Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Hemp to Save the Forests

Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 1994. Hemp to Save Forests. Wild Earth. Vol. 4, No. 2. Summer. 54-55. 

By Andy Kerr

Hemp is a potentially sustainable replacement for what is definitely unsustainable forest consumption. We should grow hemp to save and restore our forests.

People used to get most of their fiber from farmlands. We also used wood, for burning and building, but before the chainsaw and the population explosion, humans were not able to go through forests very fast.

In this century, technological developments which allow paper to be made efficiently from wood pulp have allowed us to consume great amounts of wood fiber at levels far above sustainability. We have developed very efficient methods to mine fiber that nature has been storing for centuries, even millennia.

We've gone through most of the world's forests, and for the first time in a century, northern industrial humans are thinking seriously about growing fiber, not just mining it. We're “discovering” that farmlands are more productive of fiber than are forests. Plus, we have an excess of farmland in this country; we do not have an excess of forests.

When ONRC (Oregon Natural Resources Council) started examining the fiber problem, we looked for a plant that: a) could replace wood; b) didn't require lots of fertilizers and pesticides; and c) would be truly sustainable.

We looked at kenaf, which may work in the South, but not in the Pacific Northwest. We looked for anything but hemp; anything but marijuana. But our wanderings and wonderings kept leading back to hemp. We looked for a plant with long fibers in order to produce paper that could be recycled numerous times or pressed into strong construction products. Hemp fibers can be as long as the plant is tall. Douglas-fir fibers only reach about three-quarters of an inch in length, no matter how tall the tree.

Of course, there is a problem. Hemp is basically—although not totally—outlawed in this country. Most people refer to it as marijuana and have very strong opinions about it, which has made it unavailable for industrial use, even though the cultivars for industrial use and those for personal use are very different.

Hemp is outlawed because some versions of it contain significant quantities of THC, a compound with psychoactive properties. These versions are marketed as marijuana.

Because of the political problems associated with marijuana, ONRC kept looking and hoping for other fibers. We simply haven't found any as good as hemp. Nor has the USDA or the pulp and paper industry in their research.

Finally, we had to conclude that if hemp was good enough for Thomas Jefferson to grow and make the paper on which he drafted the Declaration of Independence, then it's good enough for ONRC. The forests shouldn't all be cut down because some people have hang-ups.

(By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, I want to state for the record that, yes, I did inhale. Twice. The first time was with an elected official. [I figured it could later be useful to have passed a joint with him.] The second time was with a woman with whom I was seeking carnal relations. I don't recall getting off [from the dope] either time as, in addition to the THC, the mood altering variables of sleep deprivation and sexual lust, respectively, were significant.)

We can look backward to a long-cultivated plant for our future fiber needs, because of significant new technological advances in two areas: construction and chemistry. Regarding technological advances in construction, it is now technically feasible to make beams out of waste paper. It is not currently economically feasible, but that is simply a function of price. As the price of wood-based building products goes up, the attractiveness of alternative building products goes up as well.

Raising the price of wood is good. To borrow a term from Oil War One (some called it the Gulf War), a “collateral benefit” of locking up the last of the virgin forests is that the price of wood chips will rise and send paper-makers scrambling for new fiber sources. They are now looking to our waste stream and beginning to look to the farm.

Regarding technological advances in chemistry, chemists are learning to crack the hemp oil molecule, as they did the earth oil molecule. Anything humans now make from an unsustainable hydrocarbon could be made from a sustainable carbohydrate. The main problem is that we've bred generations of petrochemists instead of carbochemists. We can probably even make the glue to bind together hemp fibers for building products from compounds in the hemp plant itself, rather than from toxic formaldehyde-based petrochemicals.

Despite twice inhaling, I came to realize the joys of industrial hemp in a fully rational way. I was not aided in such enlightenment by THC, as some others have been. Unfortunately, the campaign to legalize hemp for personal use has been mixed in with the campaign to legalize it for medicinal, industrial, religious and nutritional uses.

Certain individuals--yes, they may have small minds but those small minds are numerous--are turned off to some potential uses of hemp because they fear misuses of hemp. Politically, environmentalists must keep industrial hemp issues separate from those of marijuana legalization and/or decriminalization, just as it is politically wise to separate the medicinal use issue from the personal use issue.

Taxonomically, hemp and marijuana may be the same species, but hemp for fiber and marijuana for THC are quite different organisms. Your lungs will fail before your brain attains any high from smoking industrial hemp.

Hemp, if we play it right, can provide significant relief to our forests. Our forests don't have time for us humans to work out all our hang-ups about Cannabis sativa. Let us begin to sow that hemp now.

Andy Kerr is Conservation Director of Oregon Natural Resources Council in Portland. This article was adapted from a speech to the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference, “Land, Air, Water,” in Eugene, March 1994.