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The case for hemp

The federal government should grant a waiver to Native nations which seek to legalize the production of industrial hemp.

The August raid on the Pine Ridge hemp crop on the White Plume Tiospaye land, illustrates a shameful era in the Drug Enforcement Agency. Over the long term, the DEA's policies and actions set back the economic, environmental, and public health needs of not only Native America, but also the broader American community. Many Native nations, including the Oglala Lakota, Navajo, and Saginaw Chippewa, to name a few, have expressed an interest in industrial hemp production.

Natives are not the only ones interested in the benefits of industrial hemp. More than a dozen state legislatures are discussing industrial hemp production. Now would be the time for the Bush administration to move forward in supporting what will be the crop of the future.

Consider the irony of this situation. Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota has been deemed by statisticians as the economically poorest area in the United States. The average median income on the reservation is $2,600 per year, one fifth the national average. The unemployment rate is at 84 percent, and some 69 percent of all residents are below the poverty line. Hundreds of tribal members are homeless, and most live in overcrowded and substandard housing. Jobs are far away. Many residents have to travel l20 miles round trip to work in Rapid City, and even then most jobs are minimum wage.

Now consider the alternatives. Native America could cash in on the $l00 million plus, hemp food industry. Add that to the 2 million pounds of hemp fiber imported in l999, not including a pretty substantial market for already produced hemp clothing (imported from countries like China, Hungary, Poland and Romania).

Then, there is the growing interest in hemp both as a fiber source for paper and a possible source for building materials. Hemp can be transformed into everything from insulation to something like the 'hempcrete' building constructed at Slim Buttes on Pine Ridge.

In a letter to U.S. Attorney for South Dakota Michelle Tapken, Oglala Tribal President John Yellowbird Steele, reiterated the irony of the situation. 'The Controlled Substance Act of l970 did not divest the Lakota people of our reserved right to plant and harvest whatever crops we deem beneficial to our reservation, nor did the Act abrogate Congress' ratification of the reserved rights ? Therefore, we regard the enforcement of our hemp ordinance and prosecution of our marijuana laws tribal matters to be handled by our Oglala Sioux Tribal Public Safety Law Enforcement.'

'? We ask for your government's compassion as we try to ease the pain of our poverty through hemp manufacturing ? World War II, your government signed contracts with members of the Pine Ridge Reservation to grow industrial hemp for your war effort. In other words, when your government needed the benefits of growing hemp to aid your war effort, and encouraged its growth on the reservation, we supported your government by doing so. Now my nation needs to grow industrial hemp to aid our efforts at becoming more self- sufficient. We would appreciate your support in our endeavors?.'

This is not a new crop. For at least l2,000 years, hemp has been grown for fiber and food. Many of the U.S. founding fathers grew hemp, including both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Benjamin Franklin owned a mill that made hemp paper, and Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper.

Although industrial hemp is taxonomically classified under the same name as marijuana, Cannabis Sativa, industrial hemp has less than l percent THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. As it turns out, however, you wouldn't want to smoke industrial hemp. It would take about a bale to get you high, and then you'd pass out anyway. Industrial hemp is to marijuana what non-alcoholic beer is to beer. They are related, but that is about it.

Hemp's versatility and the fact that almost the entire plant can be used has made it a thriving crop throughout the world. Hemp seeds are the richest known source of polyunsaturated essential fatty acids and are high in some essential amino acids, including gamma linoleic acid (a very rare nutrient also found in mother's milk).

Hemp fiber is considered useful for many products, ranging from car parts to rope to alternatives to gasoline. The energy production potential itself should excite the combustion happy Bush administration.

Even the forest products industry sees hemp as an excellent option for the future. Kimberly Clark has a mill in France that produces hemp paper, where it is preferred for Bibles, both based on its longevity, and on its ability to retain its whiteness. The crop also has environmental benefits with regards to paper production. Hemp has a low lignin content, allowing it to be pulped using fewer chemicals, especially chlorine bleach, a leading cause of dioxin contamination in the environment.

One large paper company with a Fox River, Wis., mill suggested that if hemp could be grown in Wisconsin, they would use it for up to 45 percent of their feedstock at the mill within five years. Another huge paper company plans to move up to 90 percent of its world feedstock to non-forest sources within 10 years, and sees hemp as a major component of that plan. The reality is if the company can't grow hemp in the United States, it will grow it elsewhere.

U.S. Department of Agriculture projections soft peddle the market for hemp and its viability. The department suggests it is, 'a small, thin market' and that a few large farms could produce the amount of annually imported hemp fiber. The USDA, however, does note that hemp production, in eastern North Dakota, for instance, would yield (according to l998 estimates) around $74 on the average per acre in net returns, compared to an average of $38 for corn or 86 cents an acre for sunflowers.

USDA estimates of hemp's viability fail to consider the growing worldwide demands for alternatives to wood fiber, in everything from the paper industries to building industries. And indeed, there are industrial hemp supporters inside the USDA. Jeff Gain, chairman of the board of USDA's Alternative Agricultural Research and Commercialization Corp., says, 'We must have diversity, and crops like hemp that grow without pesticides.'

Other organizations are optimistic and hopeful. The Institute for Local Self Reliance reported that l999 hemp yields averaged 800 pounds per acre (roughly four times as much fiber as wood per acre), and had gross earnings of $308 to $4l0 per acre compared to $l03 to $137 per acre for wheat and canola.

It is perhaps those figures which have driven a multitude of interests to seek alternatives. March 23, 200l, marked the third anniversary of a petition signed by more than 200 organizations asking the Drug Enforcement Agency to decriminalize industrial hemp production in the United States.

Decriminalizing industrial hemp is the way of the future. The sovereign status of Native nations raises questions about the application of DEA regulations in the face of tribal ordinances. The need for alternative economies in Indian country supports the need for change.

As DEA officials chopped away at the White Plume hemp crop, Alex White Plume, ' ?told the plants to be brave and strong and come back again next year.' Let us hope they do.