Don’t Throw the Baby with the Bathwater: Hemp as a Cash Crop.

As a girl in the 1970’s, all I knew about “hemp” was that it was quite popular with a group of people I was uncomfortable around.  We called it “marijuana.”  I remember being advised by my teenaged relatives to smoke marijuana because, by their wisdom, if I could not smoke a joint properly when I got to Junior High, people would think I was a nerd and they would beat me up.  I guess I preferred being a nerd and taking my chances.  The smoke alone smelled horrible to me. While their advice was pretty memorable, it was also very limited in scope.  Soon after that, I made a decision. I decided I did not like marijuana, I did not like the way people acted when they used it, and I was not going to be like them.  Although I entered Junior High with a lot of anxiety, (I was not very skilled in the fine art of self defense) I found my way through the next three years without getting beat up, and I discovered that it was quite easy to surround myself with people who did not have any interest in the plant at all.  These people were a lot more fun for me to be around.  Now this might have been the end my very boring chapter on “hemp,” but as the years have past, I’ve found new reasons to revisit this amazing crop plant.

Reason one:  Hemp has medicinal value.
When I was involved in natural products chemistry, I would encounter articles from time to time that dealt with the medicinal or nutritional compounds hemp contains.   I discovered there were quite a few compounds with medicinal, nutritional, or industrial value.  Later, after chronic pain brought my research career to a grinding halt, I had a personal experience that provided me more personal reassurance of the plant’s medicinal value than published research could ever convey.   This happened one day while working outdoors with my husband.  I was tired (as usual), and hurting (as usual), and I was about to give up and go nap in the truck when a man approached us asking to borrow a cell phone.  The man had obviously been smoking, and in a past life, I might have written that he reeked like Mary Jane.  But on that particular day, the odor that hit me as the man approached was both pleasant and energizing.   I don’t mean it was a little bit pleasant, or a little bit energizing.  I mean I felt so much instant relief, that by the time the man made his phone call, returned the phone to us, and walked away, I felt good enough to finish the job!  I really wished he could just stay close by and let me breathe all afternoon.  Since I only smelled what was in the air when he approached, I suppose he had been using the really good stuff.

Now,  there are legal channels for obtaining medicinal marijuana, and I if I wanted to explore them, I could probably qualify as a medical user.  But I don’t like dealing with bureaucracy, so I am settling for other approaches to dealing with my chronic pain and fatigue.  At least for the time being.  Nonetheless, my experience of not liking marijuana as a girl, while cherishing the relief it brought me, even for that brief moment, as an adult, confirmed my conviction that there are times, and conditions, in which hemp can have enormous value. What is important for the reader to recognize is that many of the medicinal compounds in marijuana are different from the compounds that make people high, so medical users are not likely to be “stoned.”

Reason two:  Hemp has food and fiber value.
We also know that hemp seed is endowed with many beneficial fatty acids, proteins, and other nutrients. Low THC varieties of hemp can thrive in areas where more common seed crops like wheat suffer.   We also know that lack of variety in our agricultural systems has led to poor soil and poor nutrition. Hemp can provide an outstanding alternative to traditional crops because it’s “weedy” growth habit allows it to thrive in harsh conditions.  Hemp can be used for food, fiber, and manufacturing, and it can provide a grower with diversified income streams.  In a country where 133 million adults suffer from chronic diseases that are linked to nutrition, it seems ludicrous to put restrictions on a food crop because a few people might choose to abuse it.  We don’t restrict corn, rice, or hops.  How many people abuse whiskey, vodka, and beer  each year?

Reason three:  Hemp is good for the soil. 
Hemp produces a lot of biomass, both above and below ground.  Why is this important?  Have you studied our soils lately?  Salt buildup, erosion, and loss of soil biodiversity has led to increased chemical dependence (yes, we have chemically dependent soils—soils that don’t produce food without adding chemical fertilizers), and production of crops that lack flavor and nutrition.  Remember a moment ago how we discussed 133 million diseased Americans?  One can’t grow nutritious food on chemically dependent soils.  Hemp can be grown on poor soils with less water than many crops, and where it is grown, it can generate biomass that feeds soil creatures.  Soil creatures (fungi, bacteria, microarthropods, earthworms…) synthesize nutrients, break down toxic substances, build soil, and support healthy, nutritious crops.   A grower who includes a well managed hemp crop among his/her rotations, and who returns much of the crop residues to the soil, could expect to see improvements in yields, flavor, and nutrient content of other crops grown on the same soil.  Hemp is also drought tolerant.  This means it keep protecting the soil from erosion during drought even when other plants are dying.

Reason four:  Hemp is multidimensional.  And controversial. 
Hemp offers a great example of why heavy regulations with narrowly focused goals (like halting the use of recreational drugs by making marijuana illegal) will always cost society more than a holistic, rational, human centered approach.  By restricting marijuana production in the US, we have opened the gates to a thriving, growing international drug trade that includes substances which are more toxic and more difficult to detect than hemp.  In fact, our war on drugs has made unconvincing progress in decades of punitive and costly tactics.  Meanwhile, the majority of my marijuana-smoking associates from my days in public school have long since grown up, raised families, and quit smoking marijuana, on their own accord, simply because experience is a great teacher.  They are not in jail.  They pay taxes.  They’ve raised good kids.  They contribute to society.
Yet by restricting access to hemp, we are restricting health, nutrition, and economic opportunities for many in ways that increase the chances of children growing up in those same poor environments that are predisposed to drug use.  When hemp is viewed holistically, as a great soil builder, a hardy, drought tolerant agricultural crop that can build soil while producing food and fiber, a medicinal plant, and a source of potential for drugs of abuse, one can see that the value of the crop outweighs its risks. Let’s reconsider those senseless restrictions on those who wish to feed and clothe their families.

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