Hemp is a plant with an incredible history stretching back several thousand years. The recent history of hemp in the United States is a great story from a human sociological standpoint, so let's take a look at it and see why this plant is caught in a cross-fire.
When most people think of fibers for cloth, they think about things like cotton or wool. Cotton and wool are both nice, soft fibers from the start. You can comb them out, spin them and create thread. This thread is great for making cloth that is soft to the skin, but it is not very strong.
Hemp is a lot like flax, and flax is where linen comes from. In both hemp and flax, the fibers are in the stalk of the plant. The fibers are something like the threads you see in a celery stalk -- long, stringy and tough. To get at the fibers, you comb them out of the woody part of the dried stalk. The fibers tend to be coarser than cotton or wool, and they are very strong. This strength makes hemp a great fiber for ropes.
The reason why hemp shows up in organic magazines and catalogs is because it is very friendly to the environment. For example, environmentally conscious people like these aspects of hemp:
- Cotton raised in the U.S. requires millions of pounds of pesticides and fertilizers. It is a very intensive crop that takes a lot out of the land. Bugs like boll weevils love cotton and must be killed with insecticides. Hemp, on the other hand, is a weed. According to the World Book encyclopedia, "Fiber hemp can be sown simply by scattering the seed on the ground." You can grow hemp using much less fertilizer and pesticide.
- Hemp fibers can be used in many different ways. With them you can make cloth, paper, cardboard, fiber board, etc. By using hemp for paper and construction materials, pressure is removed from forests. Hemp also grows much faster and more densely than trees do.
The problem with hemp is that the hemp plant is also known as the Cannabis plant, which is also known as the marijuana plant. The following is from Encyclopedia Britannica:
Hemp (species Cannabis sativa): plant of the family Cannabaceae and its fibre, one of the bast fibre group. The plant is also grown for its seed, which contains about 30 percent oil, and for the narcotic drugs marijuana and hashish derived from its leaves and blossoms.
This connection to marijuana is what makes hemp such a hot issue in the United States. There are varieties of fiber hemp that eliminate the drug component of the plant to a large degree, but the concern is that it would be very easy to hide drug plants in a crop of fiber plants. So at the moment, hemp production in the U.S. is stalled and is a source of continuous debate.