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A Brief History of Hemp and The United States



[dropcap class=”kp-dropcap”]T[/dropcap]here is one crop which has proven to be both an industrial wonder and a medical wonder. It has been grown in some of the earliest civilizations and helped transform hunter-gatherer tribes into the first urbanized societies. It was traded via the “Silk Road” alongside ancient religious rites among Vikings and colonists on sea voyages. Yet here in America, it’s federally illegal.

What is it? Hemp.

Hemp History Week is a grassroots effort in its ninth year to educate and drive federal policy to be more accepting of hemp in the United States. Hemp, which is the common name for the industrial cannabis crop, has a long rich history and is one of the oldest cultivated crops in human history, and beyond the use of cannabis in medical and recreational products is hemp’s use as a strong fiber.


Hemp Begins Spreading

There are signs of cannabis consumption going back 12,000 year ago, when ancient sites first show signs of agriculture. Cannabis is believed to have evolved on the central Asian steppes, mostly in what is now Mongolia. When trade routes began reaching through that area to eastern Europe and eastern Asia, cannabis began being spread through Europe to Africa, and came to the Americas through European explorers.

Cannabis was grown for its durable hemp fiber, and is used in textiles like clothing, sails and ropes. More than the spread of its use as a psychoactive, it was also grown for medical and religious reasons. It was also used to make paper, and the seeds were used as food. Since the Vikings used hemp in their sails and ropes, it is entirely possible Leif Erikson depended on hemp sails to make his voyage to north America around 986, and 1492 saw cannabis seeds in Christopher Columbus’ cargo hold.


A Brief American History

Though an online myth persists, claiming that the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper is mostly untrue, since the document’s parchment is made from animal skin. However, the first two drafts of the declaration were in fact written on hemp paper.

Colonists such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams are well-documented as growing hemp, which was mostly exported for use in Britain’s shipbuilding industry.  In 1619 King James decreed that American colonists would be forced to grow 100 hemp plants each for export. It was such an important crop in colonial America that farmers could be jailed for not growing it until almost the revolution.

Other than homegrown concoctions, cannabis was labeled on medicine bottles as cannabis sativa. It was entered into the United States Pharmacoepeia in 1850 as a treatment for many conditions including alcoholism, cholera, tetanus, and even opiate addiction, a treatment being rediscovered by researchers to combat todays opiate addiction crisis.


Criminalization by Association

Growing concerns about cannabis were fueled by propaganda (such as the film “Reefer Madness”) and yellow journalism. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 taxed the sale of cannabis, and included special stamps farmers had to use to ship hemp as well as a federal registry. It was the first use of the slang term brought with Mexican immigrants into the US and has stood as a federal definition of cannabis and hemp ever since. The Federal government banned cannabis, including hemp, under the name ‘marijuana’ in the Controlled Substances Act in 1970.


A Potential Moneymaker

Inspired by more modern technologies, Popular Mechanics published an article in 1938 calling hemp the “New Billion Dollar Crop” and discussing the multitude of industrial uses and its ability to create jobs for some of the 19 percent of workers that were unemployed at the time.

During World War II, the Tax Act was briefly lifted so Americans could grow hemp for the Navy, outfitting “Old Ironsides: with 55 tons worth in its rigging and sails. After the war the tax was reinstated. Unfortunately, cheap synthetic fibers being made available also drove put the hemp industry in the United States.

Beginning in California in 1996, medical cannabis was legalized on the state level, and recreational cannabis was legalized in Colorado in 2014. The 2014 Farm Bill changed the Controlled Substances Act to allow for growing hemp for research purposes. However, growing hemp for commercial reasons is still illegal and the United States is still missing out on billions of dollars, including the 668-million-dollar market of hemp products sold in the United States alone.

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