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Can We Have Rope Without Dope?

Pubdate: September, 1943 Source: Popular Science Author: Alden P. Armagnac, News Editor Pages: 62-63



We need hemp - lots of it - for cordage, but hemp means marijuana, too. Can scientists take the drug menace out of this useful plant?

Co-operating with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, American farmers will produce 75,000 tons of hemp fiber this year, and probably more than twice as much in 1944. The record-shattering crops will replace Manila fiber from the Philippines and sisal from the Dutch East Indies, which are now cut off by the war.

The result will be a boon to users of cordage - and a headache for law-enforcement officers. A Jekyll-and-Hyde plant, hemp provides twine and rope urgently needed for military purposes. But it also yields marijuana, a drug that makes depraved creatures of its addicts. What can be done to keep these enormous new supplies, from which there almost inevitably will be "leaks," out of their twitching hands?

"Drugless hemp" is the bold proposal of the Department of Agriculture for solving the problem. In short, it is attempting to breed a strain of hemp of good fiber quality, but containing a negligible amount of the baneful marijuana drug. For aid, it has enlisted the expert services of Dr. H.E. Warmke, at the Cold Springs Harbor, N.Y., experimental station of the Carnegie Institution.

First of Dr. Warmke's problems has been to develop a method of determining reliably the amount of marijuana in individual hemp plants. With undesirables weeded out, he then cross-pollinates and breeds the desirable, or relatively drug-free, plants. Only a little more time will be needed to learn whether he can establish a pure, self-perpetuating race of them.

Fish serve as test animals for determining the potency of marijuana extracts. Previous experimenters have used dogs, and tried to estimate the extent of their marijuana "jag" - something hard to reduce to cold figures. But when a fish is placed in a strong solution of marijuana extract, it soon is most thoroughly dead, and such an observation cannot be disputed. Therefore, Dr. Warmke puts two killifish, or "Atlantic minnows," into each of four beakers containing precisely measured dilutions of the drug - very strong, strong, medium, and weak. Then he can record the number of fish killed and get a definite measure of the poison in the plant.

First encouraging results show a great range in the amount of marijuana in different hemp plants. Some prove to be one eighth as poisonous as others an excellent starting point for a plant breeder. And actual breeding has definitely resulted in improvement. With true scientific caution, Dr. Warmke refuses to admit having "Burbanked" a drugless hemp until a few more plant generations have been tested, but to a layman's eyes he seems close to his goal.

[Photograph captions]

This year America will grow 75,000 tons of hemp fiber whose leaves and flowers (left) will contain marijuana. (Photograph Above from U.S. Department of Agriculture)

1 The seedling of one of many plants being bred to reduce the marijuana content of hemp

2 Dried center leaflets from each leaf of mature plant are ground to powder in mortar

3 Measured amount of powder is put in vial, and a chemical is added to extract marijuana

4 To determine the potency of the extract, a pair of killifish are placed in each of four beakers containing solutions of the drug ranging from very strong (left) to weak (right). In this way, the number of fish that are killed gives a graduated measure of the amount of marijuana in the plant tested.

5 In effort to breed a "pure" hemp, plants with low toxicity are cross-pollinated by shaking pollen from male plant (right) on stigmas of female