Samuel Thayer is a writer on wild edible plants who lives in Wisconsin. The only minor complaint I can find on his two books are they deal mostly with plants found in his area and don’t offer much to those living elsewhere in North America. I haven’t read either book, so I couldn’t say how reliable they are, but judging from his online postings, Thayer is a prolific, dedicated and capable scholar.
Thayer recently started a mission to “expose the hemp hoax” and created a website for this purpose. The major thrust of his site seems to be to paint Jack Herer as a muddled-headed nincompoop. Before going any farther into this controversy, it’s important to note Thayer supports hemp legalization and will not discuss the medicinal aspects of cannabis. He does, however, question some cherished beliefs of the hemp movement and since I helped launch that movement with Jack Herer when we created the Freedom Fighters around 1988, I feel compelled to respond.
Initially, Jack actually asked me to edit the Emperor Wears No Clothes, something I certainly wanted to do at the time, although my company passed on that project. Had I been involved, however, the book probably would have looked a little different. Although I initially got swept up with Jack’s rhetoric, after I was interviewed for a documentary shown in Australia, I began to see potential problems.
In that interview, I’d repeated something Jack had told me: the word “Bangladesh” means “marijuana-land-people.” This was based solely on the fact “bhang” is a name for cannabis in India. But when people living in Bangladesh viewed this documentary, they contacted the media company responsible and complained. In fact, the origins of the names “bengal” and “bangla” are unclear, but the country is largely a construct of the British empire, which redrew borders along religious lines when they officially departed India. But virtually no one living in Bangladesh thinks the name of their country was taken from the word “bhang.”
So I knew there were some errors in Jack’s book. The basic message, however, was sound. The most important question Jack raised was: how come hemp virtually disappeared from the history books?
In the Middle Ages, when this campaign seems to have begun, the explanation was simple: The Roman Catholic Church had forbidden all discussion of the plant, as it was on the official list of substances considered proof of witchcraft. Since cannabis was known as a great healer to many cultures, it’s use was widespread when the Vatican crackdown began, a crackdown that may have coincided with the emergence of a group known as The Society of Smokers, who began writing secular music to celebrate their favorite hobby. At this time, the Vatican looked upon written music as something they should exclusively own and control. Unfortunately, the history of the Society of Smokers has virtually disappeared, although a few of their written songs remain. Rome’s resistance to cannabis may have also caused the plant to disappear from the Bible, even though it seems obvious today the burning bush was cannabis, as was the primary ingredient in the holy anointing oil of the Old Testament.
But just as disturbing, the rich history of cannabis in the United States also disappeared. Was the media campaign demonizing cannabis carefully calculated? Or did it just fall into place by happenstance? I’d suggest that the original master of propaganda, Edward Bernays, helped orchestrate public opinion against cannabis, at the same time he was promoting tobacco use, especially among woman. Could not these two campaigns have gone hand-in-hand to serve similar corporate interests?
Jack drew a line from Hearst to DuPont to Mellon to Anslinger and devised a theory around those associations, but zero evidence was ever uncovered that validated that conspiracy theory. The real story behind prohibition has yet to be uncovered, but would anyone doubt that certain crucial plants were made illegal in order to produce higher profits elsewhere? The East India Company learned how much more profitable opium was once it was outlawed in China.
At this time in history, hemp cannot produce biomass fuel or paper or fiber to compete with current industries. But considering paper mills are spewing dioxin and cotton has immense toxic chemicals applied to it every year, shouldn’t we be trying to develop more environmentally sound alternatives rather than trying to knock them down? We’d have a lot better statistics on the potentials of hemp cultivation if farmers here could actually grow it.
Most points Thayer makes seem like knocking down straw men to me. For example, does any activist care when cannabis was introduced to North America? And what difference does it make whether the Vikings, Pilgrims, or anyone else carried it to this continent? Certainly, once here, hemp was acknowledged as an important crop as the Tuscarora soon took their tribal name (“hemp gatherers”) from this plant, which just shows how important they considered its cultivation and use. The Tuscarora may have been the first tribe to smoke it.
We learned long ago, the Declaration of Independence was written on animal parchment, not hemp. In fact, there never was any controversy over that point or many of the other “hemp myths” Thayer debunks.
All this points to the need for a more scholarly and comprehensive look at hemp and its potential impact. Yes, the hemp movement spouted some silly nonsense in the early days, but most of that has already been acknowledged and revised. And most of the early confusion can be attributed to the dearth of reliable information available.
Jack was not really a scholar by trade, but he did his best to fill the information gap and even though some of his conclusions seem dubious and have since been disputed, today there are houses made of hempcrete and hemp foods on the shelves of every health food store in America. Would this have happened without Jack?
Ok, so some of his rhetoric was not 100% correct, but that’s a job for future scholars to sort out. Jack is no longer here to defend himself, or he’d be at the library right now dissecting every point Thayer makes, but I’m sure he’d give ground if more recent and reliable studies proved him wrong on some points. But that doesn’t mean hemp isn’t an important crop that needs to be brought back into cultivation. And one thing I learned about science: it can easily be colored by politics. So just as some activists exaggerate hemp’s potential, the prohibitionists keep busy exaggerating its dangers. There are lies, damn lies and statistics.
Meanwhile, one of the world’s most useful plants remains illegal. And anyone who really cares about plants must realize prohibition is a farce and always has been.