uman culture is bound up with the plant kingdom in ways so intricate and subtle that we might well be oblivious to the finest details of such a widespread form of symbiosis. The general details however, are easily appreciated. Whether it be our daily reliance upon the caffeine within our cups of tea and coffee; our daily consumption of wheat-based bread; our dependence upon tobacco; the global use of opium poppy-derived morphine to ease our pain; the material substance of our books and newspapers; or even our vital need to continually breathe plant-generated oxygen - the case is clear. We need plants. Plants support human culture and human life. Plants are indispensable. Given that a particular species of plant be blessed with some utilisable property, then we humans are quick to exploit that property. And on the face of it, both parties seem to benefit. The plant in question gets propagated rapidly and we come to enjoy the benefits of its phenotypical effects upon our species (a phenotypical effect being the full expression of an organism's genetic endowment).
The plant substance caffeine is an excellent example of this kind of natural relationship. A careful census of the flora of the Earth reveals an unusual amount of tea and coffee plants, most of which are concentrated in huge plantations. Ultimately, these facts of distribution and number are only made sensible because of the stimulating properties of caffeine within the human nervous system. Indeed, this ensures that coffee is the second biggest trade commodity in the world, second only to oil. And regardless of why tea and coffee plants make caffeine, the extended presence of these plants within our nervous systems - the sheer scale of this permanent symbiotic system - pays testimony to the great alchemical web of life woven by Nature. Plants daily extend their influence not only around us but, it transpires, right into our central nervous systems.
Given our persistent reliance on plants, it comes as a surprise to learn that the one plant species with arguably the greatest potential for cultural usage is almost unknown, or at least its full potential is unknown to all but a small percentage of the population. The plant in question is hemp. Once mighty and utilised the world over, hemp has been all but weeded out of our technological culture. Until now that is. After all, you cannot keep strong and sturdy plants down forever. And hemp is such a one.
Most people will have heard of hemp, perhaps associating it with a material like rope or cordage. But most do not realise that hemp is synonymous with the plant genus Cannabis, of which there are three species: Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica and Cannabis ruderalia (this taxonomy is, however, debated since all 3 species are interfertile). And, in turn, most people only associate cannabis with illicit forms of intoxication. Yet the true state of affairs concerning the cannabis plant are intriguing to say the least. To be sure, in relation to human culture - and especially today's culture - the full potentiality of cannabis hemp is of immense significance. Indeed, it is only because of a disturbing and little-known conspiracy allegedly perpetrated against the plant in the 1930's and maintained to this day, that has led to the current ignorance of hemp's astonishingly Green potential. But rest assured, the alleged conspiracy has been uncovered of late and hemp is destined to make a dramatic comeback as we move toward the millennium. For, in the context of human culture, cannabis hemp is an ultra-smart plant par excellence. Some might even say that hemp can save the world. And until we know the facts m'lord, who are we to disagree?
Mankind's use of hemp dates back to the dawn of culture. Grown in almost any climate or soil, hemp is said to produce the strongest and most durable fibre of any plant - an interesting piece of information best learned and passed on to someone who does not know this. It is principally because of this well-hard fibre that mankind has exploited hemp so fully through the ages. Whatsmore, the seeds of the hemp plant (which, like the fibre, are not psychoactive) are rich in oils and protein which led to an added plethora of uses in the past. To be sure, the nutritional value of hemp seed is second only to the famous soybean, hemp seeds containing all the essential amino and fatty acids required by the human organism. Thus, in ancient China, cannabis seeds were a major grain crop equally as important as millet and rice.
Jack Herer, pioneering hempian author of the seminal, if not underground, The Emperor Wears No Clothes, has calculated that for the 2000 year period prior to the end of the 19th century, hemp was actually the Earth's largest agricultural crop. Cannabis hemp was made into rope, paper, clothing, oil (for lamps), incense, food, canvas, tents, backpacks, nets, flags, shrouds, ship rigging, charts, maps, logs, linens, rugs, drapes, quilts, sheets, towels, wagon tarpaulins, paper money, bonds, newspapers, books and bibles. Rembrandt likely painted his masterworks with hemp-based oils. Certainly he and his contemporaries painted on hemp-based canvas. The first draft of the American Declaration of Independence was written upon hemp paper. And the second draft too ( the final one was, for some reason, written upon animal hide). In short, for thousands of years mankind has worn, slept on, ate and even read religious scripture off of hemp-derived products.
There are more interesting historical scenarios to consider. Henry V111 fostered the cultivation of hemp in England. Places like Hemel Hempstead are named after the hemp once grown there. It was such an important crop that during the reign of Elizabeth 1, fines of five gold sovereigns were exacted from subversive farmers who refused to grow it. This testifies to the importance of cannabis hemp for England's maritime supremacy at that time, hemp being used for ship rigging, sails, uniforms, lamp oil and so on.
Hemp was even used as a source of medicine. In the second half of the 19th century, cannabis preparations of one sort of another were the second most commonly prescribed medicine in the USA. Cannabis is even mentioned in the oldest known pharmacopoeia - that of the Chinese emperor Shen-Nung which was compiled more than 4500 years ago.
Given the prolific uses for cannabis hemp, it may seem obvious that modern agriculture once more utilise such a versatile plant. However, we now use other means and other plants to satisfy our cultural needs. Take paper for instance. As stated, hemp can be used to make paper - stronger paper in fact due to the sheer tensile strength and durability of hemp fibre. Yet paper is now made mainly through deforestation and the pulping of trees. And here we arrive ay yet another salient fact best learned and disseminated forthwith. This documented fact is that a single acre of hemp can yield as much pulp-for-paper as 4 acres of trees. Amazing.
Technically, the stuff produced by hemp and which can be turned into paper and other products, is called biomass and is concentrated in the stalks. Biomass is the cellular material built up by plants through the transformation of solar energy. With conventional trees, in order to convert biomass into something like paper, artificial chemicals are employed in order to break down the biomass for further processing. And it is these self-same artificial chemicals which are leached out as effluent into the environment and which can then lead to acid rain and, subsequently, a whole mess of environmental disharmony. However, the biomass produced by hemp is easier to break down due to some fortuitous cellular properties. It has been estimated that to use hemp for our paper needs instead of conventional trees would only be one sixth as polluting and would, per acre, yield 4 times as much paper. At the very least, we must concede this to be interesting information with important implications. Pollution from industry is a problem faced daily and any antidotal remedies are, by necessity, up for intelligent debate.
Figures show that hemp can produce up to 10 tons of biomass per acre, anywhere from England to France to Canada to Australia. Not only can this biomass be turned into paper, but it can also be turned into both engine fuel and power-plant fuel (pun not intended but appreciated). And clean fuel at that. For whilst our reliance upon the burning of fossil fuels has fostered the Greenhouse Effect, the use of hemp biomass for fuel will not cause such insidious environmental problems.
Why not? Well, for starters, hemp cultivated en masse can be turned into methanol or ethanol, by various known processes involving the fermentation of the cellulose found within hemp biomass. Ethanol is actually one of the best kinds of engine fuel since it leaves no polluting products after it has been burned (racing cars use it). Thus cars can run on ethanol derived from hemp biomass. This is no quixotic dream but a genuine possibility which makes good Green sense. Needless to say, such a move away from oil eventually implies no more oil-slicks and no more wars over oil. As a precursor for fuel, cannabis hemp is slick all right, but not in the way oil is. Doubtless OPEC will not view this information in quite the same light.
Hemp biomass can also be turned into charcoal for use within power stations (by a kind of alchemical process known as pyrolysis). Whereas the burning of fuels like coal entails prolific toxic gas emission, the chief gas released from the burning of charcoal is carbon dioxide which, in the long run, will be reabsorbed by subsequent hemp crops. In this way, harmful greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide do not increase with time but are kept in balance through field upon field of fresh air-generating hemp.
According to pro-hemp organisation Ecolution, the cotton industry accounts for fully 25% of the all the insecticides used in the world. This is not surprising when you consider that one half percent of all the agricultural acreage across the planet is devoted solely to cotton production (cotton took off after the invention of the cotton gin machine in the 19th century). Thus cotton production is, unfortunately, synonymous with heavy insecticide use. Also used in cotton production are thousands of tons of growth regulating and defoliant chemicals. Many of these synthetic chemicals eventually find their way into rivers and oceans and then enter the foodchain, wreaking havoc upon normally smooth running biological systems. In short, mass cotton production comes with a heavy environmental price - a price to be paid by future generations who have to clean up afterwards.
Conversely, hemp is a crop able to drive out weeds and which needs little or no artificial polluting chemicals for its extremely rapid growth. And it can be used to make materials equally as soft as cotton or as strong as canvas. And like hemp paper, hemp-derived clothing lasts much longer. Thus, the attentions of the UK. fashion industry towards hemp clothing in the last few years hopefully indicates a growing trend towards hemp usage as opposed to cotton.
If cannabis hemp is so neat, then how come here in the 90's we know virtually nothing about its redeeming nature and only of its psychoactive properties? How come we don't realise that some of the world's banknotes are made of it? How come a spokesman at Portals - the company who have long supplied paper for British banknotes - knew almost nothing of cannabis hemp when I asked him about it? How come one of the major suppliers for the ultra-strong tissue paper used in British tea-bags was surprised when informed that cannabis hemp produced the strongest fibre of any plant? Why is it not generally known that the original Levi jeans were made of hemp? Basically, if cannabis hemp is so Green and really can repair much of the damage we have wrought upon the environment, then why oh why did it ever fade from industrial / technological use in the first place? Wh'appen? Well, this is where things get a trifle disturbing. In the alleged anti-hemp conspiracy about to be revealed here, we see the beginnings both of the tarnishing of the biosphere and in the proliferation of almost omnipotent industrial conglomerates who will seemingly stop at nothing in order to get their lucrative way. At this juncture it is time to bring on the decidedly bad male hominids.
Bring together a giant petrochemical company, a racist federal narc agent and a racist newspaper tycoon. Stick them together in the 1930's era and then heat and stir. What do you get? Well, what you get is a convincing conspirational plot which successfully tagged cannabis hemp with all things distasteful and which soon led to an outright ban of the plant. From any kind of use.
Du Pont were, and still are, a typical American petrochemical company, lumbering away like some mechanical beast, churning out oceans of man-made chemicals and consuming gargantuan amounts of what Gurdjieff called 'dollar fat'. In the 1930's Du Pont had a vested interest in paper processing since they made the efficient toxic chemicals needed to process the wood pulp used at that time. Paper production was/is a huge market and Du Pont led the way in its chemical-driven production. However, in the mid-30's a new agricultural machine was produced which was able to process hemp fibre so efficiently that hemp was being touted literally as a new 'billion dollar crop' set to revolutionise the paper industry, the fuel industry and the timber industry (recall the very many uses of hemp). For with this new machine, it would be possible to bring hemp processing into the modern industrial age.
The Du Pont dynasty was thus threatened. Hempian author Jack Herer calculates that had this hemp machine actually gone into business worldwide, then Du Pont would have lost fully 80% of their pollution-causing business. Anyhow, Du Pont fought back and the conspiracy was carefully perpetrated. Allegedly that is, although the facts of the matter speak for themselves.
Banker David Mellon, at that time one of the richest men in America (he was owner of Gulf Oil), helped finance Du Pont. He had what you would call a vested interest in the company. Through his powerful governmental connections (Mellon was Secretary for the Treasury), Mellon was able to get his fat sweaty red-neck nephew-in-law Harry J. Anslinger appointed head of the newborn Federal Bureau of Narcotics (now the DEA). The rotund and sweaty Anslinger immediately began a malicious campaign whose sole purpose was to stamp out cannabis hemp. Hemp became known as marijuana, and marijuana became known as the 'assassin of youth'. In 1937, the draconian Marihuana Tax Act was introduced and hemp use of all and any kind was effectively banned.
Anslinger was helped in this dastardly manipulation by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst who was also very rich and who also had a vested interest in timber and, therefore, the production of paper from timber (as opposed to hemp). Hearst's newspapers began to carry absurd scare stories concerning the killer drug marijuana - a term, incidentally, used to associate cannabis smoking with Mexicans so as to stir up racial hatred. Likewise, Anslinger played the same malicious trick. At one point, Anslinger is quoted as testifying before the American Congress that:
"Marijuana is the most violence causing drug in the history of mankind."
Not only did these crass tales of deathly marijuana serve to confuse the public, judges and government over the true botanical identity of marijuana, they also served to oppress ethnic minorities. In short, marijuana became public enemy number one along with jazz music and non-Caucasian cannabis users. Needless to say, the new hemp-processing machine never took off and the billion dollar crop never emerged.
That same year of 1937 in which the Marihuana Tax Act was passed, Cannabis sativa was officially dropped from the United States Pharmacopoeia. Du Pont thus won the day outright and, of course, they won the rights to continue employing polluting synthetic chemicals in the financially rewarding paper-making industry. Significantly, 1937 also saw Du Pont patent the artificial material nylon, which was derived from the processing of - you've guessed it - bad old coal and oil.
Hemp did actually make a brief comeback in 1942. By absolute necessity. During the war, the Japanese cut off American supplies of Manila hemp (not a species of cannabis) from the Philippines. A special public information film was released entitled Hemp For Victory. American citizens were re-informed of the value of hemp and the urgent necessity for its production to help the war effort. Farmers and their sons who agreed to grow it were excused from military service, so valuable was hemp growing deemed to be. This film was subsequently buried by the American government for almost 50 years. In fact, traces of its existence were deliberately deleted from records kept at the US. Library of Congress. Notwithstanding such phytophobic sociopolitical duplicity, records of the film's existence were finally retrieved and brought to the light of day by tireless pro-hemp activists in the late 80's.
So what, dear reader, does all this fascinating hempian history mean right now in the late 90's?
No doubt the psychoactive effects of the resin produced by cannabis serve to confuse the authorities over the plant's other utilitarian properties. I would assume that the government have no real direct experience with cannabis intoxication - as opposed, say, to their experience of alcoholic inebriation which is legally available and quite common. However, despite the fact that all varieties of hemp produce the psychoactive substance delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC for short), the strains used in agriculture are low in THC, and are being bred more so as time goes on. Certainly it has been repeatedly stated that modern agricultural crops cannot be smoked for the desired effects of THC. So on that score, hemp can clearly be brought back into the commercial fold in order to begin satisfying the various cultural demands outlined earlier. Yet one cannot leave this issue without addressing the recreational use of cannabis. If we are to fully accept this astonishing plant then certain aspects of it's phenotypical nature need to be resolved. Debate is most necessary. Whatsmore, the implications of this 'other' still rather controversial aspect of cannabis hemp are fairly deep. They even bespeak of what one can call Green metaphysics.
The usual old-hat arguments about the dangers of purely recreational cannabis use can be easily answered in a number of ways. I shall here simply resort to the latest information issued by the Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence who regularly collate statistical data regarding the use of cannabis vegetal extract as a recreational drug. On the safety of its use, the ISDD report:
"Of all the many national and international reviews of cannabis which have been published since the British Indian Hemp Commission report of 1893-94 - none has provided conclusive evidence that moderate long-term cannabis use causes lasting damage to physical or mental health."
And on the more readily conceived virtuous medicinal properties:
"There is growing evidence that cannabis may be effective in the symptomatic relief of diseases of the musculo-skeletal system like Multiple Sclerosis, as an anti-nausea drug in chemotherapy and to relieve intra-ocular pressure in glaucoma patients."
On the face of it then, recreational cannabis use (the ISDD conservatively estimate that there are one and half million regular users in the UK alone) is relatively harmless, the greatest health danger presumably being the tobacco used to smoke it. Yet until these facts and figures are disseminated we are unlikely to resolve the issue of recreational cannabis use in an informed and civilised way.
Regarding the re-use of cannabis preparations in medicine, it should be noted that such a humanitarian move would be undesirable to certain parties with a financial interest in the wholesale medicine business. Here I refer to pharmaceutical industries who are just as massive and just as insensitive to the real inner needs of humanity as are petrochemical conglomerates. The idea of citizens being able to cure such common ailments as, for instance, migraine headaches and asthma (both of which conditions can be alleviated by cannabis) through a simple plant grown at home, spells financial disaster to the pill companies. No wonder then that the Eli Lilly Company, one of the biggest pharmaceutical giants, has been desperately trying to synthesise Delta-9 THC in the lab for the last few decades. Their lab boys have failed however. Nature is too smart for them. They have come up with Nabilone, a substance based upon but not synonymous with THC and which is therapeutically inferior. Yet, given the power and influence of such companies, pressure is exerted to keep cannabis illegal. Indeed, according to Rowan Robinson's 1996 tome The Great Book Of Hemp, American pharmaceutical companies currently supply half of the funding to the various anti-marijuana groups in the USA. Which, in addition to all else that has been stated about the anti-hemp conspiracy, gives even more cause for concern. No doubt the astute reader will be just as disturbed as I with all this new learning.
To aid the re-introduction of hemp into our culture, it would help to dispel the pejorative sense or negative associations which surround cannabis. Arguably, it is high time that THC users 'came out', especially any well-known users (like film stars, soap stars, sports people, writers, singers, musicians etc) who have enjoyed the recreational virtues of this unusual plant substance. There really is no shame to it. Certainly recreational cannabis users should not be vilified. They do not fight. One does not see gangs of THC-intoxicated youths running riot in the streets after closing time. Brawls do not result from the accidental spillage of cannabis paraphernalia. More likely the recreational cannabis user will be inclined toward pleasurable pursuits such as listening (really listening) to music, talking of tasty food, or discussing the sense and significance of human life. Not surprisingly, there is a strong case to be made for decriminalisation and eventual legalisation of cannabis-derived preparations for recreational use.
An eventual decriminalisation in victimless recreational cannabis use would entail many positive consequences. These would include quality checks; lower prices (in theory, untreated 'grass' ought to cost no more than tea); governmental control over the age at which one be lawfully allowed to use it as well as laws controlling driving under the influence; governmental control in distribution as opposed to unchecked 'dealers' (this would also entail less public contact with dealers who push harder, addictive drugs); a potentially very large tax revenue; and also a dissemination of information on how to best enjoy the oft-reported pleasurable effects afforded by the multi-faceted cannabis hemp organism. This last factor is important for without objective education, no adult can make a truly informed and intelligent choice. Objective education would also serve to lessen the danger of adverse psychological reactions to THC.
For personal use, be it recreational or medicinal, cannabis can be grown in the garden or on the windowsill with virtually no artificial help. It is a very good-looking plant too. The leaves are digitate, usually with 7 to 9 segments arranged in a strikingly aesthetic and botanically sophisticated manner. I presume that this neat digitate quality of the leaves has resulted from natural selection, that the ancestor of the plant had big single leaves. Which means that the evolved digitate design be more proficient in some manner, perhaps in capturing solar energy. Cannabis is a plant then to be studied and appreciated in many ways as perhaps Nature intended.
A number of hemp-orientated businesses are forming the world over as human culture once again turns towards this plant. Estimates show that there are an incredible 50,000 potential uses for cannabis hemp most of which I assume to be, if needs be, biodegradable. 50,000 uses may sound absurd, yet it is no more absurd than the fact that our culture be needing so many things to use in the first place. Anyhow, if we 'use it' then let cannabis hemp provide if it can. Our science is well-advanced. Probably many more uses are in the making.
It may well be conceivable that no matter how much we pollute the Earth or the biosphere or Gaia with artificial chemicals, Gaia can respond and maintain the optimum conditions under which life in its totality flourishes. Therefore we could be as un-Green as we liked. However, this would be to accept that global homeostasis is indeed in action and that Gaia - as a theory at least - is entirely possible as a true explanation for the way the biosphere regulates itself. And if Gaia exists then we must also concede that Gaia be inherently intelligent in some systemised and highly organised way in the same way that all individual organisms are naturally manifested systems of intelligence (in terms of design and interconnected functionality). And by conceding this we would further have to question our ultimate function and responsibility as conscious elements within such a Gaian system.
Rapidly polluting the biosphere so as to foster obsessively materialistic values over and above that of valuing life on Earth in its natural pristine state, is arguably a questionable enterprise or questionable value system to hold on to. Indeed, to accept an intelligent organismic biosphere is to re-orient oneself and one's perspective relations to all else. A change, no less, in our value systems and the way we collectively comport ourselves whilst we live and breathe upon the Earth. I would surmise that we need to look a bit harder at the true bounty of the Earth and learn to recognise, or at least appreciate, that we are most fortunate in our prime primate position atop the food chain. If we are not too greedy, it would appear that all our needs are generously met by Nature's green and pleasant cornucopia. Ultra-strong cannabis hemp really ties things up. Symbolically, this is most striking. A green prophecy comes to mind. This is that the future will be fuelled in part by cannabis hemp. And that this will be a good clean future. Naturally.
S. G. Powell