Fiber Wars

Chapter 8


Only one among many useful crops cited by the chemurgists, hemp was valued as much as a potential source of cellulose for the nascent plastics industry as for its traditional fiber applications.101 A Popular Mechanics article in 1938 raved hemp as the source for 50,000 products, essentially plastics, and called it the "Billion Dollar Crop."102 In 1934, hemp acreage suddenly increased, but not for the traditional fiber industry. The new expansion of the industry was primarily in Minnesota and Illinois. This expansion was brief.

The hemp acreage in Minnesota was centered in Mankato, with the Hemp Chemical Company, and in Winona with Chempco, Inc., and Cannabis, Inc. The Winona Republican Herald ran a full page article on these industries on December 31, 1937. Chempco, Inc had 40 on its payroll; Cannabis Inc., had 12. Chempco, the article tells,

is baling the fiber and selling it in carload lots for fine paper manufacture, while a great surplus of by-product woody material is accumulating in every available storing place, including outdoor bins, for later use.103

They had moved 350 carloads of fiber that year.

Cannabis, Inc.,

...has gone into spinning hemp fiber and making out of it such articles as rugs, mops and cloth used in upholstering furniture. "We've begun the spinning of hemp yarn, something never done before on any large scale," declared E. G. Witt of Winona, who is assistant secretary and in charge of the plant under F. E. Holton of Mankato.
...At the Cannabis plant the hemp is further machined and processed chemically to fit for manufacturing into yarn and cord, which later is made into rugs, various forms of cloth and the majority of spun material into mops.

From this article we learn that they would pay $12 to $15 per ton, delivered. Assuming this was field-dried stalk, at 3 to 4 tons per acre in 1937, the crop would have been competitive with corn.

The Chempco plant produces more than a carload of hemp fiber a day and more than three carloads of the woody material called hemp hurds... This woody stuff is ground up into a "flour." This is not food flour, but flour out of which can be made a wide variety of compostion materials. Plastics, such as the hard material from which is made what is commonly called the hard rubber telephone sets, can be made from this flour. The flour is cellulose acetate. It is mixed with a synthetic rosin and baked to form the plastic. A good deal of experimental work is being carried on with this flour, and a big market may be discovered for it, although regarding this development the plant manager does not say much.

"Hemp," he said, "has been exploited by people who do not know much about it, leading to disappointments, and I prefer not to make any great claims of the possibilities."

...[H]emp hurd is a new product, the plant manager said, "which will be going into a lot of new markets." It is in this proposed expansion into new fields that the promise of an outstanding new industry for Winona lies.

This new industry was poised to exploit the chemurgic potential of hemp as an agricultural substitute for petrochemicals, the quintessential chemurgy concept. But meanwhile, the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act was under challenge in the Supreme Court. A new program was being formulated and would be enacted in 1938 using soil conservation as the rationale for subsidizing set-aside crop land. As a part of the 1938 legislation, four regional laboratories were created with the expressed directive to find new uses for crops. But the crops specified were to be those with surpluses: corn, cotton, wheat, etc. The general chemurgic vision of support for agricultural inputs over imported petrochemicals was not fulfilled.

The pivotal year was 1937. DuPont patented nylon; Francis Garvan died suddenly in November104, and the Marijuana Tax Act was passed.

While the hemp industry began to take notice of the accusations regarding their livelihood, the USDA seemed unaware of any impending threat. The 1937 USDA Annual Report simply mentions that

Helpful information has aided the hemp industry in assisting farmers who have grown hemp during the past year and new companies in processing their hemp. Recommendations have been made to the Navy Department for specifications for American-grown hemp fiber with a view to improving the market for domestic hemp tow.105

But a 1936 FBN memo reveals that the "legitimate" uses for cannabis were viewed by the FBN as an obstacle to bringing cannabis within their hegemony:

The State Department has tentatively agreed to this proposition [regarding international treaties], but before action is taken we shall have to dispose of certain phases of legitimate traffic; for instance, the drug trade still has a small medical need for marihuana, but has agreed to eliminate it entirely. The only place it is used extensively is by the veterinarians, and we can satisfy them by importing their medical needs. We must also satisfy the canary bird seed trade, and the Sherwin Williams Paint Company, which uses hemp seed oil for drying purposes. We are now working with the Department of Commerce in finding substitutes for the legitimate trade, and after that is accomplished, the path will be cleared for the treaties and for federal law.106

The USDA was apparently not deeply concerned about hemp. After Lyster Dewey retired, A. C. Dillman ran the "Other Fibers" part of the Division of Cotton and Other Fibers. Oversight on hemp was provided by B. B. Robinson, who succeeded Dillman in 1946, when Dillman moved on to the Flax Development Committee of the Flax Institute. Robinson, a flax breeder, "selected several promising single-line strains of fiber flax, including his nos. 37, 47, 51, and 54, which have produced a high yield and excellent quality of fiber."107 Their concern in 1937 was "...what to do to get our farmers to grow more flax." The crop that year had been devastated by drought. At the annual meeting of the Flax Institute108 "A resolution was approved to inaugurate an aggressive campaign in an effort to get farmers to increase their flax acreage for the 1938 crop. Recognizing the terrific destruction of the 1937 flax crop caused by grasshoppers and crickets, a resolution was passed urging Congress to appropriate sufficient funds to exterminate or control these pests should they occur again in 1938."109

Hemp was not a sufficiently significant crop to occupy their attention. On average, Robinson would later explain, hemp acreage in the thirties had been less than 1500, mostly in Wisconsin. This was the traditional industry.

Representative Robert L. Doughton of North Carolina introduced the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937. Matt Rens of the Rens Hemp Company, Brandon, Wisconsin, went to Washington together with others from the industry, as well as members of the medical profession. He argued before a House subcommittee for provisions to protect the industries dependent on hemp. Andrew Wright was not called to testify before the committee. Neither was Lyster Dewey, retired. Nor B. B. Robinson. A Mr. Royal Johnson spoke for Chempco.

The existence of a legitimate hemp industry was not questioned by the proponents of the tax. Ultimately, provisions were made to allow the "conventional" hemp industry to continue functioning. Today, although it must be imported, it is still not illegal in most states to possess hemp fiber, or paper made with hemp, or birdseed containing dead hemp seed, or even the whole plant stalk. So long as there is no leaf, or viable seed.110 In 1937, nothing was actually known about the chemistry of psychoactive types of cannabis. Stories were told, later revealed to have been concocted, of marijuana-crazed "coloreds" raping and murdering.111

Regarding the fiber crop, FBN Director Harry Anslinger testified, "There is some resin that comes up through the plant but if he is a legitimate hemp producer he will cut it down before the resin makes its appearance."112

"Some resin" fails to represent the variance in psychoactive potential of different types of cannabis. Varietal difference was clearly recognized by those familiar with the crop. That fiber and herbal cannabis are distinct varieties was shown in a photograph in Dewey's 1913 USDA Yearbook chapter on hemp.113 Andrew Wright appeared to understand the varietal differences which he characterized in 1918: "There are three fairly distinct types of hemp: that grown for fiber, that for birdseed and oil, and that for drugs."114 Herbal and oilseed types are generally poor fiber producers.115 As with flax, attempts to use one type for the other purpose requires a compromise of quality. The flax community well understood this concept. In 1936, A. C. Dillman had explained, "Although fiber flax and seed flax-linseed-are quite distinct crops from the standpoint of agriculture and industry, from the standpoint of genetics they are simply of one species."116

Fiber hemp is sown thick with a grain drill, a bushel or more of seed to the acre. The plantings are dense and plants do not branch. Few weeds117 can compete with a crop of hemp. Planted densely, the stem of the plant remains small, smaller than a little finger. The fiber crop is cut before or at time of flowering.

Herbal genotypes, on the other hand, are planted with wide spacing so they branch profusely. Only the flowers are harvested. Due to elevated cannabidiol (CBD) levels, smoking a fiber variety produces a headache and would be a potent discouragement to youthful experimenters.118 The general populace recognizes this and it is usually treated as a joke. It is now known that CBD binds to the same brain receptors as THC, but lacks psychoactive effect. CBD is antagonistic to THC.

After 1937, all types of cannabis are labeled drug plants. By 1938, "Other Fibers" at the USDA is fully engaged in the cannabis-as-drug propaganda:

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 requires all growers, importers and processors of hemp to register and be licensed. As a result of growing public opposition to the cultivation of this drug plant [italics added], the continuation of hemp culture in the United States may depend upon eliminating as much as possible of the active drug principle from the plant. Preliminary tests indicate a possibility of ultimately obtaining a hemp variety with little or no active drug. Research on this problem is actively under way.119

This is the first instance in all of the USDA's reports on hemp that it has been called a "drug plant."

Again in 1939, we are told that

The future of the hemp industry in this country seems to depend largely on the development of strains or varieties of hemp free from marihuana. Coordination of biological, chemical, pharmaceutical, and psychopathic studies lend encouragement to the efforts to free hemp from this destructive drug.120

A year after the law was passed the Treasury Department finally invited the agriculturalists to share their concerns with the FBN drug experts and chemists. The Marihuana Conference121 was held on December 5, 1938. H. J. Anslinger presided. He opened the conference by warning the participants that "the press will be after us. The Treasury Department has not yet announced this meeting. The Department will do this subsequently." To the participants, Anslinger reported, "The Marihuana Tax Act went into effect a little over a year ago, and since that time we have destroyed some 16,000 acres of the plant throughout the various states; most of it in the Middle West."

Andrew Wright, still active with the Wisconsin hemp industry, was the first speaker. B. B. Robinson was second. He expressed regret that Lyster Dewey was not in attendance.

The words of Wright and Robinson, from the agricultural side, although bound by the propriety of the conference, at times carry a tone of acrimony and a hint of arguments in hallways:

Dr. Wright: One or two other items I want to take up before I'm through.
Commissioner Anslinger: Go right ahead.
Mr. Wright: You know I might not have another chance to say anything.
Commissioner Anslinger: You will be given a chance. Go right ahead, Dr. Wright.

There is the impression that Wright was upset by the effect the marijuana rumors were having on his life's work, but he would manage it professionally. He begins his remarks with an elliptic recognition of the distinction between hemp and marijuana: "...that while I am connected with the University of Wisconsin, so far as the hemp work is concerned, the hemp being Marihuana, I am working as an agent and in cooperation with the Bureau of Plant Industry here in Washington." And then, "I had better assume that you are about the agricultural side like I am about chemistry, that you do not know much about it." He proceeded to describe hemp farming. The hemp farmers of Wisconsin, concerned with government eradication programs, have, Wright explains, "managed to keep their mouths shut and have expressed no views concerning Marihuana in public, for we feel we are not in a position to do so and we would like to be sure of our ground before doing it." To get on sure ground,

We have been trying, in cooperation with the Bureau of Plant Industry, and Dr. Robinson and the Division of Pharmacy of the University of Wisconsin to begin a study of Cannabis in relation to hemp as a crop.122

Wright concludes with that shot fired over the federal bow. They intended to do their own research and get the facts.

This conference reveals great ignorance on the part of the chemist's working for the Treasury Department. The chemical assay for marijuana, the Beam test, gave very inconsistent results. Bioassays with dogs were similarly uncertain. The Treasury Department chemists admitted their situation:

Mr H. J. Wollner (consulting chemist, Treasury Dept.): The problem is not yet resolved. We are not yet in a position to know exactly what it is we are looking for, and, within four walls, I am perfectly frank to admit that all the chemists I have met, who are interested in this field, are at a complete loss when asked to prophesy the character of the narcotic principle which we are going to eventually disclose.
The situation is as bad in the chemical literature as it is in all of the other phases.
I should certainly be within reasonable bounds of correctness when I guess that ninety per cent of the stuff that has been written on the chemical end of Cannabis is absolutely wrong, and, of the other ten percent, at least two thirds of it is of no consequence.123

One point stands out: it was their operating belief that the resin was narcotic and they did not differentiate resins from different types of cannabis. The agriculturalists, as Wright commented, were unsure of their facts, since they were being told things by the government chemists which left them ambivalent. They were being told that their crop was marijuana. Wright even says, "From the time it is cut until it is retted, whatever leaves there are should be suitable for Marihuana." It seems safe to suggest that none of these men had any experience with smoking cannabis. No one was totally sure what the facts were. They were relying on the Beam test which we now know detected CBD, not THC.124

B. B. Robinson said "...from what I've been able to learn from others, hemp does not appear to constitute a narcotic problem in China. That is of a fibrous variety, and there is a great difference between that hemp and the hemp that came from India." (The Chinese, in fact, differentiate their fiber crop from the medicinal type which they employ in their pharmacopoeia, calling the later hu(foriegn)-ma.125) Robinson would have been aware that Kentucky Hemp was Chinese hemp.

As early as 1889, botanist and plant explorer George Watt had written of the distinction between types of Cannabis:

A few plants such as the potato, tomato, poppy and hemp seem to have the power of growing with equal luxuriance under almost any climatic condition, changing or modifying some important function as if to adapt themselves to the altered circumstance. As remarked, hemp is perhaps the most notable example of this; hence, it produces a valuable fibre in Europe, while showing little or no tendency to produce the narcotic principle which in Asia constitutes its chief value.126

The inflexible identification of marijuana with hemp created a self-fulfilling prophecy. At the conference, Anslinger alleges that "traffickers" were raiding the midwest hemp fields thus confirming his claim that marijuana was being produced in the midwest. He mentions vigilant farmers driving away suspicious people. Anslinger's position at this conference that the midwest is the source of marijuana moving in illicit markets contrasts sharply with statements he made to the US Senate during the Tax Act hearing. As Bonnie and Whitebread127 tell us: "In 1937, when Anslinger urged federal regulation of cannabis commerce, he told the U.S. Senate that only one instance had ever been noted of such diversion, from a hemp crop in Texas."

According to Wright, the attention given the crop was making life unpleasant for hemp farmers:

Wright: They [the Wisconsin hemp farmers] are not concerned about this last law [The Marihuana Tax Act] because I believe they were given a very square deal in the national legislation on the matter. What they are concerned about is the public position, that indefinite intangible thing, public feeling about growing hemp at all. They have already been subjected to some rather embarrassing situations.128

The emerging industry in Minnesota, which was developing non-traditional uses for hemp, is only glimpsed obliquely in comments from Wright and Robinson at this conference. The new possibilites are clearly regarded by these men as oddities.

Robinson: Another argument for the hemp industry is the adaptability of the hemp plant to various regions of the country and because of suitability for mechanical handling, and these are some of the reasons why the office with which I am connected in the Department of Agriculure is interested in seeing this small nucleus of hemp industry continued each year until it is capable of supporting itself. I am speaking more of the industry in Wisconsin rather than the promotional attempts to grow hemp in Minnesota which one might speak of as unorthodox processing. But this industry we have is capable at the present time of supporting itself if public opinion does not force it to be shut down, or additional restrictions hamper it.129

Another glimpse is given by Robinson in response to a question from one of the consulting chemists:

Dr. Blatt (Professor of Chemistry, Howard University): As I understand it the average production is about 500 tons a year. Is that 500 tons of fibre?
Dr. Robinson: Yes. This past summer, we had 1300 acres of hemp produced commercially in this country, and it has been running about that acreage with the exception that in 1934 and 1935 this acreage appeared in Minnesota, and in 1936 and 1937 we had a big acreage in Illinois, but those were acreages planted, you might say, for other purposes than the ordinary use, for there was an idea of producing fibre as a substitute for wool and various things of that nature. Those industries that attempted to do that, for one reason or another, have dropped by the wayside, and 1000 to 1500 acres is the normal hemp production each year in the United States.130 [italics added]

It is apparent that the agricultural bureaucracy had become conservative when it came to radical notions like chemurgy. Yet at this same time, the chemurgic prospects for hemp appeared so promising that Popular Mechanics claimed "American farmers are promised a new cash crop with an annual value of several hundred million dollars." And, they noted, "the connection of hemp as a crop and marijuana seems to be exaggerated."131

The conference reveals that it was this unconventional hemp production which was of particular interest to Anslinger:

Anslinger: The farmers up in Minnesota in some of the sections have been subjected to various promotion schemes. Due to the existence of stacks of the old 1934 and 1935 crop of harvested hemp in Southern Minnesota, which is a menace to society in that it has been used by traffickers, we have arrested a gang who took a truck load of this Marihuana into New York....
Wright: The plan of handling in Minnesota was unauthorized. In other words, it was contrary to the usual procedure... That was never used for textile purposes. It was not suitable for textiles purposes.132

Some of this material was still in the field, we are told. And according to the Treasury department's chemical assay, it was still "active." That is, this three-year-old Kentucky Hemp, which had been left in the field, was testing out as potent marijuana using their Beam test. Since the test detected CBD, this is not surprising, only misleading.

Anslinger wanted one other piece of information. After the discussion of the promotional hemp growing in Minnesota, he remarks, "I notice the term 'hurds' referred to."133 Wright explained to him what the hurds were. Their conversion into cellulose acetate for the plastics industry was not mentioned.

The cornerstone of the FBN assault on domestic cannabis was Anslinger's contention that "Most of the pharmaceutical houses before the enactment of Federal Marihuana legislation obtained their Cannabis supply from the Middle West. There is relatively little importation of Cannabis for medical purposes." To which Wright responded, "I have been informed by Doctors that they did get a considerable amount of their prepared processed material from Mexico. I was wondering if there was any processing plant in Mexico."

Then, Anslinger: "I did not know they imported it for medical uses from Mexico." 134

This supposed lack of awareness on Anslinger's part that marijuana was coming out of Mexico and not from the midwest hemp fields seems disingenuous for a man in his position. We might expect him at least to have seen the letter a former US marshall from Louisiana had written to President Hoover in 1931:

I beg to call your attention same time asking your kindly cooperation and assistance to suppress the use of a dirty and dangerous weed commonly known as Marihuana or Muggles. The weed is a product from (Mexico)..."135

Bonnie and Whitebread point out the contradiction in Anslinger's position:

One provision of the [Import And Export] act reveals a curious lapse of memory between 1937 and 1956 regarding the origins of marihuana. Congress finally got around to amending the Import and Export Act, creating a new offense of smuggling marihuana, and mere possession was made sufficient evidence to convict the possessor of knowingly receiving or concealing imported marihuana. This presumption was based on two suppositions--that marihuana traffic depended upon importation from Mexico and that possessors were likly to be aware of that fact... Commissioner Anslinger estimated that 90 percent of all marihuana in the country had been smuggled from Mexico.136

This fact had perhaps just caught up with Anslinger, although Bonnie and Whitebread suggest it was no longer true by 1956 and was a conclusion drawn on biased data. And, they point out, "The Commissioner's conclusion was inconsistent with an essential premise of the Tax Act and with other materials presented to Congress, all of which emphasized the large degree of domestic cultivation of marihuana."137

When one of the attendees at the 1938 conference remarked that importation records were kept by pharmaceutical companies and that the origin of pharmaceutical cannabis could be checked, Anslinger quickly moved the discussion past the issue.

Under the assumption that the locally grown cannabis was pharmaceutically active, some pharmacies reportedly did for a time obtain material from Kentucky and from a Mr. Young who grew it in South Carolina from seeds he got from Dewey. But we are also informed that one of the reasons for the decline in medicinal use of cannabis was variability in its effectiveness and the increasing belief that its reputed therapeutic capabilities were bogus.

It was not until 1940 that the active principle of cannabis was identified as a cannabinol. And THC was not characterized until 1963. One notable early study,138 lacking a direct chemical assay for the "active drug principle" employed a measurement based on the death of a particular species of fish when exposed to acetone extracts of hemp leaves. The study reported an eight fold variance for potency in samples of Kentucky Hemp only. The study failed to include medicinal cannabis varieties as controls. Other work139 purported to demonstrate that it would take a long time to effectively remove the drug principle from the hemp crop.

In Holland, where cannabis has been de-prioritized as a criminal matter, research on hemp has resumed. In 1991, Dutch hemp breeders released a hemp variety, "with virtually no narcotic potential."140 They said it was easy to select changes in THC141 concentration and that THC and fiber are under independent genetic control. "Fiber content and THC are not interrelated."142 Furthermore, they demonstrated that recognized fiber and herbal types clearly separate for percent THC (Figure 3).

Figure 3: THC content versus phloem fiber content. Vertical line separates populations selected for high fiber content from populations with natural fiber contents. Horizontal lines separates populations with pyschoactive potential from non-psychoactive types. Reproduced from de Meijer, et al., 1992.

Elsewhere in the world, fiber hemp varieties are recognized as such and are certified, as are many seeds farmers purchase.143 The European Community places an ultraconservative threshold at 0.3% THC (down from an original 0.8% due to pressure from France) to distinguish psychoactive from fiber types. DeMeijer, et al., place a threshold at 0.5%. These criteria, by focusing solely on THC, have the unfortunate effect of limiting germplasm options to those in which economic interests are already vested. Small, et al. showed that Cannabis accessions could be effectively grouped by the ratio of THC to CBD (cannabidiol, non-psychoactive). Fiber types tend to have ratios less than one (Figure 4).144

FIGURE 4: Type 1 (medicinal, psychoactive, herbal, drug) vs Type 2 (fiber) Cannabis accessions classified by ratio of THC to CBD and related to point of origin. Reproduced from Clark (1981).145

Recently, Dr. Avram Goldstein in his book, Addiction, has acknowledged that "The THC content of the leaves varies greatly; most wild cannabis is derived from plants originally grown for hemp fiber, which contains less than one percent THC."146 N. W. Simmonds, the British botanist and authority on crop evolution, states that "drug yield is low unless harvest is confined to the upper parts of female plants of special cultivars grown in hot climates, as is the case in the production of Ganja in India."147 DeMeijer, in Holland, grew hemp varieties from their collection in an agronomic setting to assay their use in papermaking. He reports:

Outdoor screening of 97 populations showed significant variation in the average content of the cannabinoid THC, which ranged from 0.06 to 1.77 in the female inflorescence leaf dry matter. For comparison, THC contents exceeding 10 are not uncommon in marijuana produced by seedless clones of superior [herbal] genotypes in greenhouses and growth chambers. Outdoors, in densely spaced crops, such contents will not occur, even in drug strains.148

The simple fact is that the fields of fiber hemp grown in Russia and China have at no time fed the stream of international drug trafficking. Nor are these hemp producing nations listed as sources of illicit marijuana. Had these fields such potential, would they have gone uninvaded all these years?

Cannabis researchers, Clarke and Pate put it succinctly:

It is not feasible to 'get high' on hemp, and most marijuana produces very little low-quality fiber. Hemp should never be confused with marijuana, as their roles cannot be reversed.149

Eventually, government research on cannabis in the US was isolated to a laboratory at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, "in localities where previously its culture was unknown, notably in extreme Southern States, which are large cotton producers,"150 recalling the previously quoted words of Charles Dodge from 1895. The brief intent to pursue the biochemistry of cannabis at Wisconsin and Kentucky was not continued. All work on the genus Cannabis from that time forth in the United States has served to ingrain into the public mind the notion that the fiber hemp crop is marijuana. The "Second World" never succumbed to this confusion of hemp varieties so hemp breeding and industry continued to advance there.151


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