The symptoms and side effects of reefer madness are now clearer than ever.
Politicians, even those who never inhaled, suffer paranoid delusions. Over the past century, Canada's ludicrous and draconian marijuana policies wasted billions in criminal-justice resources.
Crime gangs got rich and recreational marijuana users--about as dangerous as contented cats--were fined and jailed by the thousands.
But that's only half of it. What we now know is that the government's marijuana paranoia cost this country a cash crop of boundless potential.
I don't mean marijuana, though some of us wish pot was grown and taxed by government so the windfall could enrich society instead of gangsters.
I refer instead to hemp, a benign super-plant and casualty of Canada's war on drugs.
Fortunately, hemp is finally making a comeback, in part because of the work of the Alberta Research Council.
ARC plant physiologist Jan Slaski is as keen on hemp as he is tired of reefer jokes.
Slaski isn't laughing, he says, because the jokes only perpetuate a bad myth.
Hemp, or industrial hemp as Slaski calls it, is not marijuana. Two different plants.
Slaski says the hardy hemp plant has been cultivated for more than 8,000 years. Its plant fibres were used in everything from clothes to shoes to rope. Its seed oil is rich in health Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids.
When Ukrainian settlers came to Canada, they brought hemp seeds. One record in the archives talked about pioneers using hemp to create a soothing tea.
But while industrial hemp has some of the psycho-active THC found in marijuana, the amounts are far less intoxicating than all-ages, de-alcoholized beer.
Slaski says THC concentrations in hemp are a fraction--one per cent or less--of that in marijuana. You'd die of smoke inhalation trying to get high.
Still, one of the research council's aims is to breed a hemp plant with no detectable THC. Why? Because of marijuana paranoia.
In 1998, 60 years after the feds prohibited the growing of hemp as part of its war on drugs, controlled plots were again allowed.
Modern hemp growers had to jump through high hoops, including a criminal record check and detailed licence application to Health Canada.
The lingering hemp hysteria is summed up nicely by one of Health Canada's rules: No hemp can be grown within one kilometre of a school.
So why is the research council working so hard to redeem hemp? Well, because of its potential to not only give Alberta farmers an economic edge, but also help save the environment.
Hemp literally grows like a weed. It can reach or exceed three metres in height during our short growing season.
It produces biomass--usable plant material--like nothing else.
Researchers have yet to identify a pest threat to hemp. It's early season vigour allows it to out-compete weeds. So unlike cereal crops, hemp is organic, requiring no pesticide applications.
"It truly is a super crop," Slaski says.
Forget hemp's healthy food-oil potential for a moment. That may come if people can get over the fear of taking a trip on hemp-fried foods.
But the fibre from hemp could be used in everything from pulp-and-paper to textiles. Alberta is only one of many jurisdictions in the world that clear-cuts forests for pulp.
Forest companies must travel further and further from the pulp mill to retrieve feed stock, which then takes at least 60 years to regrow.
Put enough hemp in production and you'd get an annual, renewable fibre supply for paper production.
Hemp could also replace cotton, which requires large applications of pesticides. Hemp could also replace glass fibre, which is used in the making of composite materials, like plastics for the automotive industry.
Glass fibre requires high heat and energy in its industrial production. Hemp? Rain and sun. Glass fibres aren't biodegradable like hemp. Hemp fibres are lighter. Lighter cars require less fuel.
The use of hemp in composite plastics is being studied in earnest by the ARC. Slaski has talked to automakers who say they'll sign contracts if hemp composites meet strict requirements. And if production levels can be guaranteed.
The first requirement is being met ARC labs. But we're a long way from widespread hemp farming, largely because of its undeserved reputation.
But then again, marijuana also has an undeserved reputation. It's obvious to anyone who looks objectively at the facts that marijuana causes less harm than alcohol, both to the individual and society.
Is marijuana safe? Any psychoactive substance can be abused. But marijuana doesn't kill brain cells or inspire violence like alcohol does.
So when you consider how this society promotes and celebrates the use of a more dangerous drug, alcohol, our marijuana policies appear silly.
But even sillier is that industrial hemp got caught up in the madness.
In case you're wondering, the answer is no. I don't smoke pot. I tried it as a teenager but I found it made me paranoid.
By Scott Mckeen
November 6, 2009