Thought to be among the first cultivated crops in human history, hemp was a staple in America before being federally prohibited just decades ago.
Long before the cultivation of hemp was criminalized in the United States, the versatile and sustainable crop played a major role in the building of a new nation. One of the oldest plants to be cultivated by human civilization, hemp is a sustainable crop grown for food, oil, and fiber.
This week, we’ve taken a moment to look back on the long history of hemp in America. We also explore what brought about its eventual downturn before the valuable crop’s new resurgence in the United States.
Hemp’s Role in Colonial America
Hemp was already being cultivated by Native Americans in the New World when pioneers who had taken to the seas for a better life arrived. Hemp fibers are exceptionally strong and durable, and Native Americans grew the crop to produce hemp thread, hemp cordage, hemp clothing, hemp paper, and hemp food.
The first recorded use of hemp in America’s colonial years comes from 1632, as the Virginia Assembly mandated “that every planter as soone as he may, provide seede of flaxe and hempe and sowe the same.” Shortly thereafter, courts in Massachusetts and Connecticut passed similar hemp mandates and in the 17th and 18th centuries, encouraging farmers throughout the American colonies to grow and process the plant.
Hemp was exported to England where it was used for clothing, shoes, maps, books, ship’s rigging, parachute webbing, baggage, sails, and tents. For over 200 years, hemp was even considered a legal tender that could be used to pay taxes. As the relationship between Britain and the American colonies went downhill, homegrown hemp was used for products beneficial to ground troops and naval forces.
As the United States earned its independence from Great Britain in the late 18th century, hemp remained a staple for early Americans. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew cannabis on their plantations, and Benjamin Franklin started one of America’s first paper mills with hemp. According to some historians, the first drafts of the Declaration of Independence were written on hemp paper.
Hemp in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries
America’s reliance on hemp increased throughout the 19th century. Production spread to more states, including Illinois, California, and Nebraska.
Congress passed a law in 1841 that ordered the Navy to purchase hemp from domestic farmers. Technological innovations including the Hemp Dresser and the Decorticator machine revolutionized the industry and improved the efficiency of harvest and manufacturing processes.
A Popular Mechanics magazine article published in February 1938 projected that domestically grown hemp could be worth $1 billion.
Downturn of the American Hemp Industry
Throughout the 20th century, individual states and the U.S. federal government began to criminalize all cannabis. Because of hemp’s familial relationship to marijuana and a lack of understanding about the plants’ differences, laws were implemented restricting or prohibiting all cannabis growth.
Domestic hemp’s dominance in the U.S. took a significant downturn in 1937 when, in an effort to regulate the intoxicating varieties of cannabis, the U.S. government passed the Marijuana Tax Act. While the law didn’t prohibit the growing of hemp, it did turn over the regulation of licensing hemp production to the Department of Revenue and added a $100 transfer tax on sales that significantly hindered domestic farmers.
Around the same time came the emergence of synthetic fibers. Cheap imports of lower-quality fibers became the norm for manufacturers and the demand for high-quality hemp fiber continued to decline.
Hemp’s Short Resurgence During WWII
With the United States entering World War II in 1941, the nation’s hemp cultivation efforts were resurrected. Japan cut off supplies of hemp from the Philippines, forcing the U.S. to turn to its own farmers for hemp production.
The federal government launched a pro-hemp campaign, which included the distribution of 400,000 pounds of seeds and the release of the film “Hemp for Victory,” to encourage American farmers to grow as much hemp as possible for the war effort. A private company called War Hemp Industries was formed to subsidize hemp cultivation and new processing plants used the crop’s strong industrial fibers to produce products like rope, cloth, and cordage.
Between 1942 and 1946, American farmers from Wisconsin to Kentucky produced 42,000 tons of hemp fiber annually.
Unfortunately, hemp’s comeback ended nearly as quick as it started. Following the war, the demand for domestic hemp fiber was no more and many Midwestern farmers immediately faced canceled hemp contracts.
Laws on Hemp Today
Hemp only recently again became legal to grow and use in the United States under federal law.
In 1970, the U.S. government passed the Controlled Substances Act, a statute that regulates all cannabis, including industrial hemp. However, the definition of marijuana was lifted from the existing 1937 statute and adopted without any change. This definition excluded certain parts of hemp — sterilized hemp seed, hemp fiber, and hemp seed oil — from regulation.
In 2004, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Drug Enforcement Administration did not have the authority to regulate these specific parts of hemp under the Controlled Substances Act. Hemp could therefore still be imported and those parts of the plant used for products.
After nearly a century of prohibition on the cultivation of hemp, the versatile plant is starting to again take root in America. With the passing of the 2014 Farm Bill, which featured Section 7606, states became allowed to implement laws allowing state departments of agriculture and universities to grow hemp for research or pilot programs.
Then, the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill contains provisions that removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act altogether, radically overhauling America’s relation to hemp and hemp products. The law made it legal for U.S. farmers to grow, process, and sell hemp commercially. It also legalized hemp nationwide for any use, including the extraction of CBD oil.
To date, over 40 states have passed legislation related to hemp cultivation and the nation’s hemp market was valued at more than $688 million in 2016.