Hemp is known as one of the non-THC components of the cannabis plant and holds the potential to help “green up” a number of industries. Hemp’s fiber, seeds and oil are incredibly valuable and provides additional reasons for why cannabis is referred to as a “cash crop.” For thousands of years, industrial hemp was the desired fiber used to manufacture rope, canvas, paper and clothing until alternative textiles and synthetics for these purposes were discovered and popularized. Hemp is extremely versatile, in which its many uses made it a mainstay in the everyday lives of the earliest Americans. The Hemp Industries Association and Hemp.com tell us below how hemp use across human history has shaped society, as well as insight into the major comeback it is having today.
Hemp is an ancient plant that has been cultivated for ages, and is among the oldest industries in history. The Columbia History of the World states that that weaving of hemp fiber began over 10,000 years ago. Carbon tests have suggested that the use of wild hemp dates as far back as 8,000 B.C.
In the 16th Century, Henry VIII encouraged farmers to plant hemp to provide materials for the construction of the British Naval fleet for battleships and their components. The ship’s riggings, pendants, pennants, sails and oakum were all made from hemp fiber and oil. Hemp paper was used for maps, logs and even for the Bibles that sailors may have brought on board.
By the 17th century, farmers in Virginia, Massachusetts and Connecticut were ordered by law to grow Indian hemp. A landowner could be sentenced to jail if they were not growing hemp by the early 18th century. The Declaration of Independence itself was printed on high-quality hemp paper, and the threads of the earliest American flags were strung from hemp’s rugged fibers. Even Presidents Washington and Jefferson both grew hemp. Hemp was considered to be legal tender. For over 200 years in colonial America, hemp was currency that a U.S. citizen could use to pay their taxes.
The 1850 U.S. census documented approximately 8,400 hemp plantations of at least 2000 acres. The variety of hemp strains in cultivation included China hemp, Smyrna hemp and Japanese hemp. For years, hemp farmers used a hand break operated machine when harvesting until a machine was built that would take care of all the work. By 1920 the hemp crop was entirely handled by machinery. This machinery was equal to the best grades prepared on hand brakes because it would break the retted stalks and clean the fiber to produce fresh, straight hemp fiber. This machine was able to harvest 1,000 pounds or more of clean hemp fiber per hour. This breakthrough made cultivating hemp more fiscally attractive by reducing labor costs.
Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937 that effectively began the era of hemp prohibition. The tax and licensing regulations of the Marijuana Tax Act made hemp cultivation nearly impossible for American farmers. The chief promoter of the Marijuana Tax Act, Harry Anslinger, began promoting anti-marijuana legislation around the world.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II immediately shut off foreign supplies of “manila hemp” fiber from the Philippines. This prompted the USDA to produce a film called “Hemp For Victory” that was used to encourage American farmers to grow hemp for the war effort. The United States government formed the War Hemp Industries Department and subsidized hemp cultivation. During World War II, American farmers grew about a million acres of hemp across the Midwest as part of that program. As soon as the war ended, all of the hemp processing plants were shut down and the industry disappeared once again.
From the passing of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937 until the late 1960s, the U.S. government understood and acknowledged that industrial hemp and marijuana were two separate variations of the cannabis plant. Once the Controlled Substances Act in 1970 was passed, hemp was no longer officially recognized as distinct from marijuana and hemp was viewed as a threat. This was a defining moment in the history of hemp. Propaganda films like “Reefer Madness” assured hemp and marijuana’s demise.
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In 2014, President Obama signed the Agricultural Act, also known as the “Farm Bill.” This Farm Bill removed federal restrictions on industrial hemp. Under the law, any states that legalize it may set up research programs to study the benefits of hemp cultivation. A new Farm Bill is currently making its way through Congress, and a vote on the final bill will take place before the end of 2019. The current version of the bill contains provisions that will make it easier for farmers to grow hemp.
Three years after the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, the hemp advocacy group Vote Hemp reports more than 25,000 acres of American hemp being grown by nearly 1,500 farmers across 19 different states. In addition, 32 different research institutions are involved in hemp research.
All of these developments will contribute to the momentum of agricultural hemp’s big comeback. If the unwarranted federal prohibition of hemp is finally repealed, the world’s oldest domesticated crop will once again be available to serve mankind in a broad range of environmentally friendly ways.