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Hemp and a clean future

Dana Lossia (Daily Northwestern via U-WIRE)/EVANSTON, Ill. -- Hemp, the favorite fiber of many a radical college student, remains a restricted crop in the United States for a simple, worrisome reason: Hemp threatens the budget of the Drug Enforcement Agency and powerful U.S. interest groups.

Since 1894, when Rudolph Diesel developed the diesel engine to run on hempseed oil, fuel industries have known that biodiesel (vegetable oil) is a cheap and effective alternative to petrochemical fuels. Industrial hemp also can be used to produce fabrics, paper, building materials and other products that traditionally require cotton and timber.

The petrochemical, cotton, wood-based paper and timber industries know a threat when they see one, given that Congress pays the DEA to confiscate hemp plants -- usually tens of billions of dollars annually as the agency wipes out plots of land used for hemp cultivation during WWII. As a result, despite the environmental, ecological and economic advantages to growing hemp, the DEA opposes "any consideration of hemp as a legitimate fiber or pulp product."

Why should this concern you? First, traditional fuel sources are running out, and biodiesel is on its way in. Opting out of participation in this new industry means continued reliance on foreign oil and all that comes with it.

Second, deforestation is harming biodiversity and increasing the greenhouse effect. As the bumper sticker says, we should let the trees grow and use hemp. With a growing cycle of only 100 days, hemp yields four times the amount of fiber an average forest yields, and hemp paper can be recycled up to 60 more times than other papers because of the exceptional length of its fibers.

Finally, dangerous chemicals are accumulating in our water and soil. Unlike marijuana, hemp is grown in tightly spaced rows to maximize stalk, making herbicides unnecessary. Hemp also is naturally resistant to pests, and -- considering that 50 percent of the world's pesticides are sprayed on cotton -- using hemp instead of cotton would prevent more ecological damage. Furthermore, hemp paper is lighter and can be dyed more easily, decreasing the need for bleach, and therefore reducing the release of dioxin into the environment.

Although opponents of industrialized hemp equate it to marijuana, hemp cannot be used as a drug because it contains too little tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical in recreational and medicinal marijuana that causes its pleasantly mind-altering effects. The amount of smoke inhalation necessary to get high from industrial hemp would be insufferable to humans. Furthermore, no country that cultivates industrial hemp has experienced a rise in marijuana use. But the DEA -- unlike more than 30 industrialized democracies and several international treaties -- classifies all cannabis sativa varieties, including industrial hemp and marijuana, the same way.

Current laws are in place because the DEA is unwilling to lose a major source of revenue, and because of the power of cotton, timber and petroleum-based plastics industries. In other words, hemp's illegalization makes some people in the United States a lot of money. (The same can be said for marijuana, but that's another story.)

This issue impacts anyone who cares about the environment or the integrity of our political system. If you want to support hemp sellers, begin at Eco'Fields at 1708 N. Wells in Chicago. Talk to the owner Patricia, too. There is much truth about American politics hidden in the tale of this amazing plant.

(c) 2001 Daily Northwestern via U-WIRE

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