Source: The News & Observer ( Raleigh, NC) Contact: http://www.news-observer.com/feedback/ Website: http://www.news-observer.com/ Pubdate: 4 July 1998 Author Kirk Kicklighter, Staff Writer email@example.com GETTING HEMP OVER THE HUMP
NCSU Paper Scientist Touts Marijuana's Kin - Hemp Paper
Is hemp, a first cousin to marijuana, part of the answer to a future paper shortage? A North Carolina State University scientist says it is, but the Drug Enforcement Agency just says no.
The United Nations estimates that by 2010, the world will face a serious fiber shortage that will cut supplies of paper dramatically. To counter that, Med Byrd, the NCSU scientist, has combined science and zeal to develop quality, inexpensive paper out of non-wood fibers such as industrial hemp.
In his quest to solve the global paper problem, Byrd has found himself in the middle of a heated war over hemp, which is illegal to grow in the United States. So instead of relying on scientific reason alone, Byrd finds himself having to navigate an unacademic world that features a stonewalling DEA, the piggyback tactics of pro-marijuana lobbyists and an activist movie star who can't get his facts straight.
"It's like walking through a minefield," Byrd says.
To him, hemp just makes sense. "Hemp is not going to save the planet, but it is an incredible plant. ... It produces a fiber that is long and tough," he says.. "As a crop, it's good for the soil, and it only takes 15 weeks to grow. You can use it for many things, including paper. ... It seems like a no-brainer."
The problem is the relationship between industrial hemp and marijuana. Both are strains of the plant cannabis sativa, and both contain the psychoactive chemical THC. Marijuana contains up to 20 percent THC, an intoxicant. Hemp is grown primarily for its stalk and contains only about 1 percent THC.
"You couldn't get high off industrial hemp even if you smoked a joint the size of a telephone pole," says Byrd, 36.
But according to the DEA, legalizing hemp would undercut the government's drug enforcement efforts.
"The cultivation of hemp is not economically feasible in the U.S.," says Barry McCaffrey, the "drug czar" who heads the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. "What it would do is completely disarm all law enforcement from upholding anti-marijuana production laws. The bottom line here is a thinly-disguised attempt ... to legalize pot."
DEA officials are worried that pot growers might sneak onto legalized hemp fields to grow their illicit weed. They say police helicopters wouldn't be able to distinguish between the two in the field.
Allen St. Pierre, Executive Director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws ( NORML) foundation in Washington, says that's ludicrous. "France outlawed marijuana, but it's developed a growing hemp industry without problems," he says. "French police can tell the difference between marijuana and hemp. Is American law enforcement less intelligent than the French? I don't think so."
Byrd says it would be easy to spot the pot. "Unlike marijuana, industrial hemp looks dark green because it's always packed in densely so that only the stalks develop. Marijuana has to be spaced more widely because you want big leaves for the THC, so it looks light green. If you flew over a field of industrial hemp, a batch of marijuana would stick out like a sore thumb."
For Byrd, the U.S. position against hemp is illogical. Hemp is legally grown in 29 countries, including Canada and much of Europe. Worldwide hemp sales last year reached an estimated $100 million -- for everything from clothing to skin-care products.
Still, much as Byrd opposes the DEA's position, he's not siding with NORML, either. "We don't even talk to them. They're like the illegitimate cousin we avoid," Byrd says. "Industrial hemp people have to drop a heavy curtain between themselves and the pro-marijuana lobby."
St. Pierre counters that NORML won't be ignored. "NORML is not going away, because we helped create the issue in the first place," he says. "That's like asking Ford to stop making cars."
Byrd says he doesn't have anything personal against NORML; he just wants to stay focused on industrial hemp, and paper. Which explains his unusual friendship with actor and hemp activist Woody Harrelson.
"I admire Woody for his energy. He doesn't sit on his butt like a lot of movie stars. I just wish he would do a little more research," says Byrd. "He'll come on TV and say something outrageous, and then I have to send him a fax. But he knows he's not a scientist. He usually sends a thank-you for the 'reality-check.' "
For his part, Byrd tries to stay away from activism and let his research speak for itself. "At a university, we can't get into the business of advocacy. That's a sure path to losing both objectivity and credibility," Byrd says. "I speak at conferences all the time about paper technology, but I don't write letters or participate in hunger strikes or anything like that."
As NCSU's director of Applied Research in Wood and Paper Science, Byrd runs the university's pilot plant, an actual scaled-down paper mill, to develop non-wood fibers like hemp, corn stalks and wheat straw as high-quality sources of paper.
The average person in the U.S uses over 700 pounds of paper each year. "What happens when China, Pakistan, and India start consuming as much as Americans do?" Byrd asks.
Within paper circles, Byrd has attracted quite a following. Emily Miggins directs the San Francisco-based ReThink Paper Project, a national proponent of industrial hemp and other non-wood fibers.
"Med Byrd is the young god of pulp and paper," she says. "And he takes on both the good 'ol boys and the fringe. He's putting it out there, but he's not stupid. He doesn't want to alienate the wood industry or the government."
Byrd calls paper the currency of civilization. "People ask me, 'Med, why are you in paper? Don't you know paper is on the way out?' They think we're going to be a paperless society. That is not true. We use more paper now than we did before computers came along. And you can't blow your nose with a computer."