What Is Hemp?
When thinking of hemp, most people automatically think of marijuana. This prevailing thought has been encouraged in the United States since 1937 when Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act, which taxed and licensed this useful plant. Before then, hemp has had a long and effective history.
It is important to recognize that the Cannabis plant has three distinct species, with different properties. Hemp, with all it’s valuable properties, is found in Cannabis Sativa. This variety produces CBD, which counteracts any of the psychotic effects of THC. Additionally, this variety only contains 0.3 percent or less THC. Even though marijuana smokers joke that old time sailors smoked the hemp rope to be happy, the old sailors could never have got high on their hemp ropes.
Early World History
Many thousand years ago, hemp was cultivated for its many uses. Most think of hemp rope, but it can be used for a multitude of products: fabric, food. buildings, medicines, paper, lamps, fuels, and many other things. Hemp artifacts have been found by archeologists in use as early as 8000 BC. They found hemp used in pottery and as food. Apparently, the ancient Chinese ate the seeds and oil from hemp.
The laws given by King Henry VIII came with the early settlers to the United States. In 1533 farmers were fined if they did not grow hemp. Hemp came to America soon after the first settlers came from Europe. In 1616 laws were enforced that the first permanent English settlers in Jamestown grow hemp for ropes, sails, and clothing. Further, in the 1700s American farmers continued to be required by law to grow hemp as part of their crops. For many of these farmers, their taxes were paid in hemp.
Hemp in the Colonies
An important crop in the colonies, hemp became an integral part of United States history. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, as a law abiding citizens, grew this required cash crop. Washington recorded growth and experimentation with the plant in his farm records. He recorded attempts to separate the male and female parts of the plant, to produce a better grade of fiber.
It is interesting to note that much of the paper of the Revolution and earlier was made of hemp. The founding fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper, among other important documents.
The Revolutionary War depended on hemp for canvas sails, paper, rope, medication, oil, fabrics, and multiple other uses. Later in the century, the government tested American grown hemp rope against Russian grown hemp rope on the USS Constitution. The results were so close, they decided the differences were small and American hemp could be used by American vessels.
Since the Revolutionary War
For the next 150 years, hemp continued to be an important cash crop. Both the leaves, with their fiber, and the seed, used for medicines and crushed for its oil for food and light, provided important products. Even Abraham Lincoln used hemp oil to light his lamps. By 1890, hemp had replace cotton as the major cash crop. Newsprint and other paper products were still mainly hemp.
Problems for Hemp Farmers
After 1906, the laws encouraging the growth of hemp changed. Laws prohibiting the use of marijuana and THC were passed. Rather than noting the differences between the species of Cannabis that could and could not produce a psychoactive effect, all hemp growth was discouraged.
The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 taxed all cannabis sales, effectively reducing the production of hemp, even though Popular Mechanics published an article in 1938 identifying 25,000 uses for hemp. Henry Ford built an experimental car body in 1942 of hemp fiber that was ten times stronger than steel.
Regardless of the multiple uses for hemp, three men worked hard to end its growth. Harry Anslinger lumped hemp with the marijuana plant and worked to include it in the Marijuana laws. William Randolph Hearst invested in the timber industry and wanted to prevent competition. He worked to destroy hemp newsprint and competing newspaper companies. The Dupont family who owned Dupont chemical company joined in the battle. They fought against hemp’s medical properties that competed against their petroleum based pharmaceuticals. Hearst and Dupont worked to quash the hemp competition while Anslinger fought with laws to prohibit marijuana use.
Brief Reprieve During World War II
Unfortunately for Hearst and Dupont, World War II blocked the importation of hemp from Japan and the Phillippines. and hemp products needed for the war effort. The USDA developed a “Hemp for Victory” film and publicity campaign encouraging hemp growth to support the war effort. Farmers in the Midwest and Southeast grew thousands of acres of hemp during 1942 – 1945.
After the war, the government returned to its anti-drug stance. They supported alternatives to hemp, such as plastics and nylon, causing hemp processors to go out of business. The War on Drugs, beginning in 1970 and the Controlled Substance act officially banned all growth of hemp. Other countries continued to grow and use it, but not the United States or Canada.
Current Battles for Hemp
No hemp grew legally in the United States after 1970. The Hemp Industries Associations and other companies began a legal battle in 2001 that lasted three years. Finally in 2004, the United States Court of Appeals ruled in favor of hemp and blocked DEA regulations and hemp prohibitions. Since then, medical marijuana and hemp growth has spread, though slowly. By 2011, only the United States still prevented the production of hemp.
Since 2007, when two North Dakota farmers received the first licenses to grow hemp in 50 years, organizations have pushed to make hemp cultivation legal. Twenty-one states have now legalized hemp cultivation. Hemp seeds and plants are tightly controlled by the US Department of Agriculture.
Even though hemp is not yet legal to grow in every state, it finds its way into multiple products. The hemp fiber is used in suits by Giorgio Armani and in interior car parts by BMW. It can also be found in things like yarn, paper, carpeting, cosmetics, nutritional supplements and body care products. You may use it and not even know.