think methanol means compromise, you should know that many
modern race cars run on methanol.
About the time Ford was making biomass methanol, a mechanical device to
strip the outer fibers of the hemp plant appeared on the market. These machines
could turn hemp into paper and fabrics quickly and cheaply. Hemp paper is
superior to wood paper. The first two drafts of the U.S. constitution were
written on hemp paper. The final draft is on animal skin. Hemp paper contains no
dioxin, or other toxic residue, and a single acre of hemp can produce the same
amount of paper as four acres of trees. The trees take 20 years to harvest
and hemp takes a single season. In warm climates hemp can be harvested two even
three times a year. It also grows in bad soil and restores the nutrients.
Hemp fiber-stripping machines were bad news to the Hearst paper
manufacturing division, and a host of other natural resource firms.
Coincidentally, the DuPont Chemical Company had, in 1937, been granted a patent
on a sulfuric acid process to make paper from wood pulp. At the time DuPont
predicted their sulfuric acid process would account for 80% of their business
for the next 50 years.
Hemp, once the mainstay of American agriculture, became a threat to a
handful of corporate giants. To stifle the commercial threat that hemp posed to
timber interests, William Randolph Hearst began referring to hemp in his
newspapers, by its Spanish name, "marijuana." This did two things: it associated
the plant with Mexicans and played on racist fears, and it misled the public
into thinking that marijuana and hemp were different plants.
Nobody was afraid of hemp--it had been cultivated and processed into usable
goods, and consumed as medicine, and burned in oil lamps, for hundreds of years.
But after a campaign to discredit hemp in the Hearst newspapers, Americans
became afraid of something called marijuana.
By 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act was passed which marked the beginning of the
end of the hemp industry. In 1938, "Popular Mechanics" ran an article about
marijuana called, "New Billion Dollar Crop." It was the first time the words
"billion dollar" were used to describe a U.S. agricultural product. "Popular
. . . a machine has been invented which solves a problem more than 6,000
years old. . . . The machine . . . is designed for removing the fiber-
bearing cortex from the rest of the stalk, making hemp fiber available for
use without a prohibitive amount of human labor.
Hemp is the standard fiber of the world. It has great tensile strength and
durability. It is used to produce more than 5,000 textile products ranging
from rope, to fine laces, and the woody "hurds" remaining after the fiber has
been removed, contain more than seventy-seven per cent cellulose, and can be
used to produce more than 25,000 products ranging from dynamite to cellophane.
Well since the "Popular Mechanics" article appeared over half a century ago,
many more applications have come to light. Back in 1935, more than 58,000 tons
of marijuana seed were used just to make paint and varnish (all non-toxic, by
the way). When marijuana was banned, these safe paints and varnishes were
replaced by paints made with toxic petro-chemicals. In the 1930s no one knew
about poisoned rivers or deadly land-fills or children dying from chemicals in
house paint. People did know something about hemp back then, because the plant
and its products were so common.
All ships lines were made from hemp and much of the sail canvas. (In fact
the word "canvas" is the Dutch pronunciation of the Greek word for hemp,
"cannabis.") All ropes, hawsers and lines aboard ship, all rigging, nets, flags
and pennants were also made from marijuana stalks. And so were all charts, logs
Today many of these items are made, in whole or in part, with synthetic
petro-chemicals and wood. All oil lamps used to burn hemp- seed oil until the
whale oil edged it out of first place in the mid- nineteenth century. And then,
when all the whales were dead, lamplights were fueled by petroleum, and coal,
and recently radioactive energy.
This may be hard to believe in the middle of a war on drugs, but the first
law concerning marijuana in the colonies at Jamestown in 1619, ordered farmers
to grow Indian hemp. Massachussetts passed a compulsory grow law in 1631.
Connecticut followed in 1632. The Chesapeake colonies ordered their farmers, by
law, to grow marijuana in the mid-eighteenth century. Names like Hempstead or
Hemphill dot the American landscape and reflect areas of intense marijuana
During World War II, domestic hemp production became crucial when the
Japanese cut off Asian supplies to the U.S. American farmers (and even their
sons), who grew marijuana, were exempt from military duty during World War II. A
1942 U.S. Department of Agriculture film called "Hemp For Victory" extolled the
agricultural might of marijuana and called for hundreds of thousands of acres to
be planted. Despite a rather vigorous drug crackdown, 4-H clubs were asked by
the government to grow marijuana for seed supply. Ironically, war plunged the
government into a sober reality about marijuana and that is that it's very
In today's anti-drug climate, people don't want to hear about the commercial
potential of marijuana. The reason is that the flowering top of a female hemp
plant contains a drug. But from 1842 through the 1890s a powerful concentrated
extract of marijuana was the second most prescribed drug in the United States.
In all that time the medical literature didn't list any of the ill effects
claimed by today's drug warriors.
Today, there are anywhere from 25 to 30 million Americans who smoke
marijuana regularly. As an industry, marijuana clears well more than $4 billion
a year. [This must have been a misreading of his notes--for 1990, the minimum
figure would have been at least $40 billion for the entire nation. (phone
interview with Jack Herer)] Obviously, as an illegal business, none of that
money goes to taxes. But the modern marijuana trade only sells one product, a
drug. Hemp could be worth considerably more than $4 [$40] billion a year, if it
were legally supplying the 50,000 safe products the proponents claim it can.
If hemp could supply the energy needs of the United States, its value would
be inestimable. Now that the drug czar is in final retreat, America has an
opportunity to, once and for all, say farewell to the Exxon Valdez, Saddam
Hussein and a prohibitively expensive brinkmanship in the desert sands of Saudi
This is Hugh Downs, ABC News, New York.