Santa Cruz celebrates the long and windy history of hemp
Can the same raw material produce all types of paper, healthy soaps, durable houses, omega-3 rich ice cream, stylish clothes, and bio-diesel? Would it be possible to do it organically and sustainability, with no pesticides and considerably less water? Well, yes, it’s very possible–just not here in the United States.
Here in Santa Cruz, a town well educated in marijuana, seemingly little is known about hemp. While hemp and marijuana are both plants of the Cannabis genus, hemp can’t be smoked like marijuana. Most hemp contains 0 percent Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient found in marijuana. Some contain, at most, 0.3 percent THC, while marijuana contains anywhere between 6 percent to more than 20 percent THC. So, to any doubters, you can rest assured that marijuana smokers will not be setting hemp T-shirts and soaps ablaze in their backyards in hopes of getting high.
This week marks the first annual Hemp History Week, a national conglomerate of events that hopes to clarify these and other misconceptions about hemp and educate the public about the various beneficial and ecological uses of hemp. From May 17 to May 23, Hemp History Week will host more than 50 events nationwide, including a few here in Santa Cruz.
On Wednesday, May 19, Melissa Collins, owner of Livity Outernational, and Elaine Berke, owner of Eco Goods, will be co-hosting an event in honor of Hemp History Week. From 3 to 6 p.m. at Eco Goods, there will be various samples of hemp products, educational talks about hemp, fun quizzes every 15 minutes with hemp prizes, and a showing of “Hemp for Victory,” a short film made by the U.S. government in the 1940’s to encourage farmers to grow hemp. Collins and Berke are most excited about their fashion show at 4 p.m.. Models will be walking from Eco Goods to the Farmers’ Market and back, while donning outfits made of hemp—which they say require one-twentieth of the water needed to produce clothes from cotton.
Collins was just introduced to the possibilities for hemp in the last two years and was very surprised that she hadn’t known about it before. “I eat like a localvore, go to all these farmers’ markets, eat organically, and feel like I’m a really conscious person,” she says. ”But this was an area I knew nothing about.”
Indeed very few people today seem to know that, in the 1700s when America was first colonized, farmers were required to grow hemp. In fact, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams all grew hemp, believing it to be a miracle crop. Our Declaration of Independence was first drafted on hemp paper. “Hemp used to be patriotic,” says Berke.
It is believed to be able to manufacture more than 25,000 products, including car bodies, which Henry Ford built in 1942 with hemp fibers—10 times stronger than steel.
Hemp doesn’t need many nutrients, and is highly resistant to insects and weeds, and consequently doesn’t need chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides, making this a very easy plant to grow organically. Furthermore, it restores nutrients to the soil and requires minimal water. Some critics worry that farmers would hide marijuana plants inside their hemp fields, but such an occurrence is not possible because the two plants would cross pollinate and produce extremely weak strains of marijuana and hemp, thus defeating the purpose. “Ironically,” says Collins, “you can actually grow marijuana extremely well in a corn field.”
Despite its patriotic ties and overwhelmingly numerous uses, in 1937 the Marihuana Tax Act passed, which classified hemp as a narcotic drug. Although the USDA revived hemp during World War II to manufacture ropes, clothes, and cordages, the hemp industry was soon bankrupt. At the same time, the lumber and cotton industry, continued to grow and became one of the country’s most profitable industries.
Jack Herer, hemp activist and author of “The Emperor Wears No Clothes,” wrote in 1985 that William Randolph Hearst, who played a large role in passing the Marihuana Tax Act, had more reasons to ban hemp than misinformed ethical ones. Herer argues that Hearst, who owned a paper empire and hundreds of acres of timber forests and numerous paper mills, was threatened by hemp, which could not only produce four times the amount of paper per acre, but also could be re-grown yearly. “It’s ridiculous,” says Collins. “We don’t ever need to cut down another tree.”
As it stands today, in 2010, hemp is still confused with marijuana. With the exception of the United States, hemp, a $360 billion industry, is grown in every industrialized country including China, which has tougher laws against marijuana than the United States. At each of the Hemp History Week events, visitors are encouraged to sign postcards to the president to lift the ban on hemp. “If we allowed our farmers to grow this, rather than importing foreign grow hemp, it could help our economy vastly,” says Berke. “It could be so beneficial to us, it could provide jobs and so many more opportunities.”