Repeal hemp prohibition

Industrial hemp could make a deserved comeback if a House bill becomes law

It would probably be a mistake to make seat covers from this type of hemp.

It would probably be a mistake to make seat covers from this type of hemp.

Randy Serraglio is an occasional contributor to Tucson Weekly, where this essay was originally published.

What little television I watch is usually sporting events, largely due to vestigial boyhood compulsion. Unfortunately, this subjects me to innumerable car commercials. “Chevy. An American Revolution.” Puke. An American revulsion. But what revolutionary hope may arise if one were to discover, as I did recently, that some cars on the road today are made, at least in some tiny part, from cannabis? Yeah, you know. Serrated leaflets. Bad reputation. Scourge of the hippie underworld.

Not to worry. Automotive interiors won’t be stoning soccer moms when they climb into their Ford Explorers on an incendiary afternoon in the parking lot at the elementary school. They’re made from industrial hemp, which is not to be confused with industrial-strength sticky buds. Hemp is the term for the many varieties of cannabis that have no psychoactive properties and are used instead for industrial applications based on the plant’s fiber and oil.

While all the sound and fury in our public consciousness swirls around the legality and advisability of medicinal cannabis use, advocates of industrial hemp have been quietly gaining ground in their efforts to legalize production of this once-indispensable crop. Last month, Arizona congressman Raúl Grijalva co-sponsored the introduction of HR 3037, a bill that would return industrial hemp farming to the country that was founded on it.

And it’s about time. Despite the U.S. ban on growing hemp, it is the crop’s No. 1 importer, while at least 30 other nations profit handsomely from its production. Hemp shows up in a wide range of products, everything from Adidas sneakers (fiber) to hair care products (oil) to highly nutritional foods (seeds). While sales of hemp products skyrocket, U.S. farmers are cut out of the action. No wonder the bill’s supporters include a bipartisan collection of farm-state congressmen and agricultural commissioners.

Why can’t American farmers grow hemp? The demonizing of cannabis stretches back to the 1930s, when Congress effectively outlawed it. Some of the heaviest lobbying came from West Coast newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst. In MBA terms, his vertical integration in the newspaper business allowed him to propagandize the public with apocryphal reefer madness stories in his daily papers in order to protect the timber and paper portions of his empire from the threat of far more efficient and higher-quality hemp paper.

Likewise, the DuPont chemical company, attempting to penetrate the market with inferior synthetic fibers, threw lots of money into twisting congressional arms to outlaw its competition. A key strategy in the lobbying effort was to obfuscate the differences between industrial hemp and psychoactive marijuana. In the decades since, various overlapping corporate and political interests have purposefully maintained that confusion. HR 3037 would uncouple industrial hemp from psychoactive cannabis in federal law and allow states to determine and regulate industrial hemp production. Six states have already passed legislation to do just that, and are ready and waiting.

Hemp is no modern fad. Colonial American farmers could pay their taxes to the British crown with in-kind hemp production—such was its strategic value to British naval supremacy. Hemp as a strategic resource of global political importance was every bit as much at the center of the War of 1812 as oil is in Iraq today.

Even the automotive interiors are nothing new. Good old Henry Ford, that crazy, Nazi-loving icon of capitalist efficiency, knew the value of hemp. A publicity photograph from the ‘30s shows him pounding the hemp-based chassis of a car with a sledgehammer to show its strength and flexibility.

Perhaps most important, however, from the aforementioned geopolitical perspective, is that Ford’s magic car was also designed to run on hemp-based fuel. His researchers showed that basically any product made from hydrocarbons could also be made—with cleaner and more efficient technology—from the carbohydrates of the hemp plant. He envisioned a revolution in the automotive business—that is, until Congress made it impossible.

Well now. Imagine that longer-term scenario.

Show me that commercial, Chevrolet, and I’ll show you a real American Revolution.

HR 3037 faces an uphill struggle in Congress against fear, ignorance and entrenched corporate interests. To find out how you can make that hill easier to climb, visit