The Miracle Drug
The name of this botanical martyr? The Founding Fathers, who drafted the Declaration of Independence on paper made from the plant, knew it as hemp. You may know it by another of its many appellations: Indian hemp, true hemp, bhang, dagga, ganja, muggles, muta, grefa, tea, boo, goo, gauge, herb, weed, “the kind,” cannabis, reefer, buds, grass, pot – to wit, marijuana.
Beginning to get the picture? In his eminently civilized book, The Emperor Wears No Clothes, Jack Herer has exposed the “malicious conspiracy to suppress not a ‘killer weed,’ but the world’s premier renewable natural resource, for the benefit of a handful of wealthy and powerful individuals and corporations.” Herer is the founder of a group called HEMP (Help End Marijuana Prohibition). He sees the sixty-year war on pot as more than a pox on tokers: It’s a latter-day Inquisition, a pernicious reprise of the Dark Ages, and, not least, “a conspiracy against mankind.”
As do so many, this conspiracy began in smoke-filled board rooms – and you can bet the smoke wasn’t a mellow sinsemilla haze. The year was 1937, and with the advent of new mechanical fiber stripping technology, hemp was poised to make a grand comeback as the nation’s favorite, most versatile textile. But as Herer relates it, an unholy trinity of hemp enemies orchestrated the notorious prohibition of this “member of the most advanced plant family on Earth.”
First, a brief history lesson, necessary because the story of hemp has indeed been obscured by a half century of suppression: Before the invention of the cotton gin in the early 1800s, hemp products made from the fiber of the plant’s reedy stalk were everywhere in America – and the world. The word canvas comes to us from the Dutch pronunciation of the Greek kannabis. From the fifth century B.C. through the late nineteenth century, ships’ sails and rigging were made from hemp. For thousands of years, cannabis fibers had been the chief source of the world’s clothing, tents, carpets, rope, bedding, and flags – including Old Glory. As Herer helpfully reminds us, Washington and his troops would have frozen to death at Valley Forge were it not for their hemp threads. The Conestoga wagons that trekked across the American prairies were covered with cannabis canvas, and the settler’s Bibles were likely to have been printed on reefer paper. For thousands of years, hemp-seed oil did yeoman’s duty as lamp fuel and even food. And during the nineteenth century, patent medicines utilizing the plant’s more familiar chemical attributes were imbibed by God-fearing Americans of all stripes.
By the late 1930s, Popular Mechanics and other magazines were hailing technology that promised to make hemp, the strongest of the natural fibers, a “new billion-dollar crop.” But there were those who connived to bury hemp’s illustrious history under a mountain of slander, vilifying “marihuana” as the killer weed smoked by murderous Mexicans and insolent Negroes.
The first powerful player in the anti-hemp triad identified by Herer was William Randolph Hearst. The millionaire magnate deployed his sprawling Hearst newspaper chain in a hysterical crusade against marijuana.
The second, and most strident, figure in the plot to assassinate hemp was a corrupt hypermoralist named Harry J. Anslinger. Described in Albert Goldman’s book, Grass Roots, as “a bull-necked, bald-headed, slab shouldered cop” with “the demagogue’s flair for sloganlike phrases,” Anslinger was the spear carrier in the war on pot. His curde propaganda, laughable today, popularized spurious myths about pot in (Hearst) articles with headlines like MARIHUANA – ASSASSIN OF YOUTH and MARIHUANA MAKES FIENDS OF BOYS IN 30 DAYS: HASHEESH GOADS USERS TO BLOOK-LUST. Ax murderers, rampaging gunmen, and suicidal motorists were “depraved creatures” motivated by “reefer madness.” In one publicized speech, Anslinger warned, “if the hideous monster Frankenstein came face to face with the monster marihuana, he would drop dead of fright.” (Like many a morality cop, Anslinger was also a first-class hypocrite. He later admitted to illegally supplying morphine to the Red-baiting and drug-addicted Senator Jospeh McCarthy. During World War II Anslinger helped the OSS, forerunner to the CIA, in unsuccessful experiments with a hashish derivative they hoped to use as a truth serum on spies.)
Forming the third flank in Herer’s conspiracy theory was the powerful Du Pont corporation. All three had reasons for extinguishing the hapless weed.
Although most historians have explained the Anslinger-Hearst assault on pot as a product of the prohibition era, paranoia over creeping immortality, and old-fashioned Jim Crow racism, Herer has thrown an economic theory into the mix.
It seems that the Hearst Paper Manufacturing Division, with its sprawling timber acreage, was threatened by a new milling process devised by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to convert the woody stalks of hemp into reams of high-grade paper, cardboard, and fiberboard. Incidentally, the process produced fewer toxic chemicals than wood-pulp manufacturing and, according to the government, would save four acres of fragile forest for every acre of hemp cultivated. Concluded Herer: As far as Hearst and the wood-pulp-based paper industry were concerned, “Cannabis hemp would have to go.”
As for Du Pont’s motives, Herer postulates that hemp’s natural fibers imperiled that company’s mad dream of clothing the world in polyester.
In the campaign to assassinate hemp, Anslinger and the Hearst papers weren’t above race-baiting. The bull-necked narc often described marijuana users as “genger-colored niggers” with big lips, whose “satanic” music and demon weed drove white women “to seek sexual relations with Negroes.” He warned Congress that most of the reefer fiends were “Negroes and Mexicans,” or, worst of all, “entertainers.” Hearst articles depicted languid, pot-smoking Mexicans who could turn into homicidal lunatics at the snap of a fried synapse. According to Herer, Hearst hammered (and misspelled) the Mexican slang term marijuana into the public consciousness in a campaign designed to confuse folks who might otherwise discover that the demon weed and the historic fiber were one in the same.
Soon enough the fix was in. Anslinger’s Treasury Department bosses held closed-door meeting that yielded sneaky legislation to slap an exorbitant $100 tax on unregistered dealers selling hemp. (Anslinger, notes Herer, owed his job to his “uncle-in-law,” Andrew Mellon, owner of the nation’s sixth largest bank, who also happened to be…a Du Pont Banker.) Thanks to the influence of House Ways and Means Committee chairman Robert L. Doughton, a dyed-in-the-wool (make that poly-blend) Du Pont ally, the anti-marijuana law (posing as a tax law) breezed through Congress over the weak objections of hemp producers and the American Medical Association. Thus was born the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which effectively outlawed the drug – and the rest of the plant – in America.
And sure enough, shortly after the 1937 marijuana ban, Du Pont unveiled its “plastic fibers,” which came to dominate markets previously served by hempen goods. The following year, Du Pont patented Nylon and a new super-polluting wood-pulp process.
As if to rub Rayon in hemp users’ faces, in 1939 Lammot Du Pont boasted in Popular Mechanics of “conserving natural resources by developing synthetic products to supplement of wholly replace natural products” (emphasis added).
Maybe all of this is not exactly irrefutable proof, but as the Emperor Wears No Clothes points out, thanks to the governmental ban on cannabis, Du Pont continues to be the nation’s “largest producer of man-made fibers, while no citizen has legally harvested a single acre of textile-grade hemp in over fifty years.” Perhaps it’s the price of progress: The snuffing of a versatile, clean, renewable resource paved the way for the Du Pont dynasty, dioxin, timber clearcutting and, of course, the leisure suit.