What if we could reduce CO2 emissions without raising taxes? What if a carbon-neutral source of renewable energy could be grown on American soil and generate all the power the United States needed? What if one plant could bolster the economy, provide nutritious food, bio-degradable plastics, durable fiber, carbon-neutral energy, and save the world from global warming … would you grow it?

The only thing that needs to happen is for the federal government to get out of the way.

The solution is hemp.

Background

Hemp, not to be confused with marijuana, is the most versatile plant on the planet. Over 20,000 products are made from hemp, including shower curtains, shoes, soaps, breads, protein powder, plastics, paper, and energy. Hemp is not a psychoactive drug, it is an industrial agricultural product. Popular Mechanics in 1938 asserted that “The connection of hemp as a crop and marijuana seems to be exaggerated … If federal regulations can be drawn to protect the public without preventing the legitimate culture of hemp, this new crop can add immeasurably to American agriculture and industry.”

Cannabis hemp is important in American history. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp on their estates. The first laws concerning hemp actually required citizens to grow hemp. In 1619 a law was enacted in Jamestown Colony, Virginia “ordering” all farmers to grow Indian hempseed. An early draft of the Constitution was written on hemp paper, and the U.S. government encouraged American farmers to grow hemp during WWII for the war effort. The U.S. Department of Agriculture even created a movie to motivate and educate farmers on how to grow hemp, called “Hemp for Victory!”

The hemp industry will bolster the U.S. economy. In February of 1938, Popular Mechanics called hemp the “new billion-dollar crop.” One billion dollars in 1938 is equal to $18.7 billion dollars today, or over one percent of our GDP. A new industry involved in textiles, fabrics, food, furniture, cosmetics and energy would benefit the U.S. economy.

How hemp can save the planet

Reducing CO2 through taxation or a “cap and trade” system is very expensive. The cap and trade system proposed by Waxman-Markey, the most recent cap and trade bill proposed in Congress, was estimated to cost the average American family $1,731 a year, a hefty cost considering the EPA has said that such a carbon tax would have virtually no effect on the climate. The cost proposed in Waxman-Markey were around $20 to $30 per ton of CO2. Other cost estimates are much higher. Private firms estimate that it will cost between $160 and $260 per ton to reduce CO2emissions to 1990 levels. What is that going to cost the American taxpayer?

Wouldn’t it make more sense to free up the market by eliminating arcane restrictions rather than try to tax away the problem of carbon pollution?

Hemp removes 10 times the amount of CO2 from the atmosphere per acre as an acre of trees, makes four times the amount of paper per acre as an acre of trees and grows in almost any climate without the need for pesticides or fertilizers. Considering that 25% of all of the world’s pesticides are used on American cotton, hemp is an environmentally friendly and sustainable competitor in the fiber market.

Growing hemp for fiber, paper and plastic would remove CO2 from and keep it out of the atmosphere by converting it into durable goods. For example, Popular Science in 1941 showcased a car designed by Henry Ford that he “grew from the soil” made of hemp plastic.

Hemp as a carbon-neutral energy

Hemp could replace fossil fuels in the plastics and energy markets. Hemp seeds are 40 percent oil, which can easily converted into plastic or ethanol for energy. Oil, coal and natural gas are comprised of carbon, so burning them for energy releases carbon into the atmosphere. Hemp oil is rich in carbon, but that carbon was recently extracted from the atmosphere, so carbon released when burning hemp ethanol is carbon that was previously in the atmosphere until the hemp plant “breathed” it in.

A 1979 environmental chemistry textbook estimated that if 6 percent of America’s continental land were used to cultivate hemp, that would provide enough energy to meet all of America’s energy needs. Unlike the government-sponsored corn/ethanol industry, hemp does not need government subsidies. Our government needs to stop picking winners and losers and let the market determine what is best.

Who grows hemp?

China is the world’s largest producer of hemp. The European Union cultivates hemp, as does Canada, Australia and Great Britain. And 15 U.S. states have passed legislation promoting or researching industrial hemp, though many farmers refrain from growing hemp in fear of DEA prosecution (see Appendix A for a list).

Why can’t Americans grow hemp?

Jack Herrer, the world’s foremost cannabis activist, met with Steve Rawlings of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1989. Herrer informed Rawlings of hemp’s environmental and economic benefits. Rawlings liked the idea until he remembered that the federal government does not distinguish between “marijuana” and “hemp”, and therefore he could not support it. Rawlings refused to take any documents from Herrer and would not share information from the meeting with other government officials.

The federal government’s attitude of ignorance towards hemp and marijuana is detrimental to America’s safety and energy security.

The Drug Enforcement Administration defends the illegality of hemp by arguing that allowing famers to cultivate hemp will make it easier for them to hide marijuana plants. Regulators can readily distinguish hemp from marijuana: Industrial hemp plants are tall (around 20 feet), have few branches or leaves below the tops, and are grown four inches apart; marijuana plants are shorter and fatter with lots of branches and are generally grown six feet apart. So because DEA officers say they can’t tell the difference between marijuana and hemp, the DEA wants to prohibit American farmers from growing a plant that would generate billions for the U.S. economy.

Is the threat of plants that look like marijuana greater than the threat of global warming? Is it greater than the possibility of earth’s temperature rising, ice-caps melting and floods of biblical proportions that would displace billions of people?

It’s possible that powerful business interests are fueling the government’s unreasonable restrictions on hemp cultivation. The cotton lobby and corn lobby do not want hemp grown on American soil competing with corn-ethanol fuel and cotton fiber – and let’s not forget the fossil-fuel industries that would face competition from hemp energy and plastics. Rather than allowing farmers to grow what they want, our current elected officials prefer to protect powerful industries from competition.

We need to stop trying to tax our way to a cleaner environment when there are other viable options. Legalizing hemp will allow American farmers to grow carbon-neutral energy and reduce atmospheric CO2 in the process. To make legalized hemp a reality, we need to educate ourselves on this issue and demand that our politicians make hemp a campaign issue.

 

Appendix A:

Arkansas (1999), California (1999) Colorado (2010), Hawaii (2001), Maine (2009), Maryland (2000), Minnesota (1999), Montana (2001), New Mexico (2007), North Carolina (2006),  North Dakota (1999), Oregon (2009, Vermont (2008), Virginia (1999), and West Virginia (2002) all passed laws in their state legislatures promoting hemp research and cultivation.