DEALogo DRCNet Response to the
Drug Enforcement Administration

The Manufacture of Cannabis Sativa for Legitimate Applications

June 1996

For additional references on this topic, go to the Druglibrary Search Engine and search for terms such as hemp, cannabis, marijuana, marihuana, etc.

DEA Statement Response

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has received queries about the potential cultivation of Cannabis sativa (hemp) in the United States for legitimate application. Numerous reports in the press and "lay" literature indicate that hemp could be a lucrative crop in the United States. However, an analysis completed by the DEA indicates that it is unlikely that hemp could be a profitable crop for cultivation in the United States under current market conditions. The following paragraphs summarize data collected by the DEA.

It isn't up to the DEA or any other government agency to decide what they think will be profitable, and then ban whatever they don't like.

For some better references on hemp, see:

Schaffer Library Hemp Page

Cannabis sativa L. (marijuana, a schedule I controlled substance) is often called hemp especially when referring to the plant as a source of fiber. Cannabis sativa is often called "true hemp" because the term hemp is also applied to other plants such as abaca or Manila hemp (Musa textiles Née), sunn hemp (Crotolaria juncea L) and sisal hemp or henequen (Agave Fourcroydes Lem.). For the purposes of this summary, hemp refers to Cannabis sativa L. The confusion with the name "marijuana" was a result of the racial origins of the marijuana prohibition.  The laws against marijuna -- and hemp -- were motivated by a desire to punish Mexicans who smoked it.  See The History of the Non-Medical Use of Drugs in the United States, and The Forbidden Fruit and the Tree of Knowledge.

When the Marihuana Tax Act came before Congress, several hemp producers testified.  In general, they were shocked to learn that a dangerous drug could supposedly be made from this common crop.  They volunteered to go out of the hemp business as their civic duty.  The evidence against marijuana (hemp) was, of course, simply ridiculous.  The representative of the American Medical Association stated that the AMA knew of no evidence that marijuana was a dangerous drug.  See the Congressional Hearings for the Marihuana Tax Act and Related Papers.

The major components of hemp are foliage and flowers, seeds and stalks. The inner bark of hemp stalk is composed of high cellulose cells that constitute the fiber. Hemp fiber is a bast (bark) fiber like flax, jute, ramie, and kenaf. The core of the stalks contain a woody material which is referred to as hurds. When the stalks are processed for fiber, the hurds are broken into pieces while the fiber remains in long strands. In the process of refining the long line fiber, short bits of fiber are collected. These short length fibers are referred to as tow.  
Hemp was cultivated in North America with mixed success as early as the 1600s. Hemp cultivation flourished in several states, such as Kentucky, until the Civil War. The lack of slaves thereafter, a cheap labor source, had a significant effect on hemp cultivation, which is a labor intensive crop. By the turn of the this century, farmers in states such as Missouri, Illinois and Nebraska ceased to cultivate hemp because it was less profitable than other crops due to a lack of market for the fiber. The importation of cheaper fibers from the Philippines further reduced the cultivation of hemp in this country. Hemp was the primary crop at Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington.   See  The History of the Non-Medical Use of Drugs in the United States, and The Forbidden Fruit and the Tree of Knowledge.  See also Marijuana in the New World.
The virtually nonexistent hemp industry was revitalized by the United States Government during the Second World War when fibers from the Philippines became scarce. Hemp production was strong during the war and then dwindled again when cheaper imported fibers became readily available. This was promoted by the Department of Agriculture film, Hemp for Victory (1942).  Hemp was found virtually everywhere in our world and -- quite notably -- hadn't been responsible for any social problems.

World War II Hemp for War Poster

The flax industry also dwindled for the same reasons as for hemp. That wouldn't make a good reason to outlaw flax, either.
Historic sources of information indicate that hemp must be grown on rich farmland for optimal yields of high quality fiber in the United States. Hemp requires high moisture but relatively little attention once it has been planted. It is reported that hemp is resistant to most weeds and disease. However, the Australian government reported that they had problems with canola weed in experimental plots of hemp cultivated for seed. In the Netherlands, in 1987, the hemp research program reported that their experimental hemp crop suffered from a fungal disease. Subsequent crops were cultivated utilizing a fungicide. In Manitoba, Canada, one test plot of hemp suffered severe damage from Bertha armyworm. Hemp test plots were also susceptible to a fungus called sclerotinia. The new crop agronomist from the Manitoba Department of Agriculture reported that hemp would require insecticides and fungicides and would have to be rotated like other crops. He also reported that deer ate hemp leaves but not the stalks. Wind also damaged the hemp crop. Even if all of these things were true, they are also true of any other agricultural crop, and wouldn't provide a good justification to outlaw any of them.
The process of obtaining the fiber from hemp is complex. The stalks must be harvested, retted and broken and hackled. Harvesting the stalks can be done with standard farm equipment. Retting is the process of exposing the stalks to moisture and the elements to allow bacteria to digest the lignins (gummy material) that holds the fiber strands to the rest of the stalk. This process is antiquated and potentially problematic yet it is crucial in order to obtain high quality fiber. Retting is dependent upon weather conditions. For example, the Bioregional Development Group of Surrey, England found that French strains of hemp took 20 days to ret whereas Hungarian strains, harvested later than the French strains, took 50 days due to variation in weather conditions. In the English study, the researchers reported that the retting process they employed was inefficient and unreliable.  

If the DEA is arguing that hemp would never be profitable because of the work involved in processing it, that is a matter for the market to decide.  There is no good purpose in any Federal Government agency prejudging the potential market for any product.

Hemp fiber can be separated and refined on machinery designed for flax. However, hemp is destructive to the machinery due to the heaviness of the stalks. The Bioregional Development Group of Surrey, England reported that hemp was not ideal for the flax equipment. Future development of machinery capable of handling hemp was dependent upon the market demand for hemp fiber which was uncertain. Historic United States sources of information indicate that much of the hemp processed in this country was done by hand. Wisconsin farmers developed machinery that was capable of processing the fiber but it greatly impacted both the quality and the yield of the fiber. Again, this is a matter for the market and for engineers to determine.   If there is indeed no profitable market for hemp, as the DEA says, then there is little point in prohibiting it because farmers wouldn't grow it. 
The processing of hemp stalks is also very dirty work. There are several early reports of hemp workers developing respiratory problems from inhalation of the fibers and dust. Tobacco pickers sometimes suffer severe nerve damage as a result of picking tobacco, particularly when the tobacco is wet.  The damage comes as the result of nicotine poisoning.  The DEA does not suggest that we ban tobacco.
The marketability of a fiber for textile or other applications is based upon its ease of processing. For instance, prior to 1793, flax was the major fiber source for textile applications. Hemp was also cultivated but not to the extent of flax because hemp was more difficult to process. But in 1793 the cotton gin was invented which made cotton fibers very easy to process. Currently, cotton accounts for 98% of the worlds consumption of nonwood fiber. Of the remaining 2%, flax accounts for half and other fibers such as hemp, kenaf and jute, account for the remaining 1%. The processing of flax and hemp fibers has changed little over 100 years. Until the process becomes infinitely more facile, it is doubtful that these fibers will become as economically viable. The DEA says the process is not profitable now, and won't be until it becomes much easier.  Again, that is a matter for the market to decide, not a government agency. 

The DEA also fails to note that, as long as they are prohibiting the growing of hemp, that no progress can be made in the processing methods.

Fiber crops are typically cultivated for a textile application because the textile application gives the highest profit to the farmer. The textile application is the reason that an infrastructure is developed for a particular fiber crop. An infrastructure is defined as the system or network used to transform a raw material into a marketable product. It includes harvesting equipment, storage facilities, transportation equipment, processing plants, etc. Currently, in the European Union, a subsidy is paid to a farmer to grow nonfood crops such as hemp or flax. But flax has a market that validates its cultivation, regardless of the subsidy. Hemp, on the other hand, has a very limited value to the textile market and a very limited infrastructure developed for its processing as well. It is not certain that farmers would cultivate hemp in the European Union if it were not for the subsidy for the hemp crop. Again, this is an issue for the market to decide, not the DEA.
Hemp can be grown simply for pulping and paper making. The paper application is a low value application for a fiber crop, compared to the textile application. Weyerhaeuser, the worlds largest supplier of pulp, had investigated the use of nonwood fibers such as kenaf for paper making. Weyerhaeuser found that nonwood fibers are unattractive raw materials for the following reasons. 1) They must be grown on farm land and must be harvested annually. Timber can be grown for 30-35 years before harvesting thus the land is disturbed only once during this period of time. Timber is not grown on prime farm land. 2) Timber is relatively drought and pest resistant. Weyerhaeuser reports that nonwood fibers have specialty applications in paper making but it is unlikely that they will be available at a cost less than that of wood fiber. The DEA is simply not the definitive authority on the profitability and usability of industrial hemp and never will be.  The definitive authority is the American farmer.  If American farmers can make money on any of its many applications, they will grow it. 

In any event, industrial hemp does not have enough of the drug in it to be psychoactive so there is no more logical reason for the DEA to be involved in its regulation than there is for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to be involved in the regulation of grape juice.

For many practical purposes, hemp and flax fiber can be used interchangeably. The hemp plant, except for mature stalks, seed oil or sterilized seed, is a controlled substance; flax is not. Thus there are no controls over the cultivation of flax for fiber (under the Controlled Substances Act). Yet flax is not currently a viable fiber crop in this country. DEA has been advised that there is no market for long-line flax fiber produced in this country. Kenaf, another fiber crop similar in some respects to hemp, has yet to become economically viable in this country, even with a good deal of research and investment by the U.S. Government. Thus, it is doubtful that hemp could become viable as a fiber crop given that less restricted sources of fiber have yet to become viable crops in the United States. The DEA fails to tell you that there is a perfectly legitimate use for hemp seed which is actually irreplaceable -- bird seed.  You can find hemp seed listed among the ingredients of the better kinds of ordinary bird food.  An exemption was created under the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 because of testimony that it was required for the good health of birds.  See also History of the Non-Medical Use of Drugs in the United States. At the present time, all of that bird seed has to be imported from other countries.

Again, it seems the height of folly for any government agency to make absolute pronouncements about the potential profitability of anything. 


Countries such as Australia, England, Canada and the Netherlands and many others allow the restricted cultivation of hemp. Studies done in Australia show that hemp is too expensive for paper production. In England, hemp has been incorporated into horse bedding, an alternative to sawdust in a country practically devoid of timber resources and with a substantial equine population. Research is being done in England to determine if the domestically-grown fiber can be incorporated in textiles. This study has yet to reach a conclusion. Researchers in the Netherlands concluded that hemp is too expensive for use in paper vs. wood fibers but can be used as an additive for paper production. Bottom line -- there are potential uses for the plant.
The information collected and reviewed shows that hemp cultivation, within the United States, would not promise a profitable return on investment. The history of hemp cultivation in this country shows that hemp is very labor intensive, resulting in its demise as a lucrative crop decades ago. Many of the uses for hemp are identical to non-controlled alternative crops. Hemp does not have an infrastructure associated with its cultivation and the demand for hemp fiber is small relative to other bast fibers. Again, these are all issues for the market to decide, not the DEA.   The DEA is afraid of hemp for the simple reason that it demonstrates that the marijuana laws were, in fact, a major fraud upon the public.  See the extensive references listed above.


Travel back to the Diversion Control Table of Contents