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You’ll be Surprised by the History of Cannabis and Hemp

You’ll be Surprised by the History of Cannabis and Hemp

Cannabis can be traced back thousands of years. From medicinal remedies to military uses, this plant sailed ships across the ocean and shaded settlers over the plains. So how does this useful plant come to be considered one of the most dangerous known to man, so much so that one of the consequences for its possession is life in prison? The history of the cannabis sativa plant is literally woven into the tapestry of human evolution.


In the beginning . . .

To learn when cannabis first came on the scene, you need to set the Wayback Machine to the year 2737 B.C.E. when cannabis originated in Central Asia, and its first medicinal use was recorded by Emperor Shen Neng of China. But archaeological evidence suggests that the source plant, cannabis sativa, was also one of man’s earliest agricultural plants, dating back 12,000 years ago, and that hemp fiber was used for weaving 10,000 years ago. Today, China is the world’s largest hemp producer, yielding more than 70% of the world’s supply. Cannabis is so interwoven with human existence that linguists go about learning the history of a civilization’s language by first understanding its word for cannabis. But let’s stop a minute and explain the difference between cannabis and hemp.


The same, only different

Hemp and cannabis are derived from the same plant, sharing the genus cannabis and the species sativa. So, an obvious question arises: what’s the difference between the two? As far as appearance and temperament, the marijuana plant is pudgy and likes warm, humid weather, while hemp’s tall, lanky figure grows well in dense plots and can endure a variety of climates. But for all intents and purposes, one of their biggest differences comes down to their levels of the psychoactive chemical THC, from which the plant’s smokers gain their “high.” A cannabis sativa plant with a concentrated THC level between 5% – 20% is a marijuana plant. But a cannabis sativa plant with less than 0.3% THC (dry weight) is considered a hemp plant. This <.3 percentage is the worldwide criterion that distinguishes hemp as non-psychoactive, thanks to the 1971 research of Canadian scientist Ernst Small. In short, marijuana and hemp are derived from the same plant; marijuana’s THC level is upwards of 5% while hemp has less than 0.3%; marijuana has psychoactive properties while hemp does not. Pretty cut and dried, right? (Pardon the pun.)

Even though hemp has no psychoactive properties, it was banned along with marijuana back in the early 20th century, but not before its benefits had been explored and many of its myriad uses discovered. So how did hemp go from being something everyone grew for its endless practicality and usefulness to an illegal Schedule 1 narcotic that could score you serious jail time?


Hemp’s day in the sun

Only a few documented uses of cannabis sativa survive from B.C.E., but records of its use pick up again in the 16th century when King Henry VIII encouraged farmers to plant hemp abundantly to provide materials for the Royal Navy fleet. Riggings, maps, logs, clothes, and even Bibles were made from the strong hemp fiber. Second to wood in ship construction, hemp proved strong and resilient in resisting the deteriorating effects of saltwater, and when combined with tar, hemp filled spaces between wood planks to ensure a ship’s compartments were watertight. Sailors also used hemp oil in their lamps and included plenty of hemp seed in their diet. Thousands of pounds of hemp seeds were loaded aboard ships to provide sailors with healthy fats, essential fatty acids, protein, vitamin E, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, magnesium, sulfur, calcium, iron, and zinc. Ships’ sails were also made from hemp, a practice dating back thousands of years. The word canvas is derived from the Latin word cannabis.

Fast forward to colonial America, and hemp is a mandated crop in Virginia, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. Not growing hemp on your private property could land you in prison. And while we all wish money grew on trees, back in colonial days, it did. Hemp was legal tender, and the government even accepted it as payment for taxes. Hemp was a commodity: our founding fathers grew hemp; Betsy Ross’ American flag was made from hemp; the War of 1812 was fought over hemp; prior to 1820, 80% of all textiles, including clothing, fabric, sheets, and drapes were constructed from hemp. And those Conestoga wagon trains depicted in old-western movies that moved thousands of people and their families across America’s wild west had covers made from, you guessed it . . . hemp.

Hemp was fast becoming the all-purpose, revolutionary product of the Industrial Age. By early 1900, a machine was invented that could harvest 1,000 pounds of hemp in an hour. With machine handling fully integrated by 1920, hemp was plentiful, and its use expanded. Henry Ford not only built his Model-T to run on hemp fuel, which he manufactured at his Iron Mountain facility in Michigan, but he had a car constructed out of hemp as well. It was 10 times more durable than his steel model.

By 1914, the government celebrated hemp’s remarkable versatility by placing it on the front of the $10 bill while the back depicted farmers plowing hemp. Because a single acre of hemp produces the same amount of paper as 4.1 acres of trees, the government predicted in 1916 that by 1940, all paper would be derived from hemp. In 1937, hemp was on track to becoming the first billion-dollar industry in the world.


So what happened?

During alcohol prohibition (1920 – 1933), the tobacco industry began a smear campaign against marijuana, and because hemp is derived from the same plant, cannabis sativa, hemp was ascribed the same disparagement. Even though hemp does not contain marijuana’s psychoactive chemical, THC, cannabis as a whole was vilified to such an extent that the public’s opinion about hemp changed. A strong supporter of alcohol prohibition, Harry Anslinger took the helm in 1930 (until his resignation in 1962) as the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) and furthered his prohibitive stance to include cannabis. The public’s fear of marijuana was further fueled by the 1936 film Reefer Madness, which propagandized marijuana’s negative effects. Then in 1937, Anslinger drafted and Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act, which conflated marijuana and hemp and placed such a high tax on the sale of cannabis that business dwindled and production declined. Under this law, cannabis was not technically illegal; however, there was an exorbitant penalty for non-payment of taxes, which could eventually lead to a five-year prison term. So, even though the Marijuana Tax Law was a law of taxation, people could be arrested for using cannabis under this law. Some speculated that the bill was politically motivated and that the oil and cotton industries were attempting to gain market share out of fear that hemp’s usefulness and versatility would run them out of business, or perhaps amidst the decline of alcohol prohibition, Anslinger was trying to keep relevant his position as head of the FBN.


Hemp for Victory!

Even during the tenure of this tax law, the U.S. still received shipments of hemp imported from Japan. However, after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japan’s shipments stopped. Finding itself at war without adequate textile supplies, the U.S. employed the Department of Agriculture to begin a patriotic program called “Hemp for Victory!” encouraging U.S. farmers to grow hemp to supply the military with parachutes, rope, cordage, clothing, and other war necessities. Contracts to legally farm hemp included having to register with the government, but draft deferments were given and hemp seeds handed out to those who would farm hemp in support of the war. Between 1942 – 1945, Americans planted over 400,000 acres of hemp.

But hemp processing plants were barely realized before the war ended along with the need to grow hemp. Consequently, the U.S. government resumed the Marijuana Tax Law, and the industry further declined as hemp production halted. And things only got worse when the Boggs Act of 1952 and the Narcotics Control Act of 1956 increased drug penalties to include mandatory jail time for marijuana possession, requiring a 2-10 year sentence and a $20,000 fine for a first-offense. The 1960s saw marijuana use increase along with stricter penalties for possession, which further soiled marijuana’s already notorious name.


The war on drugs

In 1970, the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse made the research-based recommendation that marijuana be decriminalized. Despite their endorsement, President Nixon signed into law the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act (aka Controlled Substances Act of 1970). Among other things, this law classified cannabis, including hemp, as a Schedule 1 narcotic. Even though hemp has no psychoactive properties, this act declared all cannabis illegal to grow in the US. The contradiction between research and this law prompted some states to explore the possibility of decriminalizing cannabis on the state level. However, whatever headway they gained was kiboshed when President Reagan signed the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which increased prison time for drug offenses, and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which lowered legal limits on drug possession.


A new beginning . . .

Perhaps it was caught in the crossfire or maybe it was just a simple case of mistaken identity, but hemp had been unfairly vilified and falsely accused as a dangerous drug for some 80 years until President Obama signed the 2014 Farm Bill into law. Section 7606 of the act legitimizes industrial hemp research, removes it from the Schedule 1 narcotics list, and permits institutes of higher education and state agriculture departments to regulate pilot programs for its research.
Hemp was further exonerated after President Trump signed into law the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (aka the 2018 Farm Bill), which identifies industrial hemp as the cannabis sativa plant with a THC dry weight concentration < 0.3 percent. This law removes any regulations on hemp incurred from the 1970 Controlled Substances Act and allows each U. S. state to regulate the legal cultivation, possession, and sale of hemp within its state boundaries. It also allows the transfer of hemp across state lines as long as it’s in compliance with the law.

Finally pardoned from its unjust infamy, hemp is regaining its reputation as a plant of practical uses, not the least of which is demonstrated by the benefits present in its cannabinoid, cannabidiol (CBD). CBD products are on the rise. Once snuffed out by bureaucracy, hemp has risen from its ashes vindicated, renewed, and facing a promising future.