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updated: 5/22/2014 6:43 AM

A victim of war on drugs, hemp poised for Illinois comeback

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  • A film produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture during World War II encouraged American farmers to show their patriotism by growing hemp, which was used to make a variety of military products.

      A film produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture during World War II encouraged American farmers to show their patriotism by growing hemp, which was used to make a variety of military products.
    U.S. Department of Agriculture

  • This 1937 photo by Russell Lee shows a stack of hemp grown on George Erickson's farm near Seneca. Illinois grew some hemp in the 1930s but greatly increased production during World War II.

      This 1937 photo by Russell Lee shows a stack of hemp grown on George Erickson's farm near Seneca. Illinois grew some hemp in the 1930s but greatly increased production during World War II.
    Courtesy of Library of Congress

  • Video: 'Hemp for Victory' 1942 film

  • Video: Hemp mill hour west of Elgin

 
 

In every war, there is "collateral damage." In our war on drugs, hemp fell victim to our government's attack. This week, the Illinois legislature moved a step closer to reviving the plant once hailed in our state as part of our patriotic duty.

The state Senate voted unanimously Monday to pass a bill that would allow Illinois colleges and universities to conduct research on industrial hemp. The House passed the original bill by a 70-28 margin in April, and it is expected to OK the version approved by the Senate.

It's a small first step toward revitalizing Illinois' once-thriving hemp production industry, says Dan Linn, a former Lake County resident and executive director of Illinois NORML, the nonprofit advocacy group best known for its efforts to legalize marijuana.

The tall, agricultural hemp once grown by farmers in Illinois is not the same as the leafy pot plants grown for medical marijuana or by illegal drug producers. Industrial hemp contains less than 0.03 percent of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the active chemical compound that provides the psychological effects sought by marijuana users.

Industrial hemp looks like bamboo. Its fiber is used to make cloth and fabric, while its seeds and oil are used in foods and other products.

Walk into any health food store and you'll see plenty of hemp products.

"We just import all the raw materials from Canada or China," Linn says. "We need to have the raw materials produced in Illinois."

Illinois became a leading hemp producer in 1943 with the opening of the Polo Hemp Mill in the farming community about an hour west of Elgin. A small museum in Polo tells the story of how local farmers grew hemp as part of their patriotic duty during World War II. The government even produced a film, "Hemp for Victory," encouraging farmers to grow the plant needed to make "shoes for millions of American soldiers," "parachute webbing for our paratroopers," fire hoses and millions of ropes for our battleships.

The Illinois House voted Wednesday to allow children with epilepsy access to medical marijuana, but even as the government has become more open to medical marijuana and the decriminalization of recreational use of marijuana, the war against industrial hemp remains.

The agricultural department of Kentucky, which is looking to let farmers grow hemp, sued the federal government this month after Drug Enforcement Administration agents in Louisville seized 250 pounds of Italian hemp seed, which passed through customs at O'Hare. In court Wednesday, officials appeared to be working on an agreement that would let Kentucky grow hemp for research.

"It's bizarre how politics have changed over the years about hemp-growing," Linn says.

The United States is the only industrialized democracy that hasn't legalized hemp farms as a crop far different from marijuana.

"We're the only ones who can't tell the difference between these plants," Linn says sarcastically.

Remnants of Illinois' war years as a hemp producer can still be found.

"There's still farmers who tell us it's growing along railroad tracks where it fell off railroad cars during World War II," Linn says. The plant grows easily without pesticides and fertilizers and is classified as a noxious weed in Illinois.

But NORML hopes to change that. The first week of June marks the fifth annual Hemp History Week, where supporters note that the Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper; George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams all grew hemp on their farms; and that lamp Abe Lincoln read by was fueled by hemp oil.

On May 29, NORML activists will lobby legislators to legalize hemp during a reception in Springfield.

"From those early days of our country to the 'Hemp for Victory' program during World War II, industrial hemp has played a vital role in our nation's agricultural history," Linn says, vowing to restore hemp "to its rightful place as a valuable agricultural commodity in Illinois."

The lobbying effort will include hemp fabric, a hemp pizza made with flour from ground hemp seeds, hemp milk, hemp hummus, hemp oil dressings and even hemp beer.

A botanical cousin to hops, the hemp used to make beer could be enough to alter the minds of hemp-wary politicians.

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