On an otherwise unremarkable day nearly 30 years ago, in a San Fernando Valley head shop, an ordinary man on LSD had an epiphany. The one thing that could save the world, it came to him, was hemp.
Thunderbolts come cheap on LSD, but this one looked good to Jack Herer even after his head cleared. The world needed relief from its addiction to oil and petrochemicals. From deforestation and malnutrition. From dirty fuels, sooty air, exhausted soils and pesticides. The extraordinary hemp plant could solve all those problems. Herer was sure of it. Thus began his journey as a heralding prophet.
Herer's book, quirky but substantive enough to be taken seriously, inspired thousands and became an underground classic. The author has issued 16 printings over the years, revising and updating his material 11 times. Today, Herer is widely credited with launching the modern hemp movement, a persistent campaign by an eclectic coalition of environmentalists, legislators, rights activists, farmers, scientists, entrepreneurs and others to end the maligned plant's banishment and tap its potential as a natural resource.
Despite the book's over-the-top exuberance and occasional leaps of syllogistic fancy—or more likely because of them—it has sold 665,000 copies in seven languages. Or is it 635,000 copies in eight languages? The prophet isn't sure as he pads across the abused gray carpet of his two-bedroom Van Nuys apartment, a flower-child domicile to which the benefits of even the most rudimentary housekeeping remain foreign. Beard unkempt, hair askew, Herer matches the décor. "How can they make the one thing that can save the world illegal?" he asks, no less astonished by this paradox now than he was three decades ago.
Herer's question is essentially the same one hemp advocates in the U.S. have been asking with mounting consternation for the past decade. They are asking it now with new urgency in response to the Drug Enforcement Agency's latest foray against hemp, an attempt since 2001 to ban all food products containing even a trace of hemp, even though the foods are not psychoactive. The California-based Hemp Industries Assn. and seven companies that make or sell hemp products won a reprieve for the industry in June, when the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the DEA's efforts "procedurally invalid." But the matter remains in litigation, and the hemp issue continues to confound policymakers.
California's Legislature passed a bill on behalf of hemp not long ago that, in its final, watered-down form, could hardly have been less ambitious. Assembly Bill 388, approved in 2002 by wide margins in both chambers, merely requested that the University of California assess the economic opportunities associated with several alternative fiber crops. But because one of the crops was cannabis hemp, then-Gov. Gray Davis vetoed the measure, leaving California uncharacteristically behind the curve on a progressive issue that many other states and nations have embraced in recent years.
If all or even most of the oft-cited claims for hemp are true, the substance may know no earthly equal among nontoxic renewable resources. If only half the claims are true, hemp's potential as a commercial wellspring and a salve to creeping eco-damage is still immense. At worst it is more useful and diverse than most agricultural crops. Yet from the 1930s through the 1980s, many countries, influenced by U.S. policies and persuasion, banished cannabis from their farmlands. Not just marijuana, but all cannabis—the baby, the bath water, all of it.
Confronted with declining demand for their tobacco, farmers in Kentucky, where hemp was the state's largest cash crop until 1915, argue that commercial hemp could help save their farms. California doesn't face that particular dilemma but, in theory, hemp agriculture eventually could bestow innumerable benefits on the state, from tax revenues to healthier farm soils and reductions in forest logging for wood and paper. Environmentally benign hemp crops could replace at least some of California's 1 million acres of water-intensive and chemical-laden cotton.
Since taking root in the early 1990s, the hemp movement has made great progress around the world. Unfenced fields of the tall, cane-like plants flourish in Austria, Italy, Portugal, Ireland—the entire European Union. Great Britain reintroduced the crop in 1993. Germany legalized it in 1996. Australia followed suit two years later, as did Canada. Among the world's major industrial democracies, only the United States still forbids hemp farming. If an American farmer were to fill a field with this drugless crop, the government would consider him a felon. For selling his harvest he would be guilty of trafficking and would face a fine of as much as $4 million and a prison sentence of 10 years to life. Provided, of course, it is his first offense.
This for a crop as harmless as rutabaga.
Prejudiced by nearly 70 years of government and media propaganda against all things cannabis, most Americans have no idea that hemp crops once flourished from Virginia to California. Prized for thousands of years for its fiber, the plant rode commerce from Asia to Europe in the first millennium and sailed to the New World in the second. American colonists grew it in the early 1600s. Two centuries later, hemp was the nation's third-largest agricultural commodity. The U.S. census of 1850 counted 8,327 hemp plantations, and those were just the largest ones. California farmers cultivated it at least into the 1930s.
If all this seems hazy to the American mind, it's because cannabis hemp slowly vanished from our farms and our cultural memory. The abolition of slavery following the Civil War put hemp at a competitive disadvantage because its harvest and processing required intensive labor. The industry slowly declined to the brink of extinction as cotton captured the fiber market, but by the mid-1930s new machinery could efficiently extract hemp's fibers from its stalk, and the plant was poised for economic recovery. The February 1938 issue of Popular Mechanics hailed it as the "New Billion-Dollar Crop," while a concurrent issue of Mechanical Engineering deemed hemp "The Most Profitable and Desirable Crop That Can Be Grown."
The trail grows murkier here, but the crucial element of this buried history lies beyond dispute: In 1935, the U.S. government—in particular the Bureau of Narcotics (part of the Treasury Department and a predecessor to the present-day U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency) and its chief, Harry J. Anslinger—embarked on an inflammatory campaign to convince the public of the evils of marijuana.
The Hearst newspapers had acquired a taste for sensationalistic headlines and lurid stories about Mexicans and "marijuana-crazed Negroes" assaulting, raping and murdering whites. It was all nonsense, but Anslinger shamelessly parroted these myths and concocted his own in congressional testimony and in speeches and articles, branding marijuana the "worst evil of all." In a 1937 magazine piece titled "Marijuana, the Assassin of Youth," he blamed suicides and "degenerate sex attacks" on the drug.
"Marijuana is the unknown quantity among narcotics," he wrote. "No one knows, when he smokes it, whether he will become a philosopher, a joyous reveler, a mad insensate, or a murderer." Prior to such calculated misstatements, few Americans had smoked marijuana. Most had never even heard of it.
The government's motives for its attack on marijuana remain unclear. Researchers have proffered theories ranging from collusion with corporations threatened by hemp's commercial potential to moralistic fervor and bureaucratic thirst for domain once Prohibition ended in 1933. Regardless of motives, the ensuing stigmatization, red tape, state and federal controls, punitive taxes and misconceptions about marijuana's nature and its relationship to hemp doomed any chance that hemp would be resurrected as an agricultural crop. Fewer and fewer farmers were willing to grow it, and manufacturers sought other resources for rope, twine, nets, sailcloth, textiles, paint and other fiber and oil products for which hemp is well suited. The government briefly reversed course during World War II, launching an aggressive "Hemp for Victory" campaign that implored U.S. farmers to grow the crop to alleviate wartime materials shortages. But after the war, hemp again faded into oblivion.
In 1957, a Wisconsin farmer harvested the last legal commercial hemp crop in America. The government's outright prohibition of the crop, a nonissue until interest in hemp renewed in the early 1990s, was formalized in 1971 with implementation of the Controlled Substances Act, the centerpiece of U.S. drug policy.
Today's reawakened market faces an uphill battle in the U.S., not just because source materials can't be grown here but because decades of enforced hibernation have left the industry light-years behind in technology, infrastructure, research and development, marketing and public acceptance. Hemp Industries Assn., a consortium of about 250 importers, manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers, says that in the past decade the North American market has gone from virtually nothing to an estimated $200 million. Not bad under the circumstances, but still a pittance for a plant that could clothe and house us, build and fuel our cars, enhance our diets and keep the front gate from squeaking.