New Internationalist

Factfile On… Hemp

Issue 325

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factfile on... Hemp

Can you smoke your (hemp) T-shirt?
Hemp is a distant cousin of the cannabis plant. But you can't smoke your T-shirt because hemp and marijuana or dope are biochemically different. The chemical in marijuana that affects the nervous system is known as THC. Hemp has low levels of THC compared to marijuana. If you tried to smoke your T-shirt you would end up with carbon-monoxide poisoning!

The 25,000 uses of hemp
[image, unknown] Hemp's real name is Cannabis sativa which means 'useful hemp'. And useful it is: it is said to have 25,000 different applications. Products made from hemp include jeans (the first pair of Levis were made of hemp) and T-shirts, ropes and canvas, skin products, paints, printing inks, building materials, paper (including banknotes) and even food such as oil, burgers and flapjacks. Hemp can also be formed into fuels and plastics and be used as medicine. And in France, houses are being built of hemp, which is mixed with cement to make a sort of insulated concrete.

Going to pot
Nick Robinson / Panos Pictures Hemp can be grown in 29 countries - but not Australia or the US.

In the US it's legal to sell hemp-related products, but it is still illegal to grow it.

In the UK it is illegal without a licence from the Home Office.

In Canada hemp was prohibited from 1937 until March 1998 when new federal legislation legalized the growing of hemp for commercial purposes.

In France, Body Shop hemp products were confiscated and staff members arrested because police believed they were promoting the use of drugs. The Body Shop Bermuda also lost its hemp products to a police raid.

In Japan the first hemp restaurant has just opened.

Customs officials in the US seized hemp oil, horse bedding, animal feed and granola bars containing hemp seed.

Hemp's history
Hemp has been grown in China for more than 6,000 years. Its cultivation spread to Asia around 1000 BC and to Europe around 800 BC. Here it became an important crop: sailing ships were dependent on canvas (from cannabis), hemp rope and oakum which were three times stronger than cotton and resistant to salt water.

Legend tells us that the Buddha survived for six years by eating one hemp seed a day.

[image, unknown] From 1000 BC to 1883 AD, the hemp plant was the largest agricultural crop in the world. Henry VIII passed an Act of Parliament compelling all landowners to sow a quarter of an acre or be fined.

Until the 1920s 80 per cent of clothing was made from hemp textiles. But this was undermined by cotton and then by the new petroleum-based textiles.

Cannabis was one of three top drugs prescribed during Queen Victoria's reign.

During the Second World War American farmers were encouraged to grow hemp for military use (webbing, canvas and so on). The programme was called 'Hemp for Victory'.

After the war licences were revoked and by 1971 cannabis had been caught up in drug politics and cannabis and hemp were classed as restricted plants under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

How hemp can change the world
Hemp can be grown with little or no chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides.

Nothing is wasted: you can eat the seeds or crush them to make oil; the flowers can also be used and the stalk is where the fibre comes from. Hemp also replenishes the soil.

As a medicine it can be a pain reliever and is used to treat glaucoma, migraine and high blood pressure. The US Drug Enforcement Administration acknowledged in 1988 that it was 'one of the safest therapeutic substances.'1

Hemp fibre is very strong and can withstand temperatures of 600ºC.

Hemp seeds are nearly 25-per-cent protein.

Since 1938 almost half the forests in the world have been cut down to make paper. Making hemp paper would slow down the destruction of the forests.

Money maker: Canadian hemp farmers make $80 a hectare while American grain farmers make $8.

Hemp hurdles
The amount of hemp grown decreased dramatically after it was outlawed in 1937 as a result of its association with marijuana. Today, although overall statistics are difficult to find, demand for hemp products worldwide increased 233 per cent between 1996 and 1998.

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1. The Independent 13 May 2000.

The Body Shop:
Hemp Times:

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  1. #1 PJ 07 Aug 12

    I have to do a fact file about Hemp for my college degree! But I still don''t know what color it is :(

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This article was originally published in issue 325

New Internationalist Magazine issue 325
Issue 325

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