Though often accused of being backward or behind the times, the 2001 Montana Legislature placed Montana among a group of forward-thinking states and organizations with the passage last April of Senate Bill 261, which could free the growth of industrial hemp from the auspices of the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) passed by Congress in 1970.
The bill, sponsored in the Senate by Sen. B.F. “Chris” Christiaens (D-Great Falls) and in the House by Rep. Christopher Harris (D-Bozeman), legalizes the growth and sale of “industrial hemp”–that is, “all parts and varieties of the plant Cannabis sativa L. containing no greater than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol”–within Montana’s borders. Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the chemical that produces the high sought by users of marijuana.
“Any THC level of one percent or less is generally regarded as useless in the effort to get high,” says John Masterson, director of the Montana chapter of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and a co-organizer of the Sixth Annual Missoula Hempfest, to be held in Caras Park Saturday, Sept. 8 from noon until 11 p.m.
Supporters of the effort to legalize industrial hemp point to the prevalence of hemp as a wonder plant of sorts before the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 effectively ended its viability as a cash crop. According to The Emperor Wears No Clothes, the so-called “hemp bible” written by Jack Herer in 1985 and currently in its eleventh edition, “hemp is, by far, Earth’s premier, renewable natural resource.”
For years the fiber derived from hemp plants was essential to a boggling number of industries: shipping (Herer estimates that the U.S.S. Constitution–“Old Ironsides”–held at least 60 tons of hemp in rigging, sails, etc.); textiles and fabrics (80 percent of all clothing, tents, sheets, linens, etc. were made from hemp until the 1820s); fiber and pulp paper (75 to 90 percent of all paper in the world was made from hemp until 1883); paints and varnishes; lighting oil and various medicines, to name but a few.
In the early 1900s, hemp’s potential as a cash crop was limited by the relatively labor- and time-intensive process needed to extract the fiber from the plant. By the time harvester technology caught up to the plant, the Tax Act of 1937 had nipped a potential star crop in the bud. However, enough of a gap between efficient processing and taxation existed for magazines such as Popular Mechanics and Mechanical Engineering to trumpet hemp as a savior for the American farmer.
A 1938 article from Popular Mechanics entitled “New Billion-Dollar Crop” hailed hemp as “a new cash crop with an annual value of several hundred million dollars, all because a machine has been invented which solves a problem 6,000 years old.” The article goes on to say that “hemp is the standard fiber of the world. It has great tensile strength and durability…and can be used to produce more than 25,000 products, ranging from dynamite to Cellophane.”
As for the farmer, hemp must have been seen as a miracle plant: “Hemp is an easy crop to grow and will yield from three to six tons per acre on any land that will grow corn, wheat or oats,” the article reads. “It has a short growing season, so that it can be planted after other crops are in. It can be grown in any state of the union. The long roots penetrate and break the soil to leave it in perfect condition for next year’s crop. The dense shock of leaves, eight to twelve feet above the ground, chokes out weeds. Two successive crops are enough to reclaim land that has been abandoned…”
Additionally, Herer claims that hemp’s potential as a biomass fuel, when converted to methane, methanol, or gasoline, could end acid rain, sulfur-based smog and actually reverse the greenhouse effect.
The reasons behind the Tax Act of 1937 are numerous, but hemp supporters believe that racial paranoia and corporate greed were primary to the anti-hemp cause. The prevalence of pot smoking among black jazz musicians and Mexican laborers led to a Reefer Madness hysteria that identified marijuana as the cause for Mexicans’ perceived laziness and the desire among blacks to rape white women. Additionally, the man who pushed the Tax Act through Congress, Federal Bureau of Narcotics Chief Harry Anslinger, was the nephew-in-law of Andrew Mellon, a head banker for the DuPont Company. DuPont had just patented a process for creating plastics from oil and coal as well as the chemical process for making paper from wood pulp.
The Missoula Hempfest will showcase the versatility of the plant, with booths displaying crafts and goods as well as food products and herbal remedies made from hemp. Live music and educational speakers round out the day’s events. Included in the speakers’ lineup is Dr. Ethan Russo, a Missoula neurologist who authored the Missoula Chronic Clinical Cannabis Use Study, a report that examined the health of six of the eight remaining patients eligible for low-grade, federally-provided marijuana. Nora Callahan, head of the anti-drug war November Coalition, and Sen. Christiaens are also slated to speak.
Despite the Legislature’s action and the innumerable arguments for promoting industrial hemp, it is unlikely we will be seeing the leafy crop dotting the Montana landscape anytime soon. The state Department of Agriculture, as required by the new law, recently petitioned the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) for an exemption to the CSA that would allow state farmers to grow hemp. The DEA responded with a request for more information, but ominously included an agency letter, addressed to a coalition of groups that had petitioned for industrial hemp in 1998, that categorically denies any interest on the DEA’s part to consider such requests. Since the DEA makes no legal distinction between industrial hemp and wacky weed, only an act of Congress will wrest control of hemp from the DEA.
Should that occur, the Montana Department of Agriculture will be ready. Department spokesman Mike Sullivan says that although the state will not act against the wishes of the federal government, “We do believe that industrial hemp has the potential to be a significant cash crop in this state.”