The hemp seed was once considered a promising savior for the American dream. Cultivated and cherished by humans for many thousands of years, hemp has been utilized for many diverse purposes; as pulp for creating paper, and fiber for rope and textiles. Before that, the forward thinking Greek historian Herodotus praised the use of hemp around the year 420 BC; meanwhile Chinese mandarins so highly prized the seeds that they made its export a capital offense.
Helping our fledgling country grow, hemp-based sails were considered to be of the finest quality, and the first choice of our early Navy. Thus the first cannabis law passed in Jamestown colony, Virginia, in 1619 requiring all farmers to grow hemp. The original draft of the US Declaration of Independence was originally printed on paper made from hemp, as was the second draft. However parchment paper was utilized in the final draft, which was the one signed and released on July 4, 1776.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were well-known proponents of growing hemp, and praised the plant widely. Hemp was considered a mainstay throughout our spotty US history, and gave much too our Westward expansion in the form of cannabis canopies on covered wagons. Later, hemp’s fibers helped push back Hitler’s war of bigoted ignorance by helping US paratroopers float safely to the ground during World War II.
As that bloody war raged on, America’s industrial agriculture machine was recruited to add hemp to the crop rotations. At that time the plant was already held in high regard. As a 1938 addition of popular mechanics magazine pointed out, hemp is “the new billion-dollar crop”, mentioning the arrival of a new machine that would facilitate the removal of the fiber bearing core from the rest of the stalk, greatly reducing the amount of labor required to produce fiber.
With gas prices skyrocketing to well over four dollars a gallon (depending on where you live), Americans are chewing at the bit as never before for alternatives to fossil fuels. And sure, the talk of ethanol production has increased recently, but the problem was already masterfully solved over 75 years ago by Henry Ford. It was Ford who first built a sedan which ran on 100% hemp ethanol.
Ford grew hemp on his estate and viewed the crop as a source of fuel, as well as for plastic composites from which he intended to build an entire car chassis, providing more strength and less weight than steel. In a tragic twist of history, Ford’s plan for a hemp built and a hemp powered vehicle was killed not by market forces, but rather by the heavy hand of federal prohibition, which banned all cannabis cultivation the very same year that he built his first working prototype.
Fast-forward to the present day. States like Washington, Oregon, and Colorado have passed laws authorizing industrial hemp production, although effective implementation remains stuck on the horizon. The perpetually obstructive federal government is under unprecedented pressure to allow hemp farming to go forward – even Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has endorsed a bill to legalize hemp as a means of helping his state’s economy.
All factors considered, the relatively low production cost of hemp ethanol (approximately $.25 per gallon), combined with the plant’s ability to produce both fuel ethanol and bio diesel from the same harvest, makes hemp ethanol one of America’s most promising technologies for lowering the price of fuel.