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HEMP: AN UNTAPPED RESOURCE

The so-called war on drugs, while well-intentioned, has quite a few unintended consequences. One of them is keeping a useful source of fiber and oil off the market, at substantial loss to the American economy.

We're talking about hemp. Because it is a relative of marijuana, it is lumped by law into the illegal drug category. It is against the law to grow it, although some products made from it can be imported from other countries.

There is a movement afoot to legalize industrial hemp, a movement that seems to be gaining momentum. Proponents trot out a laundry list of good reasons to legalize it.

It's a profitable crop. The University of Kentucky studied the economic benefits of growing industrial hemp for that state alone and found that a hemp industry would create 771 jobs and $17.6 million a year in wages.

Extending that nationally, and when savings from using hemp to replace cotton, wood and oil are factored in, the benefits reach into the billions of dollars.

Historical records show that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew hemp on their estates as a cash crop. Hemp has been used in the past to manufacture a variety of products. Hemp ropes were considered the finest and strongest ropes available for many years. It can be used to make cloth, and it provides superior paper. Hemp paper was used for the draft copies of the Declaration of Independence, and hemp cloth was used to make the first American flag.

The fiber from the hemp plant possesses strength and durability, resists rotting and is easier to bleach than wood pulp, which means whiter paper at lower cost. That would be a boon to the book-publishing industry, to cite one example.

Hemp oil was used to lubricate the engines of Navy fighter planes in World War II, and hemp activist Woody Harelson used it to power a diesel vehicle to demonstrate the benefits of it. It can also be fermented into an alcohol-based fuel, offering a potent and truly renewable energy source.

Unlike trees, which take years to grow to the point at which they can be harvested, hemp plants can reach a harvestable state within four months. For paper manufacturers and users it could provide a cheaper source of pulp than trees, which take too long to renew.

Hemp won't put an end to the logging industry, but it would spare some forests from being cut down for paper products.

With all these things going for hemp, one has to wonder why we don't allow it to be grown.

Unfortunately, common sense can go out the door pretty quickly when it comes to the drug war. If marijuana is bad, then anything related to it must be bad as well.

But industrial hemp is not marijuana. It contains just 0.3 to 1.5 percent of tetrohydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical that gives marijuana its drug-like effects.such as drowsiness, impaired memory and increased appetite. By comparison, marijuana contains 5 percent to 10 percent THC. Smoking industrial hemp is not going to make anyone high.

And even if you could get high on the industrial version, it's still far milder than other mind-altering substances such as alcohol. Compared to other things people abuse (and we'll include liquor in this mix) marijuana is one of the most benign. While there is some argument that it acts as a gateway to other drugs, you don't hear of someone going berserk after smoking a joint. Marijuana users are usually passive, in contrast to some alcohol users.

Lately, marijuana has gained official recognition as a beneficial drug for certain cancer patients. It can reduce or eliminate the nausea associated with chemotherapy and restore their appetites.

Weighing the risks against the benefits of a renewable plant that can provide so many products and reduce America's oil dependence, it's difficult to see why the law discriminates against industrial hemp. You'd think we could prohibit only the most troublesome varieties and reap billions in economic benefits.

Written by: The Daily Herald


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