The History & Politics of Hemp
In modern American culture, it’s easy to pass hemp off as a trend but behind this plant lies a much deeper history of usage in this country and around the world. From clothing to food to medicine, hemp is one of the most versatile plants on the planet. But wide usage over all 7 continents spanning some 10,000 years wasn’t enough to save this plant from a rocky path to modern acceptance and usage. Below we dive into the wild history and politics of hemp - from the beginning to the present day.
The first traces of hemp date back to between 7000-8000 BC, which means that hemp was one of the first agricultural crops to ever exist. These first remnants were found in Asian regions that are now known as China and Taiwan but not too long after remnants showed up across Europe, Africa, and South America. Hemp in these times was cultivated as herbal medicine and hemp oil was utilized for various things like pottery, food, and textiles.
Fast forward to 2000 BC where hemp starts to pop up in ancient texts like the Hindu book, Athavarveda (Science of Charms), which refers to hemp as the “Sacred Grass”, one of five sacred plants in India. From this point and up until 200 BC, traces of hemp continued to spread across Europe and through Russia.
In 100 BC, China began producing hemp paper and hemp rope was found in Britain. Over the next few hundred years, hemp popularity continued to grow due to paper production and medicinal usage.
Hemp became a major lifeline amongst western farmers in 1533 when The King of England imposed a fine for farmers who didn’t grow hemp.
North American history of hemp
In the early 1600s, Jamestown settlers used hemp to make rope, sails, clothing, paper, and food. By the 1700s, American farmers were required to grow hemp by law. It may not be written in our textbooks but early drafts of the Declaration of Independence were written on hemp paper and many of our founding fathers advocated for the benefits of this plant.
Skip along to the late 1800s, where pharmacies and doctors across Europe and the United States began prescribing cannabis extracts to treat stomach pain and vomiting in people suffering from Cholera.
From this point on, the evolution of hemp usage in the United States becomes very muddy. Up until the early 1900s, the cannabis plant hadn’t been widely used recreationally. The practice of smoking marijuana became popular during the Mexican Revolution, an already tumultuous time for the country. Unironically during this time, the term ‘marijuana’ was used to directly associate the plant and smoking practices with the Mexican population. Before the revolution, cannabis was still referred to as hemp. This association was used as grounds for searching and deporting Mexican immigrants.
Cannabis culture in the States took a sharp turn in 1929 when the first commissioner of the United States Federal Bureau of Narcotics labeled cannabis as a “devil drug”. Commissioner Henry Anslinger used the term ‘marijuana’ to instill fear of the drug in relation to the Mexican immigrant population. Convinced that cannabis was dangerous, commissioner Anslinger began contacting scientists to provide evidence that backed his claim up. 29 of the 30 scientists he contacted denied him the research he was looking for but that didn’t stop him from spreading his agenda to many prominent American businessmen. Anslinger and these prominent businessmen teamed up to birth the infamous Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. To little surprise, the main opposer of this tax was the American Medical Association who went as far as arguing the measure in court. This new tax was especially problematic for the public as it held zero distinction between hemp and marijuana, which heavily discouraged the continued production of hemp.
The 40s and 50s brought some major ups and downs for the hemp industry following pro-hemp initiatives from the USDA and U.S. government in support of the war. These initiatives led to over 150,000 acres of new hemp production. By 1957, farmers found themselves planting the last commercial hemp fields in the U.S. in Wisconsin. The “War on Drugs” had only just begun.
The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classified cannabis as an illegal Schedule 1 drug alongside LSD, ecstasy, and heroin. This classification stripped hemp of its medical usage and disallowed the usage of any extracts from hemp. If farmers wished to continue growing hemp, they were required to register with the DEA.
With the ‘90s came positive changes to the hemp industry. The U.S began importing food-grade hemp seeds and oil and in 1996, California became the first state to legalize marijuana for medical use. It wasn’t until 2007 that two farmers from North Dakota were granted licenses to grow hemp. These were the first licenses to be granted in over 50 years. Over this same period, hemp gained popularity as a soil-cleansing agent known for its ability to remove toxins and even radioactive chemicals from the soil.
In 2014, President Barack Obama signed the Farm Bill, which allowed research institutions to start piloting hemp farming. Shortly after, The Industrial Hemp Farming Act was introduced in the House and Senate. This act aimed to be a stepping stone on the path to fully legalizing hemp.
After many failed attempts at passing the hemp-specific laws, the 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp along with its seeds and derivatives from the Controlled Substances Act. Hemp farming is now fully legalized by the Federal government in all 50 states through the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018. A few states (Idaho, Mississippi, South Dakota, and New Hampshire) have more recently chosen to override this federal law, disallowing hemp farming for the time being. When it comes to consumption or topical usage, hemp-derived CBD is also legal in all 50 states as long as it has less than .3% THC.
Rigorous testing, background checks, and licensing are required for any person looking to get into hemp production. The industry is currently experiencing both a worker shortage and a lack of crop insurance protection.
As hemp-derived products gain popularity in the present day, further research and testing continue to unlock new potential uses for the plant.
Photo: "Women Breaking Hemp" by Félix Arnaudin Commensacq, France 1893. Courtesy of The Canna Chronicles.