This article originally appeared in Isthmus on Feb. 8, 1991
There aren't many things upon which long-haired radical Ben Masel, state Department of Agriculture official Erwin "Bud" Sholts, agronomy researcher Pat LeMahieu and corporate head George Tyson can be expected to agree. Among them: Kicking puppies is mean, Drano should not be taken internally, and hemp -- commonly known as marijuana -- could become a major cash crop for Wisconsin.
According to these and other participants in a, ahem, budding scientific discussion, the hemp plant could be cultivated not just for such traditional uses as rope and fabric, but also as a readily renewable resource for making paper, construction materials, high-protein food and safe, clean fuel.
Masel, director of the Wisconsin Chapter of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), in 1990 spoke in more than 50 U.S. cities on the potential uses of the pot plant. Scientific American last December published an item on the nascent "grass-roots" movement in support of hemp; Masel was just interviewed by the Wall Street Journal for an upcoming article on the same.
A primary organizer of Madison's annual "marijuana harvest" festival, the oft-jailed Masel says his goal is "to relegalize this useful plant for its paper, fiber, fuel, food, medical and recreational value."
Sholts, director of the state ag department's development and diversification program, affirms part of Masel's message: that hemp grows well in Wisconsin, even on soil not good for much else.
"My father raised it on his farm," Sholts recalls of the time during World War II when farmers were encouraged to grow hemp for the war effort. (Masel, citing old U.S. Department of Agriculture reports, says Wisconsin was once the nation's leading producer of hemp, in some years accounting for more than half the nation's total crop.)
Because hemp grows quickly and has a high per-acre yield, Sholts says "It's a very, very prime product for biomass" -- organic material that can be converted to fuel. Hemp is also seen by "people with expertise" as preferable to kenaf (a.k.a. ambary), a warm-weather fibrous plant, for making paper and other products.
But alas, Sholts points out, hemp has one big problem: With its current properties, it's illegal."
LeMahieu, director of operations for Agrecol, the agricultural research division of the Madison-based W.T. Rogers Co., has a solution in mind: the development of a strain of hemp that is "socially acceptable." In other words, hemp that has been genetically engineered to remove the alkaloids that get people high.
"It's feasible," insists LeMahieu, formerly a leading agricultural researcher at the UW-Madison. "Any trait can be bred out of a plant with recombinant DNA." Engineering a strain of hemp with the desired traits for mass cultivation will require "massive amounts" of money and commitment, says LeMahieu, who thinks Wisconsin -- which has "the top plant-genetics research groups in the nation, maybe in the world" -- is ideally suited for the task.
"It truly is an amazing plant," says LeMahieu of hemp. "If you look at all the possible products that could be made from the hemp plant, it makes you wonder why we haven't pursued this."
Tyson, chairman of the board of Xylan Inc., a biomass research firm in the University Research Park, takes the point beyond wonder to rage. "We have the technology now to convert biomass into the fuel we're fighting for in the Persian Gulf," he says, asserting that the United States could eliminate its dependence on foreign oil simply by growing high-biomass crops like hemp on the acreage it now pays farmers to keep fallow.
"It just seems silly to be paying farmers $26 billion a year not to produce something that would replace something that we are importing at the cost of over $100 billion a year.
"This," Tyson asserts, "is a national disgrace."
Throughout most of U.S. -- and indeed human -- history, hemp has been domestically cultivated for a variety of uses, including textiles, rope and paper. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp on their farms; the rigging and sails of the U.S.S. Constitution were all made from hemp (some 60 tons' worth); Betsy Ross used hemp cloth to make the first U.S. flag; hemp canvas (the word "canvas" comes from cannabis, Latin for hemp) covered the pioneers' wagons and prairie schooners; Abraham Lincoln used a hemp-oil lamp to study law.
Hemp was also used to make fine linen and underwear. Masel has a friend in Hungary who still uses his family's hemp tablecloth -- made in 1820. According to Jack Herer's pro-hemp manifesto, The Emperor Wears No New Clothes, the word "towel" comes from its original material -- hemp tow, a silk-like textile professedly four times as absorbent as cotton.
There is little historical record of people smoking hemp grown for rope or fabric. Masel, who testified as a marijuana expert in a 1988 court case, says plants used for such purposes would be harvested before flowering, and thus be more likely to cause headaches than highs. Still, some hemp grown for seed was smoked for its psychoactive and medicinal properties -- a use no one seemed too bothered by until the plant became a threat to U.S. petrochemical companies.
As outlined in Heurer's history of hemp, super-efficient fiber-stripping machines invented in the 1930s promised to do for hemp what the cotton gin did for cotton. Corporations like Du Pont and industrialists like William Randolph Hearst feared hemp would compete with their pulpwood paper and synthetic products.
The Hearst chain of newspapers declared hemp and other drugs Public Enemy No. 1. Hemp, renamed "marihuana," was blamed for crime and car accidents and linked to black jazz musicians and Mexican revolutionaries. "Marihuana makes fiends of boys in 30 days," screamed the headlines of one Hearst story, which claimed that hemp "goads users to blood lust."
Du Pont, which had just patented a new process for making pulpwood paper and was at work on a petroleum-based synthetic it later named nylon, behaved similarly. Banker Andrew Mellon, Du Pont's chief financial backer and President Herbert Hoover's Secretary of the Treasury, tapped his nephew-to-be, Harry Anslinger, to head the newly formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Anslinger, backed by the Hearst papers, crusaded for pot prohibition. (Among his favorite slogans, "If the hideous monster Frankenstein came face to face with the monster marihuana, he would drop dead of fright.") Such efforts resulted in the "Marihuana Tax Act of 1937" -- the apparent death knell of legal hemp.
As it happened, however, the government was unable to keep a good weed down. Hemp was still needed for a variety of uses, especially naval ones (hemp being the only natural fiber that can withstand saltwater for long). When World War II began and Japan blocked U.S. imports of Indian hemp, the government called on the nation's "patriotic farmers" to resume growing the monster marihuana.
A 1942 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) film entitled "Hemp for Victory" evoked hemp's historical usefulness ("For the sailor, no less than the hangman, hemp was indispensable"), noting that the plant -- "now little known outside of Kentucky and Wisconsin" -- was sorely needed for war items ranging from tow lines to the webbing of parachutes.
"In 1942, 14,00 acres of fiber hemp were harvested in the United States," the narrator proclaimed amid strains of patriotic music. "The goal for 1943 is 300,000 acres."
The film also touted hemp's agronomical virtues: "A dense and shady crop, hemp tends to choke out weeds. Here's a Canada Thistle that couldn't stand the competition, dead as a dodo. Thus hemp leaves the ground in good condition for the following crop."
When Asian markets reopened after the war, domestic hemp production again came to a halt. Well, sort of: State agriculture official Sholts notes that, as a result of its erstwhile cultivation, hemp still grows wild over much of Wisconsin -- including on his father's farm, 11 miles south of Madison.
Observes Sholts, "It's a very prolific plant."
At this point, no one knows just how prolific or useful hemp may be -- because, unlike such crops as corn, hemp has not benefited from modern agricultural techniques, including plant genetics.
Although Agrecol (the company's name, like its mission, blends agriculture and ecology) has had impressive results test-planting kenaf, division head LeMahieu says hemp has higher-quality fiber, more potential uses, the ability to withstand cold better, and possibly higher yields: "If it weren't for the alkaloids [psychoactive ingredients] in hemp, we wouldn't even be talking about kenaf."
Masel, who last September garnered 11,230 votes in a pro-hemp primary challenge to Gov. Tommy Thompson, is especially fired up about the potential as a renewable source of paper and other products traditionally made from wood. One advantage of hemp over trees, says Masel, is that it contains significantly less lignin, a natural adhesive whose content must be lowered in the papermaking process.
Roger Faulkner, a UW research specialist who works at the U.S. Forest Service's Forest Products Lab in Madison, adds that annual growth plants including hemp generate four to five times as much biomass yearly as trees. The disadvantage is that trees can be cut and stored until needed, but annuals not immediately processed or properly warehoused will degenerate.
A "polymer scientist," Faulkner is part of a team of Forest Products Lab researchers studying the feasibility of using high-fiber plants to make "structural components." Within the last year, the group has made high-density construction boards using both kenaf and hemp -- the latter from "ditch weed" (low-grade wild marijuana) that Tyson brought in. By blending plant fibers and polymers -- compounds of high molecular weight -- Faulkner thinks the same techniques can be used to make hemp and kenaf auto-body parts. (Hemp is already being used in some wallboard made in Germany.)
"I don't think there's any doubt that hemp's one of the best fiber crops there is," says Faulkner. "Certainly, it's the best-adapted plant for Wisconsin."
Faulkner laments that both the Forest Service and private industry seem more interested in timber than annual-growth plants -- although the USDA is funding a mill in Texas that will make paper from kenaf. Cultivating fiber on farms, he argues, is ecologically preferable to growing "monocultural" forests for pulp. What's more, it would allow fallow farmland to be put to use without adding to surpluses of existing crops.
Another potentially useful hemp product is seed, which can account for 50% of the weight of plants grown for this purpose. Hemp seed, says Masel, is about 16% protein and contains eight amino acids, compared with just four in soybeans. Masel has made cake from imported hemp seeds (legal if sterilized to make them "incapable of germination") and envisions their use as a high-protein food or animal feed. (In China, hemp-cake was used to feed animals for centuries.)
Hemp-seed oil, at least 35% of seed content by weight, can be used as a lubricant (as it was in World War II fighter-plane engines), a cooking and salad oil, or even as a diesel fuel. Gatewood Galbreath, a Democrat running for governor of Kentucky on a pro-pot platform, last fall campaigned with singer Willie Nelson from Lexington to Louisville in a diesel Mercedes powered with 25% hemp-seed oil. The engine, says Masel, would have run on straight hemp-seed, but Galbreath didn't have a big enough supply.
Masel, who sells $35 hemp T-shirts and $10 hemp-product sampler kits through an outfit called Wisconsin Hemp Products Inc. (P.O. Box 3481, Madison 53704), also thinks the hemp plant's "Styrofoam-like stalk" could be used as an insulator, or to make biodegradable fast-food clamshells. Can Masel see the day when McDonald's sells hamburgers in containers made from hemp? "I can see the day when they will be paying me royalties on the patent."
Harvesting the sun
Perhaps the most exciting use of hemp is as a biomass fuel. Through a process called pyrolysis -- the application of intense heat in the absence of air -- hemp and other organic material can be efficiently converted to charcoal, oil, gas or methanol.
Hemp is a favored crop for biomass -- organic material -- because it grows very rapidly in a variety of climates. Indeed hemp has been called "the world's champion photosynthesizer," capable of converting energy from the sun more readily than any other plant.
Biomass boosters further claim that pyrolytic fuels would be good for the environment. Pyrolysis charcoal, said to have the same heating value as coal, is virtually sulfur-free, unlike coal or other fossil fuels, a key cause of acid rain. What's more, hemp and other high-growth plants produce beneficial oxygen when grown -- and take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere equal to the amount they release when burned. Thus, hemp hounds assert, if biomass replaces fossil fuels, the amount of acid rain and smog will be reduced and the trend toward global warming -- the so-called greenhouse effect -- will have a chance to reverse.
"We're fighting in the Middle East for the right to pollute ourselves," hemp guru Heuer told Al Giordano of Massachusetts' Valley Advocate newspaper. "We have a plant that can win a war. We have a plant here that can save the planet."
James Converse, chairman of the department of agricultural engineering at the UW-Madison, says university researchers have done some work converting biomass material -- corn, primarily -- to ethanol. But he thinks the day when it makes sense to talk about biomass fuels replacing fossil fuels is a long way off: "Biomass will hold possibilities only when the price of fuel or the availability of fuel becomes such that you can make a profit with [biomass.]
Tyson, whose company develops and licenses rights to emerging biomass technologies, disagrees. "These people [the UW scientists] are 10 years behind. They don't know the current state of the art," he says. "We are much closer than that."
Still, Tyson stresses the need for "a national policy" to develop the technology and build the refineries to convert biomass to fuel. "Bring the troops home and put them to work to build this infrastructure," he urges. "That will scare the daylights out of that part of the world. When [oil-exporting countries] see we don't need them anymore, oil prices will come down. More importantly, we will not have to go to war for this reason anymore.
"Let's harvest the sun through the process of photosynthesis," continues Tyson in a tone reminiscent of the narrator in Hemp for Victory. "Let's harvest solar energy into clean, safe fuels."
The revival of hemp and the development of other promising nonfood uses for fallow cropland will be discussed at an April 5 conference in Middleton organized by Sholts and other state agricultural officials. Gov. Thompson, outgoing federal Small Business Administration head Susan Engeleiter, and representatives of agribusiness will attend the all-day affair, which is open to the public for a $20 fee.
Tyson, who is now focusing on "demonstration projects" to prove the viability of biomass technology, hopes Wisconsin can get the ball rolling by genetically engineering a strain of hemp that lacks psychoactive properties. "It can be done," he says unreservedly. "We can make anything we want to now."
Agronomist LeMahieu agrees, saying the goal should be to create "a whole new plant" that lacks alkaloids and doesn't look like ordinary marijuana -- ostensibly to foil folks who might wish, as Masel puts it, to "sneak a few" smokeable specimens alongside those grown for fiber or biomass.
But LeMahieu frets about the legal roadblocks to any use of hemp. "State laws would have to change, federal laws would have to change, and we have international agreements that prohibit it.," he says.
Jim Haney, assistant to state Attorney General James Doyle, notes that the state Controlled Substances Board can issue permits allowing possession of otherwise illegal drugs "for purposes of scientific research, instructional activities, chemical analysis, or other special uses." However, rejoins Masel, the wholesale cultivation of hemp would still be illegal under state and federal laws -- which define marijuana in terms of plant parts, not alkaloid content.
Ultimately the psychological obstacles to renewed hemp production may prove more formidable than legal ones. UW researcher Faulkner is uneasy even discussing the plant's potential, sensing "widespread opposition to and repression of the whole idea that hemp may have other uses."
Masel is more optimistic. "I think [domestic revival of hemp] could happen surprisingly quickly," he says. Whenever one state moves the others are going to follow, rather than see that state make all the money."
Does Wisconsin, which in 1990 seized and eradicated 849,324 domestic marijuana plants, 97% of which were wild plants no self-respecting marijuana smoker would want, have the gumption to become that first state? Put another way: Is making billions of dollars while helping save the environment and achieve domestic energy independence a strong enough incentive for officials like Thompson to let a long-haired radical like Ben Masel say "I told you so"?