Hemp is a pop culture icon and industrial staple whose reputation has been muddied by years of government rejection, misunderstanding, and social stigma. I aim to answer the following question: “What is hemp and how is it important to the economy and the environment?” I will also expand on how the plant gets a bad rap, why it does, and what has been done concerning its legalization when it comes to its mass growth. Despite lacking the legal capabilities, hemp, or cannabis sativa, can and should have a bigger role in the economy which will not only help our wallets but also our environment.
To understand the dilemma at hand we must understand what hemp is. Hemp is a plant of the genus cannabis. This, however, does not mean that all cannabis is hemp. There are four general types of cannabis.
Cannabis Ruderalis is a breeding plant that can grow up to three feet tall that is used to create auto-flowering plants. This means that it takes less time for plants to flower, creating for optimal use of time and space. Cannabis Ruderalis has a tetrahydrocannabinol concentration of under 0.2%. Tetrahydrocannabinol is a chemical compound that when taken under the right circumstances will result in a “high”. Cannabis Indica is a bush that grows up to seven feet tall and is where strains of marijuana come from. It is used as a recreational and medical drug. The tetrahydrocannabinol levels in Cannabis Indica can be up to 41.7%. Cannabis Sativa is classified as a type of tree that can grow anywhere from seven to twenty-one feet. It is used industrially and is more commonly known as hemp. “Amendment 64, section 16 (d) to the Colorado Constitution defines Industrial hemp as ‘a plant of the genus Cannabis and any part of that plant, whether growing or not, containing a Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration of no more than 0.3% on a dry weight basis.” (Colorado Department of Agriculture). While this is technically correct it fails to consider that Ruderalis also has a concentration of THC under 0.3%, so the real distinguishing factor between those two is the size and use of the plant. While this instance is far from severe, government misrepresentation of the plant will be covered later on. The final characterization falls under the blanket term "Hybrid R/S/I" and it is also used as a medical and recreational drug. Its tetrahydrocannabinol levels are between 0.6 and 35%. (Mountain Grades).
Now that we understand the difference, the many uses of hemp can be covered. The magazine Popular Mechanics (1938) crowned hemp the new billion-dollar crop as it makes products ranging from dynamite to cellophane. (Purdue.edu). Rob Jungman, the CEO of Jungmaven, an apparel company whose primary resource is hemp, went so far as to say hemp is “as American as apple pie.”. The great thing about hemp is that almost all parts of the plant can be used. This, of course, minimizes waste and makes for ideal production conditions. The seeds can be used for baked goods, salad oil, cosmetics, animal food, gamma-linolenic acid dietary supplements ( a scientifically proven health booster), and specialty industrial oils. The long fiber, or bark, can be used for plastic molded products, specialty papers, construction fiberboard, biodegradable landscape matting, plant culture products, fine textiles, and coarse textiles such as carpets and upholstery. The woody stem core can be used for animal bedding, thermal insulation, as well as construction purposes including fiberboard and plasterboard. The female floral bract can be used for medical cannabinoids, essential oils for flavor and perfumes, not to mention insect repellent. The plant as a whole can be turned into alcohol, fuel, and silage. When looking at all the things that hemp can help create, one can’t help but ask about the toll this must have on the environment. It is believed that hemp can revitalize forests and take on big roles that other plants just can’t fulfill anymore.
We all have heard about deforestation and the terrible things it does to the ecosystem. What if there was a way to plant, use, and replant trees without destroying the environment further. Well, there is a "miracle plant", and its name is Cannabis Sativa. "We simply haven’t found any as good as hemp.” (andykerr.net).
The paper business is a driving force in deforestation. “Tree density in primary forests varies from 50,000-100,000 trees per square km, so the math would put this number at 3.5 billion to 7 billion trees cut down each year.” (RainforestActionNetwork.org). The United States consumes around 32% of the world’s paper and only about 5% of our natural forests remain. The average citizen will use 735 pounds of paper per year. This number won’t stop increasing if we continue to chop down more trees than we plant. By the year 2050 the number is expected to have increased by 60%. “Making paper from trees is kind of a joke, because trees are made up of only 30% cellulose. The other 70% of the tree must be removed using toxic chemicals, until the cellulose can be formed into paper.” (hemphasis.net). Hemp is more fit to make paper because it has strong stalk with more than 80% cellulose. Hemp also grows faster and can be used for longer. Hemp will take less than a year to fully grow whereas other trees will need more than twenty years to grow to have a measurable pulp yield. Hemp paper won’t become cracked and discolored the way other paper becomes. This is due to the fact that hemp paper requires bleaching of no kind. Hemp paper can be recycled multiple times. According to Montana State University, “Hemp paper can be recycled seven times, while wood paper only lasts three reyclings.” Furthermore, hemp can replenish soil. This is especially important because over the last forty years a third of earth’s fertile land has been lost. Henry Ford posed a good question when he asked, “Why use the forests which were centuries in the making and the mines which required ages to say down. If we can get the equivalent of forest and mineral products in the annual growth of the fields?”. This meant that we shouldn’t unnecessarily use resources that take time to come back especially when we know there are good alternatives. Decaying hemp encourages the growth of fertile grasslands. Hemp has been used as a rotation crop. Rotation crops are meant to be nutrient dispersing, easy to grow place holders for plants in the future. Hemp also absorbs nuclear toxins from the soil. As evidence has shown, hemp is a more viable option if we want to preserve earth while maintaining a similar lifestyle to the ones we enjoy now.
Now that environmental concerns have been looked over, economic concerns soon follow. Why are hemp and hemp clothes so expensive? If it is so cheap to manufacture, why isn’t it being used to its fullest ability? These are wonderful questions that trace back to how much is being grown. Due to laws restricting its growth it has become a rarity in retail and more of a novelty than something that can worn on a day-to-day basis. The current cost of an acre of hemp can cost up to 60,000 dollars. The cost of an acre of spruce, a primary paper making tree, comes to about 2,000 dollars. An acre of cotton costs less than 1,000 dollars. “Hemp is significantly more expensive than cotton. That’s because the hemp supply chain is encumbered with setbacks. We just don’t have the machinery here in the US to produce the hemp textiles.” (Derek Thomas). According to the supply and demand model in microeconomics, the more of one product there is, the less each individual product is worth. This means if we grow more hemp it will cost less. What many fail to understand is that hemp can do the job of spruce trees, cotton, and more plants. So why is its growth restricted?
Sometimes the contrast between hemp and marijuana is unclear to people and the stigma spreads. “The US…has restricted hemp production and categorized hemp in Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act, attributing it as a relative of marijuana.” (TheGaurdian). While they both come from the cannabis genus, the psychoactive properties that make marijuana popular are simply not found in hemp. It is important to delve into why marijuana is looked down upon to get the full picture. The stigmatization of marijuana dates back to colonial Mexico. It was linked to violence and madness because it was linked to “negatively perceived groups such as prisoners and indigenous people.” (harvard.edu). These ideas crept into the United States and are still somewhat present today, with the exception being that we still view the users of marijuana in poor light, but for being lazy. Progress is being made however as the potential of hemp is being slowly, but surely recognized. In 2014, hemp was legal to grow in universities and state mandated settings under the Farm Bill for research purposes. As of 2016, thirty-seven of the fifty states allow for some help production. “Yet, many states, such as California…will only allow for industrial hemp cultivation where federal law coincides with state law.” (TheGuardian). In addition to that, hemp is under tight regulation as farmers need the approval of the Drug Enforcement Agency even though hemp is NOT a drug. At least legislature is moving in the right direction.
Hemp has been dragged through the dirt because of its sister marijuana and the purpose of this article was to show that hemp is helpful, not harmful. Hemp is beneficial to the environment due to its variety of uses inclusive of all parts of the plant, even the scraps are used for mulch. Hemp also has more economic potential seeing as cotton and trees took over the industry back in the early days of America. It is time for hemp to be back on top. In conclusion, if placed under the correct regulations hemp can have a larger role in years to come. We should call out our government on a quiet refusal to commercialize hemp and not degrade protesters to the likes of potheads and stoners.