Thursday, February 21, 2008

Debunking the Hemp Conspiracy Theory

By Steven Wishnia, AlterNet

Scratch a pothead and ask them why marijuana is
outlawed, and there's a good chance you'll get some
version of the "hemp conspiracy" theory. Federal pot
prohibition, the story goes, resulted from a plot by
the Hearst and DuPont business empires to squelch hemp
as a possible competitor to wood-pulp paper and nylon.
These allegations can be found anywhere from Wikipedia
entries on William Randolph Hearst and the DuPont
Company to comments on pot-related articles published
here on AlterNet. And these allegations are virtually
unchallenged; many people fervently believe in the
hemp conspiracy, even though the evidence to back it
up vaporizes under even minimal scrutiny.

You could make a stronger case for Lee Harvey Oswald
as the lone assassin of John F. Kennedy; Oswald at
least left a not-quite-smoking gun at the scene.

Pot activist Jack Herer's book The Emperor Wears No
Clothes is the prime source for the hemp-conspiracy
theory. It alleges that in the mid-1930s, "when the
new mechanical hemp fiber stripping machines to
conserve hemp's high-cellulose pulp finally became
state of the art, available and affordable," Hearst,
with enormous holdings in timber acreage and
investments in paper manufacturing, "stood to lose
billions of dollars and perhaps go bankrupt."
Meanwhile, DuPont in 1937 had just patented nylon and
"a new sulfate/sulfite process for making paper from
wood pulp" -- so "if hemp had not been made illegal,
80 percent of DuPont's business would never have

Herer, a somewhat cantankerous former marijuana-pipe
salesman, deserves a lot of credit for his cannabis
activism. He was a dedicated grass-roots agitator for
pot legalization during the late 1980s, perhaps the
most herb-hostile time in recent history. Despite a
substantial stroke in 2001, he soldiers on; he's
currently campaigning to get a cannabis-legalization
initiative on the ballot in Santa Barbara, California.
The Emperor -- an omnivorous conglomeration of
newspaper clippings and historical documents about
hemp and marijuana, held together by Herer's cannabis
evangelism and fiery screeds against prohibition --
has been a bible for many pot activists. Unearthing a
1916 Department of Agriculture bulletin about hemp
paper and a World War II short film that exhorted
American farmers to grow "Hemp for Victory," Herer
more than anyone else revived the idea that the
cannabis plant was useful for purposes besides getting
high. Unfortunately, he's completely wrong on this
particular issue. The evidence for a "hemp conspiracy"
just doesn't stand up. It is far more likely that
marijuana was outlawed because of racism and cultural

How marijuana was prohibited

Twentieth-century cannabis prohibition first reared
its head in countries where white minorities ruled
black majorities: South Africa, where it's known as
dagga, banned it in 1911, and Jamaica, then a British
colony, outlawed ganja in 1913. They were followed by
Canada, Britain and New Zealand, which added cannabis
to their lists of illegal narcotics in the 1920s.
Canada's pot law was enacted in 1923, several years
before there were any reports of people actually
smoking it there. It was largely the brainchild of
Emily F. Murphy, a feminist but racist judge who wrote
anti-Asian, anti-marijuana rants under the pseudonym
"Janey Canuck."

In the United States, marijuana prohibition began
partly as a throw-in on laws restricting opiates and
cocaine to prescription-only use, and partly in
Southern and Western states and cities where blacks
and Mexican immigrants were smoking it. Missouri
outlawed opium and hashish dens in 1889, but did not
actually prohibit cannabis until 1935. Massachusetts
began restricting cannabis in its 1911 pharmacy law,
and three other New England states followed in the
next seven years.

California's 1913 narcotics law banned possession of
cannabis preparations -- which California NORML head
Dale Gieringer believes was a legal error, that the
provision was intended to parallel those affecting
opium, morphine and cocaine. The law was amended in
1915 to ban the sale of cannabis without a
prescription. "Thus hemp pharmaceuticals remained
technically legal to sell, but not possess, on
prescription!" Gieringer wrote in The Origins of
Cannabis Prohibition in California. "There are no
grounds to believe that this prohibition was ever
enforced, as hemp drugs continued to be prescribed in
California for years to come." In 1928, the state
began requiring hemp farmers to notify law enforcement
about their crops.

New York City made cannabis prescription-only in 1914,
part to pre-empt users of over-the-counter opium,
morphine and cocaine medicines from switching to
cannabis preparations, but with allusions to hashish
use by Middle Eastern immigrants. In the West and
Southwest, anti-Mexican sentiment quickly came into
play. California's first marijuana arrests came in a
Mexican neighborhood in Los Angeles in 1914, according
to Gieringer, and the Los Angeles Times said "sinister
legends of murder, suicide and disaster" surrounded
the drug. The city of El Paso, Texas, outlawed reefer
in 1915, two years after a Mexican thug, "allegedly
crazed by habitual marijuana use," killed a cop. By
the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, 30 states
had some form of pot law.

The campaign against cannabis heated up after Repeal.
"I wish I could show you what a small marihuana
cigaret can do to one of our degenerate
Spanish-speaking residents," a Colorado newspaper
editor wrote in 1936. "The fatal marihuana cigarette
must be recognized as a DEADLY DRUG, and American
children must be PROTECTED AGAINST IT," the Hearst
newspapers editorialized.

Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of
Narcotics, headed the charge. "If the hideous monster
Frankenstein came face to face with the monster
marihuana, he would drop dead of fright," he thundered
in 1937.

An ambitious racist (a 1934 memo described an
informant as a "ginger-colored nigger") who had
previously been federal assistant Prohibition
commissioner, Anslinger railed against reefer in
magazine articles like 1937's "Marihuana: Assassin of
Youth." It featured gory stories like that of Victor
Licata, a once "sane, rather quiet young man" from
Tampa, Fla., who'd killed his family with an axe in
1933, after becoming "pitifully crazed" from smoking
"muggles." (Actually, the Tampa police had tried to
have Licata committed to a mental hospital before he
started smoking pot.)

Anslinger's other theme was that white girls would be
ruined once they'd experienced the lurid pleasures of
having a black man's joint in their mouth. "Colored
students at the Univ. of Minn. partying with female
students (white) smoking and getting their sympathy
with stories of racial persecution," he noted.
"Result, pregnancy."

In 1937, after a very cursory debate, Congress enacted
the Marihuana Tax Act, levying a prohibitive
$100-an-ounce tax on cannabis. "I believe in some
cases one cigarette might develop a homicidal mania,"
Anslinger testified in a hearing on the bill.

The case against the "hemp conspiracy"

The hemp-conspiracy theory blames that law on Hearst
and DuPont's plot to suppress hemp paper and cloth.
The theory is that the invention of a hemp processor
known as the "decorticator" made it easier, faster and
much more cost-effective to extract hemp fiber from
the stalks. In February 1938, Popular Mechanics hailed
hemp as the "New Billion Dollar Crop." In response,
Hearst and DuPont, scared by the prospect of hemp's
resurrection as a competitor for their products,
schemed to eliminate the plant.

However, The Emperor makes only three specific claims
to support that theory. One is the anti-marijuana
propagandizing of the Hearst newspapers. Second, it
claims that Anslinger's anti-pot crusade was on behalf
of Pittsburgh banker Andrew Mellon, who supposedly was
DuPont's "chief financial backer," lending the company
the funds it needed to purchase General Motors in the
1920s. And finally, The Emperor argues that DuPont
anticipated the Marihuana Tax Act in its 1937 annual
report, which worried that the company's future was
"clouded with uncertainties" -- specifically about
"the extent to which the revenue-raising power of
government may be converted into an instrument for
forcing acceptance of sudden new ideas of industrial
and social reorganization."

None of these claims stand up.

Claim 1: Hearst the propagandist

According to W.A. Swanberg's extensive biography
Citizen Hearst, the Hearst chain was actually the
nation's largest purchaser of newsprint -- and when
the price rose from $40 a ton to over $50 in the late
1930s, he fell so deep in debt to Canadian paper
producers and banks that he had to sell his prized art
collection to avert foreclosure. "It therefore seems
that it would have been in Hearst's interest to
promote cheap hemp paper substitutes, had that been a
viable alternative," Dale Gieringer wrote in his
article, calling the hemp-conspiracy theory "fanciful"
and a "myth."

In any case, the Hearst papers never needed hidden
self-interest to trumpet fiendish menaces. The
expression "yellow journalism" comes from Hearst's
campaign for a war against Spain in 1898. And from the
1930s on, his papers were finding RED SUBVERSIVES and
PINKO FELLOW-TRAVELERS under every bed. In 1935, a
University of Chicago professor accused of being a
Communist by the Hearst-owned Herald-Examiner told the
Nation that the reporter covering him had admitted,
"We do just what the Old Man orders. One week he
orders a campaign against rats. The next week he
orders a campaign against dope peddlers. Pretty soon
he's going to campaign against college professors.
It's all the bunk, but orders are orders."

Claim 2: The Anslinger-DuPont Connection

There was an Anslinger-Mellon connection. Anslinger
was appointed to head the Bureau of Narcotics by
Andrew Mellon, his wife's uncle, who was treasury
secretary in the Herbert Hoover administration.
However, it's unlikely that DuPont needed to borrow
money to buy GM in the 1920s, as the company had done
very well as the leading manufacturer of explosives
for the Allied forces during World War I.

Historians find no evidence of a DuPont-Mellon
connection either. "General Motors was historically
associated with the Morgan group during that period,"
Mark Mizruchi, a professor of sociology and business
administration at the University of Michigan, told me
in an email interview in 2003. Sociologist G. William
Domhoff of the University of California at Santa Cruz,
author of Who Rules America?, concurred, saying it was
safe to state there was no connection. And in the
440-page tome considered the definitive account of
American banking and corporate finance during the
Depression era, Mizruchi added, Japanese historian
Tian Kang Go does not mention "even the smallest
financial connection between DuPont and Mellon."

Claim 3: Dubious DuPont claims

The argument that DuPont's 1937 complaint about
federal taxes had anything to do with hemp is an
extremely dubious stretch. If the company had been
talking about the government eliminating a competitor
by levying a prohibitive tax, it wouldn't have been
worrying about the uncertainty of foreseeing new
federal imposts. It would have been celebrating its
newly cleared path. Given the context of the times,
it's almost certain that this statement was merely
typical 1930s corporate-class whining about the New
Deal's social programs and business regulations --
akin to current corporate-class complaints about
government "social engineering."

Prohibition's racist history

The belief that marijuana prohibition came about
because of the secret machinations of an economic
cabal ignores the pattern of every drug-law crusade in
American history. From the 19th-century campaigns
against opium and alcohol to the crack panic of the
1980s, they have all been fueled by racism and
cultural war, conflated with fear of crime and
occasionally abetted by well-intentioned reform
impulses. (The financial self-interest of the
prison-industrial complex has been a more recent
development.) The first drug-prohibition laws in the
United States were opium bans aimed at Chinese
immigrants. San Francisco outlawed opium in 1875, and
the state of California followed six years later. In
1886, an Oregon judge ruled that the state's opium
prohibition was constitutional even if it proceeded
"more from a desire to vex and annoy the 'Heathen
Chinee'… than to protect the people from the evil
habit," notes Doris Marie Provine in Unequal Under
Law: Race in the War on Drugs. In How the Other Half
Lives, journalist Jacob Riis wrote of opium-addicted
white prostitutes seduced by the "cruel cunning" of
Chinese men.

The path to the 1914 federal narcotics law that
limited cocaine and opioids to medical use -- and was
almost immediately interpreted as prescribing
narcotics to addicts -- was more complex. The main
rationale was ending the over-the-counter sale of
patent medicines such as heroin cough syrup, but there
was a definite racist streak among advocates for
controlling cocaine. "Cocaine is often the direct
incentive to the crime of rape by the Negroes,"
Hamilton Wright, the hard-drinking
doctor-turned-diplomat who spearheaded the first major
multinational drug-control agreements, told Congress.
In 1914, Dr. Edward Huntington Williams opined in the
New York Times Magazine that "once the negro has
formed the habit, he is irreclaimable. The only method
to keep him from taking the drug is by imprisoning

The movement to prohibit alcohol was part puritanical,
part racist. In the big cities, it was anti-immigrant.
Bishop James Cannon of the Anti-Saloon League in 1928
denounced Italians, Poles and Russian Jews as "the
kind of dirty people that you find today on the
sidewalks of New York," while in 1923, Imogen Oakley
of the General Federation of Women's Clubs described
the Irish, Germans, and others as "insoluble lumps of
unassimilated and unassimilable peoples … 'wet' by
heredity and habit." In the South, it was anti-black.
"The disenfranchisement of Negroes is the heart of the
movement in Georgia and throughout the South for the
Prohibition of the liquor traffic," Georgia
prohibitionist A.J. McKelway wrote in 1907. "Liquor
will actually make a brute out of a negro, causing him
to commit unnatural crimes," Alabama Rep. Richmond P.
Hobson told Congress in 1914, a year after he'd
sponsored the first federal Prohibition bill. (He said
it had the same effect on white men, but took longer
because they were "further evolved.")

Prohibitionism was an early example of fundamentalist
Christians' political strength. The midpoint of
William Jennings Bryan's odyssey from the prairie
populist of 1896 to the evolution foe of 1925 was his
endorsement of Prohibition in 1910. The rural puritans
were abetted by middle-class do-gooders who, when they
saw a slum-dwelling factory hand come home drunk and
beat his wife, would blame the saloon instead of the
pressures of capitalist exploitation or the license of
misogyny. And many industrial employers, including
DuPont's gunpowder division, demanded abstinent
workers. World War I's austerity was the final piece
of the puzzle.

Prohibitionists played key roles in the campaign to
outlaw cannabis. Harry Anslinger had been so hardline
that he advocated prosecuting individual users for
possession of alcohol. (Federal Prohibition, unlike
the current marijuana laws, only banned sales, allowed
personal possession and limited home brewing, and had
an exemption for medical use.) Richmond P. Hobson, who
crusaded against drugs in the 1920s as head of the
World Narcotic Defense Association, was an early
advocate of marijuana prohibition. In 1931, he told
the federal Wickersham Commission that marijuana used
in excess "motivates the most atrocious acts." And in
early 1936, the General Federation of Women's Clubs
joined Anslinger's campaign to make reefers verboten.

In a country that was puritanical and racist enough in
1919 to outlaw alcohol in 1919, forbidding cannabis
was politically very easy. Alcohol had been the most
pervasive recreational drug in the Western world for
millennia. Marijuana was virtually unknown. And though
Prohibitionists -- like the immigration laws of the
1920s, the resurgent Ku Klux Klan, and the 1928
presidential campaign against Irish Catholic Democrat
Al Smith -- demonized whiskey-sodden Micks,
wine-soaked wops, traitorous beer-swilling Krauts and
liquor-selling Jew shopkeepers, at least those people
were sort of white. Marijuana was used mainly by
Mexican immigrants and African-Americans.

The Nixon-era escalation of the war on drugs was one
of the few times in U.S. history when white users were
a prime target, as marijuana and LSD provided legal
pretexts to attack the '60s counterculture. Richard
Nixon's White House tapes captured him in 1971
growling that "every one of the bastards that are out
for legalizing marijuana is Jewish." But Nixon and
other law-and-order politicians were most successful
when they lumped youthful cultural-political rebellion
and black militance with ghetto heroin addiction and
the rising crime of the 1970s. New York's draconian
Rockefeller drug laws, passed in 1973 as Gov. Nelson
Rockefeller was trying to look "tough on crime," were
a harbinger of the federal mandatory minimums of the
1980s. The result was that more than 90 percent of the
state's drug prisoners are black or Latino.

The crack hysteria of the late 1980s was another
example of the fear of dark-skinned demons breeding
racially repressive law enforcement. Both federal and
many state crack laws were designed to snare street
dealers and bottom-level distributors, giving them the
same penalties as powder-cocaine wholesalers. The
racial results were obvious almost immediately. In
overwhelmingly white Minnesota, more than 90 percent
of the people convicted of possession of crack in
1988-89 were black. In the early 1990s, the U.S.
Attorney's office in Southern California went more
than five years without prosecuting a white person for

That pattern still holds: In 2003, 81 percent of the
defendants sentenced on crack charges nationwide were
black. And law enforcement didn't spare the
African-American innocent. In an August 1988 drug raid
on an apartment block on Dalton Avenue in South
Central Los Angeles, 88 city cops smashed walls and
furniture with sledgehammers and axes, beat people
with flashlights, and poured bleach on residents'
clothes -- and arrested two teenagers who didn't live
there on minor drug charges.

Why do people believe it?

Why, then, do so many people believe in the "hemp
conspiracy"? First, it's the influence of The Emperor
Wears No Clothes; many people inspired to cannabis
activism by Jack Herer's hemp-can-save-the-world
vision and passionate denunciations of pot prohibition
buy into the whole "conspiracy against marijuana"
package. Another is that many stoners love a good
conspiracy theory; secret cabals are simpler and
sexier villains than sociopolitical forces. The
conspiracist worldview, a hybrid of the
who-really-killed-the-Kennedys suspicions of the '60s
left and the Bilderbergs-and-Illuminati demonology of
the far right, is especially common in rural areas and
among pothead Ron Paul supporters. Most people don't
have the historical or political knowledge to dispute
a conspiracist flood of detailed half-truths.

Counterculture people who see the evil done by
corporations and politicians are often quick to
believe that they are thus guilty of anything and
everything -- that because the CIA tried to kill Fidel
Castro with an exploding cigar, it's therefore
indisputable that it killed Bob Marley by giving him
boots booby-trapped with a carcinogen-tipped wire.
Witness the multitudes who zealously argue that
because George W. Bush gained a political advantage
from the 9/11 attacks and told a thousand lies to
justify the war in Iraq, it's proof that his
operatives planted explosives in the World Trade
Center and set them off an hour or so after the planes

The Bush administration's attempt to link buying herb
to "supporting terrorism" proved more laughable than
lasting. Yet the racism-culture war combination is
still very potent. Among the 360,000 arrests for
marijuana possession in New York City between 1997 and
2006, the decade when mayors Rudolph Giuliani and
Michael Bloomberg turned the city into the nation's
pot-bust capital, 84 percent of the people popped were
black or Latino, mostly young men. And the oft-cited
statistic that there are more black men in prison than
in college should be the equivalent of a doctor's
warning that the nation has a cholesterol level
approaching Jerry Garcia's after years on a diet of
ice cream, cigarettes and heroin.

Steven Wishnia is the author of "Exit 25 Utopia," "The
Cannabis Companion" and "Invincible Coney Island." He
lives in New York.

© 2008 Independent Media Institute. All rights
Posted on February 21, 2008, Printed on February 21,


1 comment:

jeannieherer said...

Man-Made Fiber - The Toxic Alternative to Natural Fibers

The late 1920s and 1930s saw continuing consolidation of power into the hands of a few large steel, oil and chemical (munitions) companies. The U.S. federal government placed much of the textile production for the domestic economy in the hands of its chief munitions maker, DuPont.

The processing of nitrating cellulose into explosives is very similar to the process for nitrating cellulose into synthetic fibers and plastics. Rayon, the first synthetic fiber, is simply stabilized guncotton, or nitrated cloth, the basic explosive of the 19th century.

“Synthetic plastics find application in fabricating a wide variety of articles, many of which in the past were made from natural products,” beamed Lammot DuPont (Popular Mechanics, June 1939).

“Consider our natural resources,” the president of DuPont continued, “The chemist has aided in conserving natural resources by developing synthetic products to supplement or wholly replace natural products.”

DuPont’s scientists were the world’s leading researchers into the processes of nitrating cellulose and were in fact the largest processor of cellulose in the nation in this era.

The February 1938 Popular Mechanics article stated “Thousands of tons of hemp hurds are used every year by one large powder company for the manufacture of dynamite and TNT.” History shows that DuPont had largely cornered the market in explosives by buying up and consolidating the smaller blasting companies in the late 1800s. By 1902 it controlled about two-thirds of industry output.

They were the largest powder company, supplying 40% of the munitions for the allies in WWI. As cellulose and fiber researchers, DuPont’s chemists knew hemp’s true value better than anyone else. The value of hemp goes far beyond line fibers; although recognized for linen, canvas, netting and cordage, these long fibers are only 20% of the hemp stalk’s weight. Eighty percent of the hemp is in the 77% cellulose hurd, and this was the most abundant, cleanest resource of cellulose (fiber) for paper, plastics and even rayon.

The empirical evidence in this book shows that the federal government – through the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act – allowed this munitions maker to supply synthetic fibers for the domestic economy without competition. The proof of a successful conspiracy among these corporate and governing interests is simply this: in 1997 DuPont was still the largest producer of man-made fibers, while no American citizen has legally harvested a single acre of textile grade hemp in over 60 years (except during the period of WWII).

An almost unlimited tonnage of natural fiber and cellulose would have become available to the American farmer in 1937, the year DuPont patented Nylon and the polluting wood-pulp paper sulfide process. All of hemp’s potential value was lost.

Simple plastics of the early 1900s were made of nitrated cellulose, directly related to DuPont’s munitions-making process. Celluloid, acetate and rayon were the simple plastics of that era, and hemp was well known to cellulose researchers as the premier resource for this new industry to use. Worldwide, the raw material of simple plastics, rayon and paper could be best supplied by hemp hurds.

Nylon fibers were developed between 1926-1937 by the noted Harvard chemist Wallace Carothers, working from German patents. These polyamides are long fibers based on observed natural products. Carothers, supplied with an open-ended research grant from DuPont, made a comprehensive study of natural cellulose fibers. He duplicated natural fibers in his labs and polyamides – long fibers of a specific chemical process – were developed. (Curiously, Wallace Carothers committed suicide in April of 1937, one week after the House Ways and Means Committee had the hearings on cannabis and created the bill that would eventually outlaw hemp.)

Coal tar and petroleum-based chemicals were employed, and different devices, spinnerets and processes were patented. This new type of textile, Nylon, was to be controlled from the raw material stage, as coal, to the completed product: a patented chemical product. The chemical company centralized the production and profits of the new “miracle” fiber. The introduction of Nylon, the introduction of high-volume machinery to separate hemp’s long fiber from the cellulose hurd, and the outlawing of hemp as “marijuana” all occurred simultaneously.

The new man-made fibers (MMFs) can best be described as war material. The fiber-making process has become one based on big factories, smokestacks, coolants and hazardous chemicals, rather than one of stripping out the abundant, naturally available fibers.

Coming from a history of making explosives and munitions, the old “chemical dye plants” now produce hosiery, mock linens, mock canvas, latex paint and synthetic carpets. Their polluting factories make imitation leather, upholstery and wood surfaces, while an important part of the natural cycle stands outlawed.

The standard fiber of world history, America’s traditional crop, hemp, could provide our textiles and paper and be the premier source for cellulose. The war industries – DuPont, Allied Chemical, Monsanto, etc., - are protected from competition by the marijuana laws. They made war on the natural cycle and the common farmer.

By Shan Clark


Encyclopedia of Textiles, 3rd Edition by the editors of American Fabrics and Fashions Magazine, William C. Legal, Publisher Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1980; The Emergence of Industrial America Strategic Factors in American Economic Growth Since 1870, Peter George State University, NY; DuPont (a corporate autobiography published periodically by E.I. DuPont De Nemours and Co., Inc., Wilmington, DE.; The Blasting Handbook, E.I. DuPont De Nemours & Co., Inc., Wilmington, DE; Mechanical Engineering Magazine, Feb. 1938; Popular Mechanics, Feb 1938; Journal of Applied Polymer Science, Vol. 47, 1984; Polyamides, the Chemistry of Long Molecules (author unknown); U.S. Patent #2,071,250 (Feb. 16, 1937), W.H. Carothers; DuPont Dynasties, Jerry Colby; The American Peoples Encyclopedia, the Sponsor Press, Chicago, 1953.
(The Emperor Wears No Clothes, Chapter 4)