Image of an industrial hemp facility
Industrial hemp somehow survived America’s narcotic age. Despite today’s uncertain politics and incomplete laws, it’s poised to become a major agricultural and industrial force. The manufacturing infrastructure is being built. Its penny stocks reflect hope, conviction and volatility. Research and development is under way, especially in construction materials and cannabidiol (CBD)-based medicines.
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Oddly, however, hemp has been at a similar juncture before.
 
In the 1930s, hemp promised to change America. It had survived severe competition from cheaper fibers like jute, flax, sisal, abaca and vast quantities of imported Russian hemp. Technology had advanced and scientists had discovered that, besides rope, fabric and paper, hemp could be used in plastics, foods, fuel, dynamite — thousands of different uses from all parts of the plant: stalks for fiber; seeds for oil, hulls and mash; and high-cellulose hurds, the broken-up bits of the stem’s core, for making building materials and plastics. Henry Ford created a car whose body was processed from hemp; it ran on hemp ethanol. And hemp was sustainable, unlike America’s already vanishing forestland.
 
With a sort of nouveau Industrial Revolution at hand in the midst of the Great Depression, hemp was reintroduced with fanfare to the beleaguered American public by Popular Mechanics magazine, which had found in Cannabis sativa linneaus America’s industrial salvation: farm jobs, manufacturing employment, raw resources, innovation and independence from imports.
 
In February 1938, the magazine dramatically predicted that hemp would become America’s “New Billion-Dollar Crop,” a forecast linchpinned to a new version of the decordicator, a machine that separates fiber from the rest of the plant. Hemp, said Editor Henry Haven Windsor Jr., could produce four times the amount of paper pulp per acre as a forest, and it could be done every year as opposed to every 20.
 
Yet, just as hemp seemed to reach its place in industry, a long-brewing fear rose from the shadows of urban America, and, caught in the glare of its flashier, frightening twin, marijuana, and the wake of Prohibition evangelism, hemp became a victim of an ascendant narcotic age. Its future vanished before it could arrive.
 
Today, however, the tenor has changed. Generations have come and gone, and hemp is no longer seen as a narcotic. Its new beginning may seem like deja vu, but it’s not history repeating itself.
Tobacco-free hemp
 
Today, hemp returns not to its point of exile when it was essentially banned from America by the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, but to a point far earlier: There is no economic infrastructure. There are no trade routes. There are no seed stocks, just feral hemp growing here and there, “ditchweed” left from World War II’s “Hemp for Victory” campaign, or from America’s more distant hemp past, which saw more than 400,000 acres under cultivation in the 1800s (before the Civil War, Kentucky alone had 160 hemp factories and employed several thousand workers).
 
And, there have been no decordicators, the powerful (and hugely expensive) fiber-processing machines until a peculiar series of events last year.
 
This revival tale begins in the 1990s, when the truth about tobacco’s health impacts became known after decades of concealment by the industry. A lawsuit by the attorneys general of 46 states culminated in the landmark 1998 Master Settlement Agreement hugely affecting the tobacco giants: A payback was in order — a $200 billion fine, a medical fund and major hits to marketing strategies. Demand dropped and farmers suffered. Part of the settlement was to establish another crop for tobacco farmers. Hemp, of course, was illegal.
 
The agricultural replacement was kenaf, a stalky plant in the hibiscus genus known for producing coarse fiber much like jute. As part of the agreement, Raleigh-headquartered Alliance One, a major global tobacco player, bought a German-made decordicator to process thousands of new acres of kenaf in North Carolina. The crop also was established in foreign tobacco grounds of U.S. corporations, including Malaysia.
 
According to David Schmitt, who worked on the machine and is now Hemp Inc.’s chief operating officer, it took the German maker, Tamafa, a year to build the $15 million machine system, a year to install it in North Carolina for Alliance, and a year to debug it because it was originally engineered for hemp, not kenaf.
 
It was mothballed after five years, Schmitt said. “They made premium horse bedding … and fulfilled the penalty requirement. Then they walked off.”
 
Hemp Inc.’s Bruce and Craig Perlowin of Florida bought the decordicator last year “for a song.” This family enterprise, with its made-in-America emphasis, also involved another brother, Jed; a sister, Karen Hammett; and Bruce Perlowin’s two sons. With two semi-trucks that were part of the deal, they’re in the process of moving the machine to Springfield, N.C., about 30 miles from Raleigh.
 
Along for the ride will be 15 million pounds of baled kenaf, also part of the deal and which they’ll mill during their first year of operation as they await a hemp crop after this year’s growing season. Much of the kenaf will be powdered for a slurry mix used in oil drilling. The third Perlowin brother, Jed, is spearheading a hemp-farming business and organizing other farmers to supply the decordicator, which will be retooled for hemp.
 
“We’ll be up and running by March,” said CEO Bruce Perlowin. In phases, he said, the company will be processing tow (short fiber used for cellulose fill) and longer fiber used for textiles, hempcrete (a building material that includes lime), cellulose-rich hurds from the woody core for plastics such as car parts, CDB extracts (medicines that use the “other” cannabinoid, which counteracts the psychotropic THC in marijuana), and other products.
 
“Research,” Perlowin said, “has been so suppressed, it’s just amazing what we can come up with now. Bulletproof vests, graphite alternatives,” and numerous medicines and dietary supplements.
 
The company will soon operate the only decordicator in the United States. There are five such high-capacity machines in the world: two in South Africa and two in France. Canada, Schmitt said, has several decordicators, though they’re smaller.
Much of Hemp Inc.’s grist will come from North Carolina and Kentucky, the latter of which is trying to legally re-establish a hemp industry that dates to 1775 and which rose to prominence by the Civil War. The state is at the forefront of today’s hemp movement. Its pilot programs result from what Hemp Industries Association attorney Patrick Goggin attributed to “everything lining up,” with Kentucky Sens. Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell, state agriculture Commissioner James Comer and the state university system all working in tandem.
 
California’s hemp future
 
Political coordination was key to getting Kentucky’s six major pilot programs running last year, and mutinous chutzpah has been Colorado’s driving force. (Colorado farmers, so enthusiastic to start cultivating hemp, planned 1,800 acres last year — illegally, because they couldn’t get legal seeds.) The Golden State, however, has neither coordination nor chutzpah. It is not on the cutting edge of hemp’s golden dawn.
 
That’s no fault of state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and Gov. Jerry Brown. Brown signed Leno’s bill, SB566, in 2013. They faced an uphill battle and capped a 15-year legislative effort, potentially ending a hemp drought in the state.
 
Leno, whose interest in hemp as a viable California crop and industry dates to his time as a San Francisco supervisor, has watched the state’s hemp bill fall victim to five vetoes — four from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. As sponsor of the last two bills, he suggested the politics were, at times, “frustrating.”
 
Twelve years of legislative efforts for what? “Hemp is a plant that has never been a drug,” Leno said. “You can legally make thousands of products, from paper to fuel to foods, and it’s renewable every 90 days. It takes no fungicides or pesticides and less water than growing corn. … The politics have been irrational.”
 
The cultural tenor changed drastically between the last veto, in 2011, and Brown’s approval of the measure two years later. It is perhaps best exemplified by letters to the Legislature from law enforcement agencies. A 2011 memo to Leno from the California Police Chiefs Association cites many of the criticisms of the drug czar-sponsored USDA report of 2000 (see Part I), and echoes ominously that, “To begin with, hemp is illegal in the United States,” and has “no real economic viability.” The association urged Leno — and not gently — to vote against his own bill, SB676.
 
Yet by 2013, the California State Sheriffs’ Association, in a letter to Leno and state Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Modesto, was “pleased to support SB566,” a redux of the the earlier bill that revised the definition of hemp, allowing county law enforcement statewide to “concentrate on marijuana eradication efforts while allowing for lawful cultivation of industrial hemp.”
 
Bureaucratic progress in California, Leno said, has been “less than inspiring.” However, the senator is holding initial stakeholder meetings this month in Sacramento, involving academic and administrative representatives from CSU and UC, the state Department of Food and Agriculture, and farmers. He remains as optimistic about hemp in California as he has been for more than a decade.
 
Alta California
 
Despite the rough reintroduction of industrial hemp in California, the herb has a history here. The need to equip Spain’s 18th century Pacific armada focused on its colony, Alta, or Upper, California, and the crown called upon California’s missions to grow hemp. Mission San Jose, the second of the missions, became the center of experimentation in 1796, but the yield was so meager the crown began subsidizing the crop.
 
A change of venue resulted, and hemp growing was moved south to La Purisima, Santa Inez and San Luis Obispo missions. Hemp flourished in California: 1,800 pounds were produced in 1805, increasing exponentially to 220,000 pounds by 1810.
Unfortunately for hemp, unrest in Europe fomented Mexico’s drive for independence, and Alta California’s governor cut back production, allowing only enough for domestic use, not Spain’s. California hemp faded into a vestigial crop of about 5,000 acres by 1920, grown largely in the San Joaquin Delta region. Only four states were producing at that time: Kentucky, which supplied almost all U.S. seed; Wisconsin, California and North Dakota.
 
Politics and hemp’s future
 
Hemp faced other curtain calls in its peculiar American history: the 1937 taxation ban; the 1957 closure of the last American hemp mill; the 1946 end to the brief Hemp for Victory campaign; and the final curtain in 1970 with the Controlled Substances Act.
 
But there’s a game-changer in hemp’s future: S134, which would define hemp — for all purposes, pilot program or not — as cannabis with 0.3 percent THC or less, dry weight, separating it from the other cannabis, marijuana. Marijuana would remain on the Controlled Substances Act list, while industrial hemp would be removed.
 
It’s still an uphill fight. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is the 114th Congress’ reincarnation of bills dating back a decade. The most recent was last year, as S359, also sponsored by Wyden.
 
Hemp legalization was originally sponsored in the House by Ron Paul, R-Texas, (father of Kentucky’s Rand Paul) in 2005. The senior Paul resubmitted its next incarnation in 2007, again in 2009, and yet again in 2011. It never made it out of committee. The most recent House bill, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2014, HR525, was sponsored by Tom Massie, a Kentucky Republican, last year. He will reintroduce it this week for the current Congress.
 
His co-sponsors are likely to be the same this year as last: 33 Democrats and 17 Republicans. Twelve of the co-sponsors were from California: nine Democrats, including Bay Area Reps. Barbara Lee, Mike Honda and Zoe Lofgren; and three Republicans, including Reps. John Campbell, Tom McClintock and Dana Rohrbacher.
 
S134 has three co-sponsors: Republican Sens. Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Democrat Jeff Merkley of Oregon. It was assigned last week to the Judiciary Committee.
 
There are no California senators on board. We should ask: Why not?
 
When tall shipsruled the seas
 
Though resistant to the seafarer’s enemies — mold and rot — even hemp could withstand only a far-flung voyage or two: The fiber, a cellulose polymer (as opposed to protein polymer fibers like wool and silk) isn’t indestructible. And, like other cellulose fibers (cotton or linen), it has a hard time in alkaline soils. So finding the ancient remains of hemp in the human culture isn’t an easy task.
 
Hemp needs a very dry environment to survive the ages, like the ancient Inca or Mochica cotton artifacts discovered in the Andes, or like the linen mummy wrappings of lower Egypt’s early dynastic period. But such was the case with the earliest known scrap of hemp cloth, found in Catalhoyuk in south-central Turkey, an ancient city dating to the Neolithic age. There, in the rubble of a burned out house, scientists unearthed a shred of woven hemp fabric enwrapping the skeletal remains of a child, most likely preserved by the fire’s elimination of moisture before burial. The date was about 7000 B.C., nearly as long ago as the oldest discovery of hemp’s service to man: the decorative pressing of twined hemp cord into the side of clay vessels about 8000 B.C. in Taiwan.
 
Hemp’s twin, marijuana, also has a very old relationship with humankind. The earliest discovery of marijuana was in the grave of a Caucasian shaman of the Gushi culture in the Yanghai Tombs in the Uighur autonomous region of China, at China’s central north point between Kazakhstan and Mongolia. Nearly 2 pounds of leaf were found in a wooden bowl. Dating to 700 B.C., chemical tests have shown it to be the oldest example of psychoactive (high THC) cannabis ever found. Its use is presumed to be medicinal or religious.
 
Hemp production
 
Getting the fiber has always been a challenge. The fibers are naturally glued along the core of the Cannabis sativa plant and sheathed by a thin bark. Retting is the historic process of separating the fibers by rotting away the glue through bacterial action. To do this, the harvested stems, which have a hollow center surrounded by pith, or hurds, are traditionally left in the field where moisture breaks down the bonds over a period of weeks or months. The cut plants are turned several times to keep the retting balanced, resulting in intensive labor that was supplied in early America by slaves. Retting is touchy, and decomposition has to be stopped when complete or the quality of the fiber suffers. The best fiber is produced by water retting, or standing the stems in a pond or blocked-off part of a river so the water can wash away the biowaste. This was done in medieval Europe, but field retting was more common.
 
The stems are then dried and taken to machines, however primitive, to be smashed in a process called braking. This is also done for flax in the production of linen. To be cost-effective, the processing machines of the 20th century required a big haul of stems, and the resulting regionalized basis of production has historically limited farming. (So has raising more economically competitive crops like corn.)
 
The decordicator, a machine that smashes the stems, was invented in 1860 in Italy, and by 1916 America had models in use. There may have been hundreds in use by the dawn of hemp’s narcotic age in the 1930s. But it wasn’t until 1937 that a recent machine was seen as a revolution — so staggeringly important a step that Popular Mechanics magazine, in the midst of the Great Depression and an antimarijuana frenzy, predicted a billion-dollar business future for hemp. Of course, the revolution never began.
 
Hemp Inc. of North Carolina has the only decordicator in the United States. It will soon be operational, and will still require the hemp stalks to be field retted.
 
Hemp for Victory
 
Hemp served nearly 80 years for its purported narcotic crimes, with only one interruption. Though the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 killed all but a very few processing plants, a four-year program beginning in 1942 produced an emergency supply of fiber for the war effort. But “Hemp for Victory,” spearheaded by the Department of Agriculture, was plagued by farmer disinterest and leadership politics, machine breakdowns, lack of planting equipment, lack of cultivated acres and odor from the retting process. More, the growing cycle didn’t fit well with established crops, and farmers could make more money growing corn, which requires the same kind of land and weather as hemp. Profit was crucial but so marginal that a $1 tax per hemp grower per year, levied by the Federal Narcotics Bureau, was a deterrent despite America’s patriotic furor. Labor was such an issue that at the Polo, Ill., project, German prisoners of war tended the crop.
 
The war project ended with a renewed prohibition against hemp, vacated factory land, and shuttered mills like the pilot mill in Polo, which cost an impressive $350,000 in 1943. Nevertheless, the U.S. produced between 42,000 and 75,000 tons of fiber annually from 1943 through 1946, from 42 mills in six states and 163,000 cultivated acres.
 
By Brooks Mencher ~ January 17, 2015 ~ SF Gate
 
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