Prohibition & Hemp

Prohibition Becomes Law in 1919

Although the ‘Free Alcohol’ bill passed in 1906 had been amended in 1914 to cut the regulatory burden and to encourage alcohol production in the United States, the oil industry had become very powerful and production declined. And then Prohibition became law in 1919! Although this could in fact increase ethanol production by having the distilleries produce ethanol rather than alcohol for consumption, many politicians felt that this would be ‘making a bargain with the devil’ and the idea was soon forgotten.

Enter ‘marijuana’, another one of the many strains of the hemp family. Only this strain got you high! It was always known that a certain strain of hemp could produce a euphoric high and in the early 1920’s marijuana started showing up more often and was used mostly as a recreational drug by jazz musicians and people in the entertainment industry, ‘Tea Pads’ or marijuana establishments became the new local pub or place to go and they sprung up everywhere in most major cities. The authorities didn’t consider marijuana much of a social threat and as it was not illegal, these Tea Pad establishments were tolerated.  Many historians claim that popularity of marijuana came about because of prohibition.

At the same time as the popularity of marijuana was growing, General Motors was experimenting with new gasoline mixtures to combat the knocking sound coming from engines being run strictly on gasoline. In 1921 they develop ‘leaded gasoline’ and by 1924 it was being marketed in the US despite protests from health officials about the potential of lead poisoning. GM stated “So far as science knows at the present time, tetraethyl lead is the only material available which can bring about these (antiknock) results.” This statement was an outright lie! There are no reports mentioning engine knocking from ethanol fueled engines!

GM researcher, Thomas Midgley, stated earlier in 1921, prior to leaded gasoline being put on the market: “The most direct route which we now know for converting energy from its source, the sun, into a material that is suitable for use in an internal combustion motor is through vegetation to alcohol… It now appears that alcohol is the only liquid from a direct vegetable source that combines relative cheapness with suitability (although other sources might be found)… Alcohol will stand very high initial compressions without knocking, and at high compressions is smooth and highly satisfactory.”

Other prominent business people were also in agreement!

Rolls-Royce engine designer Harry Ricardo writes in 1923 “…It is a matter of absolute necessity to find an alternative fuel. Fortunately, such a fuel is in sight in the form of alcohol; this is a vegetable product whose consumption involves no drain on the world’s storage and which, in tropical countries at all events, can ultimately be produced in quantities sufficient to meet the world’s demand, at all events at the present rate of consumption. By the use of a fuel derived from vegetation, mankind is adapting the sun’s heat to the development of motive power, as it becomes available from day to day; by using mineral fuels, he is consuming a legacy – and a limited legacy at that…”

Henry Ford tells the New York Times in 1925 that ethyl alcohol is ‘the fuel of the future’ which “is going to come from fruit like that sumach out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust — almost anything. There is fuel in every bit of vegetable matter that can be fermented. There’s enough alcohol in one year’s yield of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for a hundred years.”

Even though many prominent people expressed support of organic material for alcohol production, the oil company’s power continued to increase and hemp production continued its decline in America. In Europe however, many countries continued experimenting with alternative fuels and hemp was a big part of that experimentation.

A campaign to end Prohibition in the United States emerged in 1933. The American Petroleum Institute was very concerned about renewed interest in ethanol as a fuel and begins a campaign against ethanol blends, claiming that these fuels “will harm the petroleum industry and the automobile industry as well as state and national treasuries by reducing oil consumption.” They go on to claim that the sole beneficiaries would be the distillers, railroads (which would transport the alcohol) and bootleggers “to whom would be opened brand new fields of fraud.” They also claimed that alcohol fuels were “inferior to gasoline” which was simply not true!

Prohibition ends with the passage of the Twenty-first Amendment to the United States Constitution on December 5, 1933. The war on alcohol was over! The war on hemp was just beginning!

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