I’m writing these words ten minutes after President Obama has legalized hemp. (If you’re not yet among the throngs pausing for collective pinching of self and recitation of, “God Bless America,” you will be, pretty soon.) He did this by signing the 2014 Farm Bill, which included a tucked-in bi-partisan amendment that allows university research of the crop.
I’m happy for real world reasons that go far beyond the fact that the President of the United States, together with the U.S. Congress, is now, albeit inadvertently, part of the marketing team for my new book. They in fact made the dream expressed in its first paragraph one big step closer to reality.
It goes, “my plan the day hemp becomes legal is to begin cultivating ten acres of the plant so that my Sweetheart no longer has to import from China the material she already uses to make the shirts I wear in media interviews to discuss the fairly massive economic value of hemp. In a cynical age, we can use one less irony.”
Imagine the government doing something that affects your life, at all, let alone positively and significantly. Hearing my three-year-old son belting out Herbie Hancock’s Chameleon on the kazoo outside my office reminds me that soon the four grand my family already spends on hemp products every year – including the seed oil in our morning shake – is going to be locally sourced. It’s not an exaggeration to say that in humanity’s eight thousand year relationship with the hemp plant, this past year has been the most impactful one since the first Paleolithic hunter with blistered feet noticed that hemp’s fibers made a stronger sandal than the leading brand.
The American re-embracing of its once most lucrative and important crop was indeed a move for the good of American farming, industry, and tax base. This I found when I saw the Canadian farmer and processor profit margin on its hemp harvest. It’s ten times that of wheat. We’ll have federal Hemp Appreciation long weekends in February or October some day. But when you take the long-term view, today qualifies as a mark-the-calendar day in human history, not just American history. That’s because our energy future just got a lot brighter and cleaner.
Hemp’s return is a bit overdue. Just for the record, here’s the timeline: hemp legal: twelve thousand years. Hemp illegal: seventy-seven. Just last week, a Stanford-led team discovered well-preserved hemp clothes at a nine thousand-year-old village site in Turkey. A nice ensemble, in fact, ranging from infant size to big-and-tall.
In fact, the publicity folks at my publisher have asked me to provide them a timeline more specific than “humans have widely used hemp for the past twelve millennia except, essentially because of a typo, for the past three quarters of a century.” So for those who like to see things itemized:
—10,000 BCE: Hemp in wide use for clothing, food and medicine. It is a “camp follower,” a seed that people take with them as they move. Hemp clothing found in good condition by Stanford-led team in 9,000-year-old Turkish village last week.
—Year Zero: Chinese pharmacopeia describes multiple cannabis-based remedies. Persians call hemp Shaah-daaneh, or “King of Seeds.”
—14th Through 20th Centuries: Hemp provides rigging and caulking for European Age of Exploration.
—1776: Thomas Jefferson drafts Declaration of Independence on hemp paper.
—1820s: U.S. government sponsors contests to produce domestic hemp that rivals expensive imports.
—19th Century: American West settled via wagons covered with hemp canvas.
—1850s-1930s: Kentucky hemp germplasm considered the world’s finest. Hemp industry employs thousands of farmers and processors in a dozen states. U.S. dominates world industry.
—1937: Hemp banned in the Marihuana Stamp Act.
—1942: Hemp For Victory propaganda film: Prohibition gets off to a poor start. Hemp re-legalized because Japanese have captured Filipino hemp sources (note that the drug war is already pushing industry offshore).
—1952: My grandmother moves to Hempstead, NY
—1994: In an executive order, President Bill Clinton includes hemp among “the essential agricultural products that should be stocked for defense preparedness purposes.”
—1996: Canada re-legalizes hemp.
—2002: BMW begins using hemp fiber in door panels, and still does.
—February 7, 2014:President Obama re-legalizes hemp by signing the 2014 Farm Bill. Canada’s fifteen-year-old market worth a billion dollars annually.
In the big scheme of things, it was a short, head-scratching separation between humans and their longest-utilized plant. But hemp’s reemergence comes at a time when we (I mean as a species) have some catching up to do.
My day job of the past several years (investigating the role of the cannabis plant in humanity’s economic and climate mitigation arsenal) has, due to irrefutable evidence, convinced me that it’s essential to bring one of our most useful plants back into the economy: I don’t think of hemp as having been “legalized” so much as “returning to its normal status.”
And yet two years ago a hemp legalization bill would have been (actually was) laughed out of Congress. In Hemp Bound’s fourth sentence, I call the plant’s abrupt jolt back into society’s toolbox an “astonishing no-brainer.” I mean, what crop is a Cheech joke one year and a major agricultural industry sector the next? Hemp agronomy is being taught today at Oregon State. In Hemp Bound I set out to explain why the plant has returned in such a big way and why it matters.
The short answer, according to more than one of the hemp agronomists I interviewed for the book, is that we can’t afford not to re-learn the ways to maximize this plant’s harvest, and quickly. Here’s one real-world example that, for an environmental journalist who has become convinced that petroleum is on its way out, was perhaps the most mind-blowing of the dozens of in-the-market hemp apps I’ve encountered in my research.
On a bright, subzero morning in Manitoba last year, I found myself sliding into a Canadian research facility and being shown a tractor body made entirely from hemp — hemp that was grown and cultivated just a few miles away. This is about as closed loop as it gets: powered by hemp, built from hemp (including the sealant that holds the contemporary curved hood design together), and doing the work to harvest the hemp and start the cycle all over again. I rapped my knuckles on said hood. I kicked it. Solid.
“Why hemp?” I asked research team leader Simon Potter of Manitoba’s Composites Innovation Centre. In Canada, hemp is a billion-dollar industry and is seeing growth of twenty percent per year.
“Because it’s stronger, cheaper and much less energy demanding than petroleum based plastics,” he said. “These are the industrial components of the future. We have no choice. Petroleum is done.”
But a digital age machine made out of a plant? “We’re past the experimental and into implementation with this,” Potter said. “You’ll be able to buy this product.” In exchange for a small franchising residual, I offered a model name of The Hemp Reaper, or my own online handle, OrganicCowboy.
This, and a lot of other very cool stuff, is what I researched for Hemp Bound. Here’s a short film about some more of the apps and players you’ll meet in the book.
At times when encountering this everywhere plant popping up like a jack-in-the-box in surprising industries during my four continent exploration, I felt like James Bond (hemp insulation, hemp body armor) and at times like the first human figuring out clothes (that hemp wardrobe I now wear to most of my interviews and a good deal of my goat milking – as my outermost layer, it outperforms wool, cotton and even linen as road warrior and as rancher material).
In short, after several years of in-the-field and in-the-lab research (and even though I realize that in declaring this I open myself to Pollyanna or even Chong jokes), I discovered that your roommate with the lava lamp was right about hemp. The thing about non-fiction is that I can only report what I find in the real world.
Hemp, or industrial cannabis, is going to be bigger than psychoactive cannabis (already one of the planet’s top earning crops), both to the worldwide economy and for the advancement of humanity. It can replace at once plastics and fossil fuels, while putting small farmers worldwide back in business on a profitable and soil-enhancing bridge crop and its locally-produced applications. Thus Hemp Bound is in many ways a follow-up to my earlier account at my efforts at petroleum-free living and ineffective goat-outsmarting, Farewell, My Subaru.
Hemp’s number one existing application in the New World today (the one enriching Canadians) is its seed oil, which is a genuine omega-balanced superfood (you’ll see in a forthcoming short film that I visited university studies on the nutritional content of eggs from hemp-fed chickens to seek out and then eat the facts).
In investigations that didn’t feel very much like work from Hawaii to Belgium, I saw that hemp’s stronger-than-steel fibers are already in BMW and Mercedes door panels, I visited Colorado’s first legal farmers and fields, and I even got to ride in a hemp-powered limo (snippets of all of these are in the short film above).
Hemp Bound also proposes a new, community-based sustainable energy grid paradigm based on carbon-friendly farm-waste combustion: that, to me, is the most important piece of the puzzle. Ya know, just a harvest that can allow us to wean from petroleum. It’s already happening in parts of Europe with other crops. And it’ll work with hemp.
You’ll notice I use the verb “can” in the previous sentence. It’s a different word than “will.” Will it happen? In Hemp Bound I suggest that it kind of must. Here’s how I put it in the book’s introduction:
“It isn’t so much that hemp, useful as we’re about to see it is, will automatically save humanity. It’s that the worldwide industrial cannabis industry can play a major role in our species’ long-shot sustainable resource search and climate stabilization project. For that to happen, the plant must be exploited domestically in ways upon which the marketplace smiles. No pressure: We fail? We just go extinct. The Earth’ll be fine.”
Now, optimism being, I believe, one of the prerequisites for successful parenting, I’m happy to disclose that reporting on the way hemp is bursting back on the human scene is not only revitalizing my patriotism and causing me to walk with a spring in my step whenever I think about the direction “drug” policy is taking, it’s allowing me to see tangible and navigable avenues by which my replicants and theirs might have an actual atmosphere in which to dwell in peace and plenty.
That’s how big this victory is. Biz school students: tear up your syllabus. Medical residents: recycle the textbook written by your pharma rep I mean professor. Farmers: get ready for the return of local soil microbiology. We’re on the cusp of what I think of as the Dr. Bronner’s Era, named for the fast-growing, hemp-using soap company that pays its executives no more than five times its lowest paid worker and operates on organic and fair trade principles. We locavore consumers are bringing about this new and finer era.
I will remember where I was when President signed the 2014 Farm Bill. The fact of the matter is, I can say after conducting twenty-two years of journalism from Rwanda to Tajikistan to Burma that in five year’s time we’ll see that hemp legalization is the most important change to U.S. policy since the end of segregation.
My own job at the moment is to get out and broadcast the terrific news that the human species is once again potentially sitting pretty to said species. It’s quite an astounding beginning to the (at the moment) seventeen-date spring tour that goes from Stanford U to Rice U, Portland to Philadelphia, crisscrossing the North American coasts with quite a lot of time spent in Colorado, when I say it out loud: It’s going to start out Across the Pond in Vienna for the High Level Segment of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting, on Friday March 14 (I’ve been invited to speak).
My theme? The importance of ending the international drug war now that the U.S. is leading the way on the domestic front. Worldwide criminal enterprises will be crippled when their money laundering operations lose their source of revenue. Youth use rates of dangerous drugs decrease with legalization, and international legalization cannabis opens up a multi-billion-dollar industrial hemp market. This is about more than healthy hemp shakes: it’s about encouraging a farm waste-based community energy paradigm that is already liberating parts of Europe from fossil fuels entirely.
I’ll let you know how that goes – sign up to receive notices whenever I’m coming forth with one of these Dispatches. Twitter is also good for short daily updates on events, writing, radio, television and life as a carbon-neutral parent to human and goat kids.
I’ve been trying out my new Hemp Bound slide show and storytelling routine on said kids here on the Funky Butte Ranch. I figure goats and toddlers will understand my jokes about as well as Austrians or university students will (that is to say, I hope, very well). Interestingly, my goats in particular seem already to know many of the punc hlines. Want proof? You can see my milker Bjork smiling at the end of this Dispatch after one of my particularly devastating jokes. The only question my caprine family members appear to have is, “when do we start getting the locally-grown hemp feed?”
And so reluctantly blotting out what had been pretty loud cactus wren whole note accompaniment to my kite-flying younger son’s repeated chanting of “Hello, Neighbors!” at the local raven pair (he’s learned they can learn human speech), I fire up what readers of Farewell, My Subaru will know as the Ridiculously Oversized American Truck. It is time to head out for The Hemp Bound First Post-Prohibition Planting Tour.
My (human) kid, the three-year-old kazoo player and kite flier, almost has the ravens eating out of his hand. In fact he had them feeling so welcome that they often eat out of our barn. Which is to say they treat our chickens’ eggs like an all-you-can-eat take-out buffet. They also seem to like the kite, which is in the form of a butterfly, loping in lazy acrobatic loops around the vortex of my life.
As I adjust the rearview, I see my older offspring is dashing up to me now, too, gesticulating a clear “hold the presses!” message and carrying a thick roll of duck tape. Ah, yes, he’s remembered what I’ve forgotten (not an unusual occurrence): my conveyance has reached that stage.
I thank this five-year-old-sage out the window — he and eighty-one-year-old Willie Nelson are my principal role models these days. I say that because of the two hundred plus shows the Red-headed Stranger played last year at age eighty, and not just because he’s called Hemp Bound “a blueprint for the America of the future.” As for my son, I learn so much from his quickness to forgive alone. Also his “we only have this life, so we might as well enjoy it” default philosophy seems to be working out very well for him. I’ve seen him heal chronically depressed seniors in ten minutes.
Once I’ve got the truck rigged (music set, laptop open, cat hugged, then expelled, non-hemp bumper duct-taped), I realize I can’t leave yet. I kill the engine and leap out, sticking the landing from three stories up in the cab, and twelve seconds later I’ve discovered the newest hemp app: my younger son, the Raven Whisperer, age three point five, has used the spool of hemp twine that lives on the Funky Butte Ranch house porch (heretofore used in the garden to train our tomatoes and grapes) as this morning’s kite string. Significantly, I discover this after diving into a cholla cactus to avoid said dive-bombing kite.
The hemp twine held fast, I noticed, after removing the remaining thorns from my hip. Huh. What do you know? When it comes to steadying a butterfly-themed kites in these not-kidding-around spring gusts we get here at the lip of the Chihuahuan desert, hemp is proving superior to the leading brand.
Along the same lines, I consider it a culinary good sign that inside the house this morning while I wrote most of this Dispatch, my Sweetheart was seasoning a new stone mortar and pestle with hemp oil.
I should be clear that these don’t even comprise the sum of the field-testing hemp has undergone recently here on the Funky Butte Ranch. Economically and environmentally significant revelations like them come roughly weekly, now that I’m paying attention. Really, Hemp Bound could have been called Hemp Wins Again. Take ten seconds ago. Wow, that loose strand of ranch gate chicken wire didn’t even scratch my hemp shirt as I dashed toward the porch for final hugs and return-of-duct-tape. Tore through a cotton t-shirt last week like it was a Kardashian wedding license.
My mini-Me’s kite having very nearly crashed into my sternum (the youngster had let his concentration wander when one of the ravens suddenly responded with something audible) reminds me that I’m late as usual, flights in jeopardy. I’ve willingly missed them before, listening to the wrens love songs while meditating with my goats. Therein resides my sanity, is the basic summary of a recent TEDxTalk I gave called Why We need Goatherding in the Digital Age. That plus being able to see the stars, not believe too fully in any source of news I didn’t witness myself, and being able to drink untreated water. I just love that the Law of Cascading Hemp Applications seems to always balance an ancient one (my shirt) with a digital age, or at least fairly modern one (hemp kite string).
So I’m anything but stressed. Which is to say, when the basic physical laws of inertia are factored on a day this perfect, one can’t help but take a fatalistic view of travel.
But man, it’s hard to leave my family and the ranch. And not merely because it’s a truly gymnastic move to get back into The Ridiculously Oversized Truck these days, after a monsoon-season skid on the ranch’s Black Diamond Driveway ripped off both running board access steps to the gargantuan machine. As I kiss my human fam, even atop the lingering scent of combusted Kung Pao chicken from the truck’s exhaust, they all smell of the pears we’ve be pounding.
I’m pulling out at the peak of what has essentially been a perpetual magic hour today, thanks to clusters of silver clouds in a traffic jam at an elevation of about a thousand feet migrating like the sandhill cranes we’ve been seeing heading patiently north for spring. To my mind, their gracefully-Jurassic lurching posture as they dip into the nearby river is just that of another species who seem to like it here in quiet nowhere. In the aptly-named Land of Enchantment. No one appears to be in a hurry to leave.
Including me. But the reasons are good (how often does one travel the world announcing a “new” industry that’s actually one of humanity’s oldest and a total win for humanity then and now?). Also for some reason these chocolate kiss mountains spiraling toward me in a Julian fractal swirl (I’m telling you the Funky Butte Ranch driveway is bumpy) remind me that, when I’m on the road, there is almost always sushi and Thai food.
Circling away from the house and my humans, now I just have to get past my other kids, the goats. Yes, there is the snow white Bjork, giver of my protein (yogurt and cheese await my return), and escape artist Taylor Swift, lazily chewing their cud in front of me, knowing that their final hugs for a few days are forthcoming. They, too, sense that I’m in no real rush. I hop out to meditate with them for easily three full breaths, thinking this is what victory feels like.
Postscript: I hope I’ve begun to convince those who started this dispatch as hemp agnostic that recent industrial cannabis developments are real and they’re significant. To give one example, I’m excited to report that we might this year go beyond even the first prediction in Hemp Bound (that hemp would be legalized this year), which has already so remarkably come to pass. The footnote to that prediction predicts more. If HR 525, which is dancing around the U.S. Congress as I type, shows as much oomph as the hemp provision in the Farm Bill did, I can officially update my psychic social media status to “profoundly optimistic father.”
“If ever anyone needed proof that government meddling in markets is injurious to innovation, Hemp Bound dispels all doubt. With science and humor, Fine paints an alternative and optimistic future—one that makes growing hemp seem as exhilarating and necessary as clean air. Fine’s style and storytelling ability make this is one of the most fun books you’ll ever read about the future of farming.” –Joel Salatin, author of Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal
“The issue is simple: farmers need hemp, the soil needs hemp, forests need hemp, and humanity needs the plant that the good Lord gave us for our own survival. Hemp Bound tells us with detail and humor how to get to the environmental Promised Land. Doug has created a blueprint for the America of the future.” —Willie Nelson
“I never dreamed industrial hemp had so much promise until I read Doug Fine’s Hemp Bound. The book is not only fun to read, but it passes along fascinating insights about a farm crop that produces many food and fiber products and is adapted to areas where corn and soybeans are rarely profitable. As the author points out with gracious good humor, industrial hemp is not medical marijuana, and it should become a major farm crop in America as it has elsewhere –Gene Logsdon, author of Gene Everlasting and Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind
“Doug Fine’s engrossing and eye-opening book reveals hemp’s role as a new source of food, energy, and raw materials. This absurd war on one of the world’s most useful plants is about to end, and everyone can declare victory. –Mark Frauenfelder, founder, Boing Boing
“In Hemp Bound, Doug Fine convincingly describes the proven value and amazing potential of the non-psychoactive variety of the cannabis plant. You can eat it, drink it, read it, tie it, wear it, drive it, live in it, and make money growing it, all while saving the soil and protecting the climate. This is an important story, engagingly told.” –Dr. William Martin, Senior Fellow, Drug Policy, Rice University’s Baker Institute, Houston, Texas
“A sweet, logical and funny argument for the potential of one of the world’s most dynamic cash crops.” —Kirkus Reviews