Hemp. The problem of pleasure.



‘May 12–13: Sowed hemp at Muddy hole by swamp.

August 7: began to separate the male from the

female—rather too late.’

George Washington, diary 1765


Poor old hemp. The tragedy is that such a potentially useful plant to

humanity was sidelined by the clash of two events: an important

technological breakthrough which came at a dramatic turning point in the

efforts of a minor figure in American history to gain political advantage

by vilifying it. As Robert Deitch wrote in Hemp—American History

Revisited, man has ‘exploited [the cannabis plant] in virtually every way

for thousands of years’. As fuel, fibre, paper and food, Deitch writes, it

could ‘solve a number of environmental and economic problems we face

today’. But because one of its uses involves pleasure, it has been

sidelined by history.


Cannabis is a genus of flowering dioecious plants (meaning that an

individual plant is either male or female), the two most important of

which are Cannabis indica and C. sativa. It is an annual flowering plant

with distinctive serrated leaves that many a teenage gardener will

recognise instantly.


Cannabis is another of those plants whose origins are unclear. Both

Central Asia and Persia have been advanced, although some experts

maintain that it began life in north and north-eastern China and southeastern

Siberia, where it is the only fibre plant of any importance. Pieces

of hemp cloth were found on the inside of a jar in Gansui in north-eastern

China belonging to a Neolithic culture (2150–1780 BC). In Chinese,

hemp is known as ta-ma, great fibre. It eventually clothed the Chinese

people from head to foot, although the Chinese knew of its other

properties from the first century BC, and, much later, the Taoists used

cannabis as a hallucinogen with other ingredients in incense burners.

The plant grows wild in the hills and mountains of northern India, Asia,

Africa and even parts of Europe. In the fifth century BC, Herodotus wrote

that it grew in Thracia (Scythia) [MODERN DAY?], where it was thrown

on red-hot rocks and the fumes inhaled.


As an intoxicant, cannabis has been most widely used in India and the

Middle East. The Indian ancient text the Artharva-Veda mentions

cannabis as a herb that will ‘release us from anxiety’ and to the present

day, cannabis is used by Hindu devotees in India as a part of religious

ritual, and is the drug of choice in Egypt and North Africa.

But cannabis has many other useful applications. In the second century

AD, the Chinese surgeon Hua To developed an anaesthetic using

cannabis and wine, which he called ma yo, to perform painless

surgery.By the late tenth century, Venice had become the first European

country to industrialise hemp for the production of fine cloth for

garments, sails and rope. By the middle of the fourteenth century, Britain

was a major producer of hemp, and the rise of the British navy depended

to some extent on the their production of hemp cloth for sails and ropes.

In 1533, Henry VIII issued a law requiring British farmers to grow hemp;

indeed, there were penalties for not growing it. The colonisation of India

and America was seen as an opportunities to grow even more hemp; in

fact the British first went to India in order to plant hemp.

Hemp had a real advantage over cotton as a fibre: its strands were longer

and stronger. But in 1793, with the invention of the cotton gin by Eli

Whitney, cotton suddenly became much cheaper to process than hemp.

Cheap American cotton killed Britain’s hemp industry, and devastated

India’s economy. The switch to cotton began, and cotton has reigned ever



But the final death knell for hemp sounded in America in 1937. For seven

years, Harry J Anslinger, the director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics,

had demonised marijuana as the ‘killer weed’, a campaign that

culminated in the production of the cult classic film Reefer Madness.

Finally, after resisting his efforts for those seven years, US Treasury

passed the Marijuana Tax Act and President Roosevelt signed it, neither

knowing they were killing the hemp industry.


Before the Tax Act, hemp seeds and oil were used as lubricants and in

paints and varnishes – after the Act, they were replaced by

petrochemicals. And in that same year, 1937, Mechanical Engineering

magazine proclaimed hemp as a miracle crop, pronouncing it the

strongest of the vegetable fibres, giving the greatest production per acre,

requiring less attention and not only not needing the use of herbicides, but

acting as a herbicide itself. It is a crop, the magazine told its readers, that

leaves the soil in splendid condition. In the same year, Popular

Mechanics hailed hemp as ‘the billion dollar crop’, yielding three to six

tonnes an acre, and told its readers that paper could be produced from

hemp fibre without using sulphuric acid or dioxins, because the plant

could be broken down simply with caustic soda. Hemp paper could be

used everywhere that paper is used today, with much less cost to the



The reason for this praise being heaped upon hemp at the time was,

ironically, the beginning of the widespread use of a method for cleaning

hemp, the decorticator, which made it as cheap to produce as cotton.

The industrial use of hemp is slowly making a comeback. In 1995,

Canada began allowing the growing of hemp under license. For this kind

of hemp, plants grow to about 9 metres (30 feet) high, at which point

there is hardly any of the psychoactive component of cannabis

(tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC) present, and a maximum of fibre and

cellulose. We can only hope that there is a return to sanity in society’s

attitude to this plant, surely one of the most useful on the planet.


As for its psychotropic powers, let us end this story of cannabis with a

quotation from Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire:

‘Christianity and capitalism are both probably right to detest a plant

like cannabis. Both faiths bid us to set our sights on the future; both

reject the pleasures of the moment and the senses in favour of the

expectation of a fulfilment yet to come—whether by earning

salvation or by getting and spending. More even than most plant

drugs, cannabis, by immersing us in the present and offering

something like fulfilment here and now, short-circuits the

metaphysics of desire on which Christianity and capitalism (and so

much else in our civilization) depend.’