Booze & Drugs

Reefer Madness

By Dune Hartsell

For thousands of years, Hemp (Cannabis Sativa) has been one of the most useful plants known to man. It's strong, stringy fibers make durable rope and can be woven into anything from sails to shirts; it's pithy centers, or "Hurds," make excellent paper; it's seeds, high in protein and oil, have been pressed into lighting or lubricating oils and pulped into animal feed; and extracts of its leaves have provided a wide range of medicines and tonics.

Hemp also has a notable place in American history:

Washington and Jefferson grew it.
Our first flags were likely made of hemp cloth.
The first and second drafts of the Declaration of Independence were written on paper made from Dutch Hemp.
When the pioneers went west, their wagons were covered with hemp canvas (the word "canvas" comes from canabacius, hemp cloth).
The first "Levis" sold to prospectors were sturdy hemp coveralls.
Abraham Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd, came from the richest hemp growing family in Kentucky.

After the Civil War, however, hemp production in the States declined steeply. Without slave labor, hemp became too expensive to process. Besides, cotton ginned by machines was cheaper. Still, hemp fabric remained the second most common cloth in America.

The plant's by-products remained popular well into this century. Maple sugar combined with Hashish (a resin from hemp leaves) was sold over the counter and in Sears Roebuck catalogs as a harmless candy. Hemp rope was a mainstay of the Navy. Two thousand tons of hemp seed were sold annually as bird feed. The pharmaceutical industry used hemp extracts in hundreds of potions and vigorously fought attempts to restrict hemp production. And virtually all good paints and varnishes were made from hemp-seed oil and/or linseed oil.

In the 1920s and '30s the American public became increasingly concerned about drug addiction - especially to Morphine and a "miracle drug" that had been introduced by the Bayer Company in 1898 under the brand name "Heroin." By the mid-1920s there were 20,000 heroin addicts in the U.S. alone.

Most Americans were unaware that smoking hemp was intoxicating; however, until William Randolph Hearst launched a campaign of sensational stories that linked "the killer weed" to everything from Jazz to "crazed minorities," and even unspeakable crimes. Hearst's paper featured headlines like:


In 1930 Hearst was joined in his crusade against hemp by Harry J. Anslinger, commissioner of the newly organized Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN). Hearst often quoted Anslinger in his newspaper stories, printing sensational comments like: "If the hideous monster Frankenstein came face to face with the monster marijuana he would drop dead of fright."

Not everyone shared their opinion. In 1930, the US government formed the Siler Commission to study marijuana smoking by off-duty servicemen in Panama. The Commission found no lasting effects and recommended that no criminal penalties apply to its use. Nonetheless, Hearst's and Anslinger's anti-hemp campaign had results. By 1931, twenty-nine states had prohibited marijuana use for non-medical purposes. In 1937, after two years of secret hearings and based largely on Anslinger's testimony, Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act, which essentially outlawed marijuana in America.

Because Congress was not sure it was constitutional to ban hemp outright, it taxed the plant prohibitively instead. Hemp growers had to register with the government; sellers and buyers had to fill out cumbersome paperwork; and, of course, it was a federal crime not to comply.

For selling an once or less of marijuana to an unregistered person, the federal tax was 100 dollars. (To give some sense on how prohibitive the tax was, "legitimate" marijuana was selling for $2 a pound at the time. In 1994 dollars, the federal tax would be roughly 2000 dollars an ounce.)

The Marijuana Tax Act effectively destroyed all legitimate commercial cultivation of hemp. Limited medical use was permitted, but as hemp derivatives became prohibitively expensive for doctors and pharmacists, they turned to chemically derived drugs instead. All other non-medical uses, from rope to industrial lubricants, were taxed out of existence.

With most of their markets gone, farmers stopped growing hemp, and the legitimate industry disappeared. Ironically, though, hemp continued to grow wild all over the country, and its "illegitimate" use was little affected by Congress.

Was a viable hemp industry forced out of existence because it was a threat to people's health or because it was a threat to a few large businesses that would profit from banning it?

Here are some facts. Hemp was outlawed just as a new technology would have made hemp paper far cheaper than wood pulp paper.

Traditionally, hemp fiber had to be separated from the stalk by hand, and the cost of labor made this method uncompetitive. But in 1937, the year that hemp was outlawed, the decoricator machine was invented; it could process as much as three tons of hemp in an hour and produced higher quality fibers with less loss of fiber than wood-based pulp. According to some scientists, hemp would have been able to undercut competing products overnight. Enthusiastic about the new technology, Popular Mechanics predicted that hemp would become America's first "billion dollar crop." The magazine pointed out that "10,000 acres devoted to hemp will produce as much paper as 40,000 acres of average [forest] pulp land."

According to Jack Herer, an expert on the "hemp conspiracy," Hearst, the DuPonts and other "industrial barons and financiers knew that machinery to cut, bale, decoricate (separate fiber from the stalk) and process hemp into paper was becoming available in the mid 1930's." (The Emperor Wears No Clothes)

Hearst, one of the promoters of the anti-hemp hysteria, had a vested interest in protecting the pulp industry. Hearst owned enormous timber acreage; competition from hemp paper might have driven the Hearst paper-manufacturing division out of business and cause the value of his acreage to plummet. (ibid)

Herer says that Hearst was even responsible for popularizing the term "marijuana" in American culture. In fact, he suggests, popularizing the word was a key strategy of Hearst's efforts: "The first step in creating hysteria was to introduce the element of fear of the unknown by using a word that no one had ever heard of before…'marijuana.'" (ibid)

The DuPont Company also had an interest in the pulp industry. At this time, it was in the process of patenting a new sulfuric acid process for producing wood-pulp paper. According to the company's own records, wood-pulp products ultimately accounted for more than 80% of all of DuPont's railroad car loadings for the next 50 years. (ibid)

But DuPont had even more reasons to be concerned about hemp. In the 1930's, the company was making drastic changes in its business strategy. Traditionally a manufacturer of military explosives, DuPont realized after the end of World War I that developing peace-time uses for artificial fibers and plastics would be more profitable in the long run. So it began pouring millions of dollars into research, which resulted in the development of such synthetic fibers as rayon and nylon.

Two years before the prohibitive hemp tax, DuPont developed a new synthetic fiber, nylon, which was an ideal substitute for hemp rope.
The year after the hemp tax, DuPont was able to bring another "miracle" synthetic fabric onto the market, rayon. Rayon, which became widely used for clothing, was a direct competitor to hemp cloth.
"Congress and the Treasury Department were assured, though secret testimony given by DuPont, that Hemp-seed oil could be replaced with synthetic petrochemical oils made principally by DuPont." These oils were used in paints and other products. (ibid)

The millions spent on these products, as well as the hundreds of millions in expected profits from them, could have been wiped out if the newly affordable hemp products were allowed on the market. So, according to Herer, DuPont worked with Hearst to eliminate hemp.

DuPont's point man was none other than Harry Anslinger, the commissioner of the FBN. Anslinger was appointed to the FBN by Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, who was also chairman of the Mellon Bank, DuPont's chief financial backer. But Anslinger's relationship to Mellon wasn't just political; he was also married to Mellon's niece.

Anslinger apparently used his political clout to sway congressional opinion on the hemp tax. According to Herer, the American Medical Association (AMA) tried to argue for the medical benefits of hemp. But after the AMA officials testified to Congress, "they were quickly denounced by Anslinger and the entire congressional committee, and curtly excused."

Five years after the hemp tax was imposed, when Japanese seizure of Philippine hemp caused a wartime shortage of rope, the government reversed itself. Overnight, the U.S. government urged hemp cultivation once again and created a stirring movie called "Hemp for Victory" then, just as quickly, it recriminalized hemp after the shortage had passed.

While U.S. hemp was temporarily legal, however, it saved the life of a young pilot named George Bush, who was forced to bail out of his burning airplane after a battle over the Pacific. At the time he didn't know that:

Parts of his aircraft engine were lubricated with hemp-seed oil.
100% of his life-saving parachute webbing was made from U.S. grown hemp.
Virtually all of the rigging and lines of the ship that rescued him were made of hemp.
The flight suit on his back was a rubberized hemp cloth.
The fire hoses on the ship were woven from hemp.

Ironically, President Bush consistently opposed decriminalizing hemp grown in the United States.

Does the hemp conspiracy continue? In March 1992, Robert Bonner, the chief of the Drug Enforcement Agency, effectively rejected a petition to permit doctors to prescribe marijuana for patients as medication for chronic pain. Bonner said: "Beyond doubt the claims that marijuana is medicine is false, dangerous and cruel." But, according to a federal administrative law judge, Francis Young, "The record clearly shows that marijuana has been accepted as capable of relieving the distress of great numbers of very ill people and doing so with safety under medical supervision." (The New York Times)