In honor of Hemp History Week, we’re going to look back at the possible origins and earliest known uses and applications of hemp, leading us to learn how hemp made its way to the United States. It’s been said that hemp is possibly one of the earliest plants to have been cultivated. An archeological site in the Oki Islands near Japan contained cannabis achenes (a type of dry fruit produced by many species of flowering plants) from about 8000 BC, possibly signifying the use of the plant. Later in China, it has been known through historical documentation and archeology that hemp was used to make clothes, shoes, ropes and early forms of paper.
Textile expert Elizabeth Wayland Barber summarizes the historical evidence that Cannabis Sativa “grew and was known in the Neolithic period across the northern latitudes, from Europe to East Asia, however textile use did not surface for certain in the western world until relatively late. The Spaniards brought hemp to the west and cultivated it in Chile starting around 1545. However, in May 1607 hemp was one of the crops that were observed being cultivated by natives at the main Powhatan village where Richmond, Virginia is now situated. In 1613, it was reported by Samuell Argall that wild hemp better than that in England was growing along the short of the upper Potomac. It wasn’t until 1645 that the Puritans cultivated hemp in New England, being the first known to do so in the area.
George Washington pushed for the growth of hemp and was known to grow hemp himself as it was considered a cash crop at the time, commonly used for manufacturing rope and fabric. There has been some speculation that Washington smoked the flowers of his plants to achieve a “high” however there is no evidence in any of his writing that he grew hemp for anything other than industrial purposes. In addition to Washington, there were numerous presidents that have been known to farm hemp including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor and Franklin Pierce.
Jumping forward to 1937 was when the Marihuana Tax Act was passed in the United States, levying a tax on anyone who dealt commercially in cannabis, hemp or marijuana. The passing of this act was intended to destroy the US hemp industry, making it effectively illegal and was considered the first round of prohibition in the United States. Then during WWII, hemp was such a necessity to the war effort the USDA produced and educational video and accompanying literature to encourage farmers to grow hemp for the war efforts. More than 150,000 acres of hemp were cultivated as part of the “Hemp for Victory” Program.
In 1970 industrial hemp was officially classified as marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act despite the decades of government funded agricultural research to the contrary. Hemp farming became effectively illegal just as the rise of synthetic fabrics and fibers skyrocketed.
For years hemp was harshly prohibited, forcing manufacturers to import raw hemp from Canada, Europe, and China. This was a huge blow to local farmers who continuously missed out on breaking into this immensely profitable and ethical business. There seemed to be a small light at this end of this dark tunnel which came with the Farm Bill of 2014, allowing states such as Kentucky, Vermont, and Colorado to grow hemp for the first time in decades. Even more incredible, hemp farming is now legal in 32 states! Despite all of the fierce regulations and prohibitions is seems progress is once again being made in allowing people to embrace the amazing qualities of hemp.