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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 12th August 2012

I’ve written before about the uses of hemp fibre from Cannabis sativa, marijuana, and the problems that arise because of the paranoia inherent in current drug policy. I’m returning to the topic because I watched a segment from an Al Jazeera programme about Hempcrete, a building material made by mixing hemp fibre with lime and water.

The programme was very upbeat and made no mention of the problems with growing cannabis for its fibre that I wrote about in that earlier piece.

Cannabis sativa, marijuana

Cannabis sativa, marijuana

I really think that there will come a time when the merits of hemp for a variety of uses can be fully exploited without concerns about its psychoactive components. And you don’t have to look too far back in history to find a different attitude to the plant. I’m not for a moment claiming that this blog is historic but I did write about the use of hemp for clothing in April.

And, as well as the use of hemp to make canvas for painting that I wrote about in June, canvas was, of course, the material used to make the sails of the great sailing ships that drove the development of the world. Those same ships also used hemp ropes and that use produces another one of those ridiculous anecdotes about drugs that do so much to harm sensible policy towards the plants that produce psychoactive substances along with other products.

There are still people who will say that sailors on vessels with hemp ropes would chew the ropes in order to get high. This is one of those stories where a partial truth becomes a complete nonsense. Hemp ropes on sailing ships had one disadvantage; they were prone to fraying at the end. To prevent this, the ends of the ropes were dipped in tar. This tar was capable of being used as a form of chewing gum so sailors would chew off a piece of tar from the end of a rope.

Cannabis sativa, marijuana

Cannabis sativa, marijuana

There is another story about a use of hemp that is unverifiable but widely believed. This relates to the use of hemp fibre for paper-making.

Paper made from hemp fibre is of very high quality and especially durable. Magna Carta, in 1215, was written on hemp paper as was the American Constitution. The limitation on using hemp industrially was mostly a result of the very labour-intensive process for separating the fibre from the rest of the plant. But, in 1917, George Schlichten patented a machine for this operation that dramatically reduced costs and increased yields.

The story many people believe is that this opened the door to hemp becoming a successful competitor to timber-based paper even for uses like newspapers. William Randolph Hearst owned his own timber plantations producing the paper used for his newspapers and it is said that he used his newspapers to spread false propaganda about cannabis as well as using his influence (and ? his money) to get Henry J Anslinger, the first head of The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, to take strong action against marijuana. It is suggested that Anslinger was not, initially, that concerned about cannabis but he had an epiphany, perhaps, brought on by the public lies being told by Hearst or, perhaps, as a result of corruption.

Whatever the truth, the campaign against cannabis in any form led to its cultivation being outlawed throughout the USA and, though the law was amended during World War II when the Philippines were occupied by Japan and could not meet the USA’s needs for hemp, it was re-instated after the war and remains in force today.

So, if Hempcrete is truly the environmentally friendly building material of the future that its supporters suggest, the USA will have to miss out on those economic benefits or start applying some sense in its policy.

Mind you, the UK is not entirely sensible in the way it treats psychoactive plants. Growing Papaver somniferum, opium poppy, in the UK is not illegal. That is partly a recognition that the plant is too widespread to be capable of elimination but also a recognition that the varieties that grow naturally in this country produce only low levels of opium creating only a small chance of diversion to illicit uses.

The same is true for Cannabis sativa, but the regime applied to growing the low THC versions used for fibre production does not recognise this.

Doing some fact-checking for the above, I came across Hemphasis  a website offering a lot of information about hemp today and in the past. Well worth a visit.


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