Why is cannabis illegal? Part 1: Plastic and wood industry.

Why is cannabis illegal? Part 1: Plastic and wood industry.

There are many reasons behind the erroneous decision to make cannabis illegal. It’s a decision that has taken decades to undo. There is no doubt that the illegality of cannabis has connections to several different factors. Race-related issues is a key factor, as is the desire for Governments to control public activities. But the plastic and wood industry also played a major role in the prohibition of cannabis. Read on to find out more.

Hemp. A natural source of fibre, plastic and paper?

It’s worth taking a quick look at the multi-purpose Hemp plant. Hemp was grown by George Washington, the first USA President, in the late 1700’s. In those days Hemp was grown extensively. It was used for many purposes, and it was easy to grow just about anywhere. The strong fibres were ideal for rope-making or making clothes, sacks, paper, boat sails or fishing nets. And when the hemp rotted away it did so naturally without leaving millions of micro-plastic particles. Hemp was a universal crop with a multitude of uses. The 20th century would have looked a lot different if hemp was allowed to compete with other synthetic alternatives. But it was banned.

Hemp field - Dutch Passion

Hemp. A fuel and source of vegetable oil.

Hemp produces a lot of seeds. These are protein and nutrient rich, a very useful dietary supplement. The seeds can also be used to produce industrial quantities of hemp oil. This can be used for cooking or even for powering vehicles. When Rudolph Diesel first created his diesel engine his initial idea was to run the engine on bio fuels such as hemp oil. In fact his first diesel engine ran on oil made from peanuts. Imagine how different the world would be today if the fuel industry used natural fuels rather than fossil fuels.


The 1900’s. Cannabis & hemp - a threat to emerging plastics?

One of the USA’s larger industrial giants from the 1900’s was DuPont. DuPont specialised in creating exciting new polymers from fossil fuels. Oil was not a new discovery. But as chemical science became increasingly advanced, chemists realised that oil could be used to synthesise a whole new family of previously undiscovered ‘super materials’. These new materials could be quickly and cheaply made from oil, they included rubbers, plastics and new polymers which could be used to make clothing, fabrics and cloth. 


Oil. A new raw material for plastic production.

The boom in new materials that could be made from oil showed few signs of stopping. By fractionating crude oil into various constituents, such as light oil, heavy diesel etc it became possible to fine tune the products which could be made from oil. Paints were able to be created, so was artificial rubber and even film for photographic use. Many types of new fabrics could be made, waterproof materials and synthetic fabrics which had different properties to natural fabrics. Insecticides, agricultural chemicals and many other modern materials could be made easily. The 1st and 2nd World Wars added an increased sense of urgency to the need for supplemental materials. Without the pressure of WW1 and WW2 perhaps vegetable oil would have had the time to become one of the main products from modern farming. However, fossil fuels were an easy alternative. Nowadays, bio fuels and biodiesel are making a return. Though in reality, fossil fuel cars only have another decade or two before electric technology renders them obsolete.


Hemp paper vs paper made from tree pulp.

William Randolph Hearst was a major newspaper publisher during the 1900’s. The main feature of his work was yellow journalism, nowadays known as sensationalist reporting. This, he thought, would maximise newspaper circulation and revenue. Hearst used large volumes of paper made from pulping trees. DuPont supplied many of the bleaching materials and chemicals used in this process. Hearst was uninterested in using paper made from the pulp of hemp plants which could be grown so easily in places such as Mexico and the deep south. Hearst would base his headlines on populist themes. His anti-Mexican, anti-black and anti-immigrant message was eagerly absorbed by the early newspaper consumers. Many of the claims and stories were taken as fact. Hearst developed a strong anti-marijuana theme partly to marginalise the immigrants that he so despised. Inevitably, an anti-cannabis bias was established. Sensational reporting of crimes allegedly committed by immigrants while high on cannabis was common place. The early newspaper industry had done a good job demonising cannabis. This made it easy for the USA to ban it.


Prohibition of cannabis.

Another early cannabis prohibitionist, Harry Anslinger, took the chance to collect these horror stories from Hearst Newspaper Publications. Anslinger was keen to find a role for the newly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics. There had never been a full debate on cannabis. Instead Anslinger was able to use the cannabis mis-information to ban hemp cultivation and cannabis use. Under oath, Anslinger proclaimed that "This drug is entirely the monster Hyde, the harmful effects of which cannot be measured". The hearings were not made to the full House and was passed over to the Senate Finance Committee where it was rubber stamped into law with little debate. 

 Nicely displayed dutch Passion Seeds

The paper industry says goodbye to hemp.

Now that hemp and cannabis were banned, Anslinger would "govern" the licensing process to make sure that no more commercial hemp was grown in the United States. Although the newspaper empire of William Randolph Hearst was to play a big part in the prohibition of cannabis, one of the great ironies is that paper made from hemp is regarded as superior quality to paper made from tree pulp. Hemp paper can last for hundreds of years. Samples have been found in tombs which are thousands of years old. Paper made from bleached wood pulp can start to turn yellow and disintegrate after a year or two. Hemp paper is often used for the highest quality applications, such as creating bank notes, bibles etc. Because the fibres in Hemp paper are 4-5 times longer than fibres made from tree pulp, hemp paper has a greater tensile strength and greater rip resistance. 

harvested hemp - dutch passion


The use of hemp is seeing a modern resurgence. The 2018 Farm Bill in the USA has allowed the re-introduction of hemp as a farm crop. It seems only a matter of time before more and more hemp-based products are offered to replace plastic-based synthetic products. Forbes magazine expects Hemp farming to be a massive economic stimulus to the US economy.


Hemp is being used to manufacture hempcrete. This uses the woody centre (‘shiv’) from the stem of the hemp plant in a mixture of sand and lime. The tough hemp fibres bind the mixture together. It is an excellent low cost insulating material and less brittle than cement. It also locks up 165Kg of Carbon in each cubic metre of hempcrete. Many builders are using hempcrete as an alternative to wood, breeze-blocks or other traditional building materials.


Plastics enjoy a future without competition from hemp.

At the same time as Anslinger was arranging the prohibition of cannabis, around 1937, DuPont registered their first patent on Nylon. This was a synthetic fibre, called Nylon because it was partly developed in New York and partly developed in London. By making hemp cultivation illegal, there was no natural competition for Nylon. Nylon was able to make billions in revenue for DuPont. With most of the early American cars built by GM, DuPont enjoyed a captive market for paints, varnishes, synthetic plastics, rubber etc. All of which could have been made from hemp. The plastic industry was able to enjoy decades of growth without any meaningful competition from hemp or hemp products. That may change soon as scientists start looking for natural alternatives to plastic, possibly made from plant based starch or plant oils. Plastics may have been introduced with a good reputation. But the modern world can’t wait to find a superior natural alternative to them.


In the next part of this blog series we will examine how racism played a large role in the prohibition of cannabis.

Why is cannabis illegal? Part 1: Plastic and wood industry.
June 5th 2019
Categories : Cannabis Legalisation

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