Blunt Truths: Chapter 4 — The Great Hemp Conspiracy
The story of marijuana prohibition so far: Racism lay at the heart of marijuana prohibition. The man most responsible for making marijuana illegal in the United States, former prohibition cop Harry Anslinger, assumed office as America’s first commissioner of narcotics in 1935. At the time, he oversaw a patchwork of state-by-state regulations, a small staff, a minimal budget and virtually no mandate to do anything. Of all the substances under his control, the one Anslinger hated most was marijuana. But it wasn’t so much the drug, Anslinger hated, as the people who used it.
Jack Herer, the Cannabis Crusader
Hemp and marijuana. They’re like conjoined twins – variations on a theme – the same plant but with distinctly different attributes. Like red wine grapes and white wine grapes: the same, but different.
Yet, in the United States, hemp suffered the same legal fate as marijuana: prohibition and cultural banishment. On the battlefield, it’s called “collateral damage.”
In 1973, a man named Jack Herer opened a head shop in San Francisco. Herer, a former Goldwater Republican, and hard-core marijuana prohibitionist had seen the light about marijuana. Actually, he fell in love — with a woman who turned him on to marijuana. The prohibitionist became a crusader determined to make smoking marijuana legal and to “fix” the collateral damage that also made hemp illegal. Herer became so synonymous with marijuana normalization and legalization that a popular hybrid marijuana strain was named for him.
In 1985, Herer published “The Emperor Wears No Clothes,” which Larry Sloman, author of “Reefer Madness: A History of Marijuana,” called the “Bible of the hemp movement.” Twelve editions (the last published November 2010) and 700,000 copies sold, according to JackHerer.com, make the case.
Reading Herer’s book, it becomes apparent that he was something of a hoarder of marijuana and hemp information. Herer didn’t just quote from his sources, he provided them — photocopied newspaper clippings, Congressional testimony and authoritative white papers — cramming them into the pages and even the margins of “Emperor” with a whistle-blower’s eye for specificity (and a hoarder’s need to cram everything in).
The more Herer researched marijuana and hemp — and why they had been made illegal — the more convinced he became that a terrible wrong had been done and desperately needed fixing. He committed himself to change not just the laws, but also the mythology surrounding marijuana. Herer, in the book’s 1990 through 1995 editions, wrote: “What came together, fact after empirical fact, was a picture of a world being destroyed by a malicious conspiracy to suppress not a ‘killer-weed but the world’s premier renewable natural resource, for the benefit of a handful of wealthy and powerful individuals and corporations.”
It is hard to imagine marijuana now being legal in so many states and Canada without Jack Herer’s passion and perseverance — and his determination to tell marijuana and hemp’s true story. His attention to detail served him and his cause well. But his convert’s zeal may have gotten the better of him occasionally.
Among the individuals on whom Herer focused his growing exasperation that marijuana and hemp became illegal: Harry Anslinger. In “Emperor,” Herer used Anslinger’s own words to establish Anslinger’s racism. He quoted Anslinger extensively; in fact; Anslinger was Herer’s best witness — against Anslinger. But Herer took a wider view of events. His extensive research convinced him that Anslinger wasn’t the only person on a personal mission to make marijuana illegal.
While hemp had been grown and processed into a variety of products since the nation’s founding, hemp had attributes that made it difficult to process — especially when it came to easily and cheaply break down marijuana’s tough and complex lignan so it could be turned into pulp. Through the late 19th century and into the early 20th century, inventors tried to solve this problem by inventing machines called decorticators to strip the skin, bark or rind off of nuts, wood, plant stalks, or grain so they can be processed.
Herer tells the story of George Schlichten, a 50-year-old German immigrant who, in 1917, objected to “the felling of forests for paper, which he believed to be a crime.” Having spent $400,00 of his own funds developing his decorticator — but needing a buyer, Schlichten headed to America. During World War I, the price of newsprint skyrocketed; Schlichten believed this presented an opportunity for hemp – now that Schlichten’s invention could process hemp more efficiently and cheaply – to take the place of wood pulp.
In California, Schlichten caught the attention of wealthy industrialist Henry Timken and newspaper giant E. W. Scripps, founder of United Press International. For two weeks in August 1917, Scripps and his partners negotiated enthusiastically with Schlichten. Then, suddenly, they changed their minds —and insisted that hemp could never be economically feasible.
In “Emperor,” Herer blamed Scripps’ sudden shift on William Randolph Hearst. Understood to be the model subject for Orson Welles’ classic movie “Citizen Kane,” Hearst, like Kane, owned newspapers, enjoyed considerable power, and had political aspirations. Herer also suggested that Hearst owned timberland, which he used to make newsprint for his newspapers.
It’s true that Hearst owned huge tracts of land including the 270,000-acre ranch in San Simeon, California, where he built Hearst Castle and the 900,000-acre, heavily timbered Babicora Ranch in Mexico. Historically, Hearst was a buyer of newsprint and not a maker or seller of it.
Dale Gieringer, . state coordinator of the California National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), in his highly respected paper “The Origins of Cannabis Prohibition in California”, pointed out that Hearst’s newspaper empire depended on Canadian newsprint, not newsprint he produced. When the price of Canadian newsprint rose in 1939, Hearst was forced to reorganize because he was so strapped for cash. Geiringer concluded: “It, therefore, seems that it would actually have been in Hearst’s interest to promote cheap hemp paper substitutes, had that been a viable alternative.”
Herer makes a very strong case that hemp paper could have replaced wood pulp, in theory. In practice, however, the hemp industry could not possibly have produced the amount of pulp required. The machinery didn’t exist, though it could have, and it never occurred to Hearst — or any consumer of newsprint — to employ hemp-based newsprint instead of wood pulp newsprint.
Herer also saw a similar marijuana conspirator in DuPont. In 1937, DuPont patented processes to make plastics from oil and coal, Herer pointed out. Herer contended that DuPont could have chosen hemp oil instead as the base — as with wood pulp, technically true. Hemp oil is used today to make plastics. But, by 1937, DuPont was already producing plastics using petrochemicals. In the abstract, the cost of retooling to accommodate the differences in manufacturing petrochemicals vs hemp oil would have been prohibitive. There’s no evidence that DuPont ever even considered using hemp-based oil instead.
Herer also pointed out the family relationship connecting Anslinger to the du Ponts: Anslinger’s wife, Martha Kind Denniston, was the niece of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, who created Anslinger’s post and then hired Anslinger to fill it. While the appearance of nepotism suggests possible corruption, no other evidence exists that Anslinger’s familial relationships affected events.
In “Emperor,” Herer called out Anslinger as a “bureaucratic police liar” in part because of Anslinger’s consistent myth-making. Whether motivated by a convert’s zeal or just the accumulated frustration of countering Anslinger’s relentless myth-making, Herer occasionally gave in to myth-making himself. For those of us trying to navigate this minefield in search of the truth about cannabis, Herer reminds us: Myth-making cuts both ways.
Next Installment: Harry Anslinger On The Job.