Fiber Wars

Chapter 1

Once Upon a Time

The scene is a dairy farm in east-central Wisconsin, August 21, 1993. On its fifth pass over the farm, the helicopter comes in low and hovers. The farmer's terrified, triple-A, artificially-inseminated cow tries to leap the fence, breaks her leg and in three days is dead, calf lost. The newspaper report explains that "Local authorities have been using the National Guard helicopters in the area to search for wild marijuana patches."

As reported in The USA Today in 2005, the press no longer conflates the varieties.LINK The DEA, however, still does.

According to their press release, the Wisconsin Department of Narcotic Enforcement's Project CEASE removed 9.3 million hemp plants in 1993 in Wisconsin. "Hemp," they explain, "is the plant from which marijuana is extracted."1

Since 1983, when the program first began, CEASE has employed Sheriff's deputies, the US Army Reserves, National Guard and law officers of the Wisconsin State Division of Narcotics Enforcement to search and destroy "wild marijuana:" 3 tons in '83; 22 in '84; 41 in '85; 104 in '86; 165 in '87; 113.7 in '88 (estimated—"conservatively"—to be worth $113.3 million on the illegal market).2 More recently, plant counts rather than tonnage have been reported: 9.3 million plants pulled up in 1993.

In 1999, the author became the first to obtain this permit in order to grow hemp for the Hawaii Industrial Hemp Project. For more about that project go HERE.

Hemp, cannabis, is a pariah. Plant breeders could contribute some factual information to the discussion of the variation that exists within the genus Cannabis, but researchers in the United States find it virtually impossible to obtain permit number 225 issued by the Drug Enforcement Administration and required to legally grow and conduct research on any cannabis3 plant. The loops through which one must jump to obtain this permit are sufficient to dissuade and obstruct those who try. Ironically, the state where the cow fell victim to the War on Drugs was once the number one producer of hemp.4 And nobody smoked it.

There are some problems with Washington's oft-cited quote. First, Washington actually said "India hemp." Second, the quote is removed from its context which was an instruction to his gardener with whom he had on-going experiments with new crops. Third, there is no evidence the seed they planted was perpetuated. He wasn't, however, speaking of "Indian Hemp" —Apocynum cannabinum, "dogbane," the staple fiber of Native Americans–as previously speculated.

There is a lesion in our national memory banks regarding the role of this plant in our history.5 How do we reconcile the heinous character of this plant with the fact that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were dedicated hemp farmers? (The former said, "Sow it everywhere" and the latter invented a hemp brake.) How is it that hemp was safe enough to be used as legal tender in colonial times, yet the curators of the Smithsonian Institute found it necessary to remove all reference to hemp from their displays?

Hemp is the common name for the fiber-yielding plant botanists call Cannabis sativa. "Cannabis" and "canvas" have the same etymological root. A sense of the significance of Cannabis to human culture and its geographic distribution can be gleaned from the linguistic record (Table 1).

anascha— –Russia kendir— –Tartar
bangi— –Congo khanchha— –Cambodia
bhang— –India kif— –North Africa
bhanga— –Sanskrit konop— –Bulgaria
canaib— –Ireland konope— –Poland
canarno— –Portugal konoplja— –Russia
canape— –Italy liamba— –Brazil
canna— –Persia maconha— –Brazil
cannapis— –Rumania majum— –North Africa, India
chanvre— –France marihuana— –Mexico, America
charas— –India intsangu— –South Africa
dagga— –South Africa kanapes— –Lithuania
dawamesk— –Algeria kanas— –Brittany
diamba— –Brazil kanbun— –Chaldean
djamba— –South Africa kanebosm— –Hebrew
esrar— –Turkey, Persia kanebusma— –Aramaic
ganja— –India kanep— –Albania
ganga— –Malaya karmab— – Arabia
ganjika— –Sanskrit kannabis— –Greek
grifa— –Spain, Mexico kanopia— –Czechoslovakia
haenep— –Old English matakwane— –Sotho (South Africa)
hamp— –Denmark mbangi— –Tanzania
hampa— –Sweden momea— –Tibet
hampr— –Finland nsangu— –Zulu ( Africa)
hanf— –Germany qunubu— –Assyrian
hanpr— –Norway so-la-ra-dsa— –Tibet
haschisch— –France suruma— –Ronga ( Africa)
hashish— –Africa, Asia takrouri— –Tunisia
hemp— –Great Britain umya— –Xhosa (Africa)
hennep— –Holland herbe— –France

Table 1: Linguistic equivalents for Cannabis in the world's languages. Note that many languages have two words, signifying a recognition of the different functional types of Cannabis.6

Hemp canvas covered the Pioneer's Conestoga wagons later to be turned into Levi's new kind of trouser. Hemp was to navies what titanium is to modern military technology. Napoleon invaded Russia to cut off England's access to Russian hemp upon which the British navy depended. The USS Constitution used sixty tons of hemp in its riggings and sails. Because of its strategic importance, there were laws both in England and the colonies at various times requiring the cultivation of hemp. Hemp fiber is slower to rot, making it the fiber of choice for maritime cordage. In fact, hemp has been the premier cordage fiber for cultures in the northern latitudes throughout most of history; "hemp" was often used generically for cordage stem fiber from any source.7

What is the truth about hemp? And why is it growing wild all over Wisconsin and other states and under attack by helicopter? How did this plant, so valued by the Founding Fathers, become an outcast, a pariah?

The real story of hemp is not a story of drugs. It is a tale of competition for markets and it captures in its telling all the significant cross currents of the Industrial Age.

Plant Fibers in History

Fiber Wars: Table of Contents