A Brief History of Hemp in the United States
A plant that has been around since at least 8000 BCE, hemp has always been an important staple crop and was grown in various parts of the world intentionally and wildly. In the United States, the presence of hemp cultivation predates the arrival of the colonial settlers. The Native American people grew hemp and made full use of the plant in crafting their daily essentials.
Hemp is a plant whose every part can be used in one way or another. From use in making fibers for clothing to making paper, and even as fuel for lamps, hemp is an important part of humanity’s agricultural history.
Hemp in the United States: The Early Days of America
In the United States, the presence of hemp can be traced back to the 1600. It was farmed by the new settlers, especially as hemp cultivation was legally mandated under English Law because of its diversified uses, an important example of which was construction.
Even parts of the Mayflower, such as the lines and the sails of the ship, were made using hemp. As a raw material, hemp was extremely durable, hardy and it was an easy plant to grow, making it the perfect agricultural commodity to bring to America – a land that was in the early stages of being explored and colonized.
The importance of hemp in the early days of the United States was such that drafts of the Declaration of Independence were written on hemp paper by Thomas Jefferson. Other Founding Fathers too, both grew and propagated the benefits of hemp – a prime example of this was Abraham Lincoln, who relied on hemp oil to light his lamps. Documentation that can be traced back to 1632 reveal that the Virginia Assembly actively called for citizens to grow hemp and flax. This also happened in other places, like Connecticut and Massachusetts.
While the arrival of steam ships in the 1800s had already begun to make the use of hemp based fiber a disappearing reality in the naval world, as the 1900s rolled around, the national perception towards hemp in the US started to visibly change.
The 1900s: When Growing Hemp First Became Illegal
In 1916, the USDA was publishing research that showcased how hemp was the more environmentally friendly solution to growing paper. But two decades later, everything changed when The Marijuana Tax Act was passed in 1937. Drafted by Harry Anslinger, who actively propagated against all marijuana related substances, the Marijuana Tax Act sought to discourage farmers from growing hemp.
Domestic farmers now had to deal with the burden of heavy taxation. The Department of Revenue had been given the responsibility of licensing hemp, and this came with a $100 transfer tax on hemp sales. Growing hemp was becoming less and less lucrative for farmers. Coupled with how easy it had become to import cheap hemp from countries like Russia, hemp production in the United States was all of a sudden on the decline.
A Brief Respite: The Second World War and ‘Hemp for Victory’
When the United States joined the Second World War, there was a sudden demand for home grown hemp. During this time, the Department of Agriculture actively advocated for hemp, and as much as 400,000 lbs of seeds were provided to farmers to grow and raise.
The documentary ‘Hemp for Victory’, was released by the government to further encourage farmers to grow hemp in order to aid the war effort. War Hemp Industries, a private company that subsidized the agricultural production of hemp, also rose to prominence during this time. However, when the Second World War ended, the war on hemp started all over again.
Regulating Hemp: United States After the Second World War
After the Second World War, the production of hemp was at a decline once again. One of the reasons behind this was the wider availability of cheaper alternatives such as plastic and nylon in the market.
In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act was passed, which made farming and producing hemp illegal in the United States. The Act was passed as a way to control drug use within the US, and although hemp does not posses the psychoactive traits that make marijuana intoxicating to people, it was still placed in the same category as marijuana, and became illegal.
However, certain parts that are derived from hemp – such as sterile seeds, hemp fiber, as well as oil, were not considered as a Schedule I Drug, and was not considered illegal. This proved useful for the hemp industry, when in 2004, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in the case of Hemp Industries Association versus the Drug Enforcement Administration, ruled in favor of hemp based derivatives, and made body care and foods based on hemp, protected in the United States.
Hemp and the United States: Where it Stands Today
The 2004 ruling in favor of hemp was only the beginning in a series of victories for the hemp industry. In 2007, two farmers in North Dakota were granted a hemp license – something that had not happened for at least fifty years.
In 2014, President Barack Obama signed the ‘Farm Bill’. Under Section 7607 of this Bill, research institutions could now grow hemp to aid in research. Four years later, in 2018, an amendment was added to the Farm Bill, and when President Donald Trump signed the same and passed the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018, hemp finally became legal in the United States.
The history of hemp in the United States is full of ups and downs, acceptance and rejection – yet it’s victorious today and more and more states are making hemp production a viable option for farmers. As a crop that has been farmed for the greater part of human history, its uses and benefits have continuously made hemp an integral and important agricultural harvest, even within the United States.