Scientific America Magazine - December 1990 Page 23 -

Going to Pot

A grassroots movement touts hemp’s environmental virtues

Worried about global warming? The depletion of forests? U.S. dependence on foreign oil? World hunger? How about the cost of bailing out savings and loan banks? A small but vocal group of Americans is promoting a simple solution to these problems; hemp, also known as Cannabis Sativa, or marijuana.

Pot enthusiasts have lobbied for the drug’s legalization for decades - in vain. But recently they have put an environmental spin on their pitch. They claim that the fast-growing, hardy weed can yield more cellulose per acre than trees; it can be woven into textiles while doing less damage to the environment than synthetic fibers or even cotton; its seeds, which are not psychoactive, are second in protein content only to soybeans; and its seed oil and raw biomass make a renewable source of fuel.

The guru of this grassroots movement is Jack Herer, a large, hirsute Californian and admitted marijuana partaker. “I’m smoking right now,” he growled in a recent telephone interview. Herer says he has a “pipe dream” in which people live in homes made of hemp particleboard, read hemp newspapers, wear hemp clothes, drive cars powered by hemp-based methanol and even dine on hemp-seed tofu.

Five years ago Herer wrote and published a history of hemp called The Emperor Wears No Clothes. The book, which Herer says has sold more than 100,000 copies so far, is chock-full of marijuana Americana. It notes that Thomas Jefferson, among other forefathers, grew hemp on his farm and that the sails and shrouds of the USS Constitution were made of the stuff, as were the original Old Glory sewn by Betsy Ross and the first Levi jeans.

Indeed, hemp was once a major crop in the U.S., used to make textiles, rope, paper, and other products. Herer contends it was banned in the 1930’s not because of its health risks but because it posed an economic threat to industrialists - notably newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst - committed to wood and petroleum-based products. If hemp is allowed to return, Herer says, “it could save the planet.”

Other experts say Herer’s claims are a bit exaggerated. David F. Musto, a Yale University historian of illegal drugs, notes that Hearst campaigned in his newspapers against all drugs, not just marijuana. Quentine Jones of the US Agricultural Research Service adds that while hemp is certainly versatile, other plants can fulfill its various roles more economically.

Herer retorts that he has a standing offer of $10,000 to anyone who can prove him wrong. He has formed two groups - the Business for Commerce in Hemp and Hemp End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP) - to promote the cause. He also lectures and organizes rallies across the country. In late September he spoke at a pro-marijuana “festival” in Madison, Wis., attended by 14,000 people.

Herer has had difficulty enlisting mainstream types in his movement. Yet he did inspire a Kentucky attorney named Gatewood Galbraith to enter his state’s 1991 gubernatorial race on hemp-legalization platform. Galbraith who has made campaign appearances in a car powered by diesel fuel and hemp oil, insists his candidacy is for real. He points out that in 1983 he won more than 40,000 votes in a losing bid to become commissioner of agriculture and that country and western star Willie Nelson has endorsed his current bid. “Politically,” proclaims Galbraith who shares Herer’s passion for smoking pot, “I’m right on the cutting edge.”

Now about the S&L crisis. A plan devised by the Business Alliance for Commerce in Hemp calls for legalizing marijuana, now conservatively estimated to be a $50-billion-a-year business, and then allowing ailing banks to recoup their loses by investing in the trade. Call it a joint venture - John Morgan

Picture from “Hemp for Victory” Marijuana can grow 10 feet or more in less than three months. Photo: US Agricultural Research Service