The History of Hemp in America

George Washington imported hemp from Asia. Thomas Jefferson farmed it. As did James Madison, Andrew Jackson, and a whole host of notable historical figures. In fact, if you look at the early history of pre-Civil War Kentucky, it’s economy depended on the cultivation of hemp. The history of hemp in America begins in the 1600s, when its diversity of uses are still recognized today.

Sacred Grass

Hemp is one of the oldest and most versatile plants in the world. Its early uses, which are attributed to the Japanese living in the Oki Islands, were mostly for its fiber to produce clothes, shoes, rope, and even a form of paper. The Vedas, sacred Hindu texts, mention hemp as a “sacred grass.” The god Shiva is closely related to the cannabis plant. If this plant was important enough for religious writings, it’s no wonder its global spread was quick even though transportation and the transformation of information was slow. While the level of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) was extremely low in those plants, it was believed the ancient Asian cultures used hemp for its psychoactive effects and actually grew a particular cannabis plant for that reason.

From Asia, hemp made its way to South America aboard Spanish ships where it was cultivated as a cash crop in Chile.

From Asia, hemp made its way to South America aboard Spanish ships where it was cultivated as a cash crop in Chile.

From Asia, hemp made its way to South America aboard Spanish ships where it was cultivated as a cash crop in Chile. Attempts were made in Columbia, Mexico, and Peru. But the crop only took hold in Chile. Eventually it showed up on our continent in the 1600s.

The History of Hemp in America

What’s interesting about this new phenomenon of hemp-derived CBD products that we see everywhere today is that it’s actually not that new; it’s simply been rebranded. In the early 1600s, the colonies of Virginia, Connecticut, and Massachusetts saw burgeoning crops of hemp. Before the early settlers, Indians were growing and smoking it.

The history of hemp in America shows that it was used to make essentials, like shoes, clothes, and rope.

The history of hemp in America shows that it was used to make essentials, like shoes, clothes, and rope.

In the United States, hemp was mostly used for daily essentials like shoes, clothes, paper, and rope. Canvas was even derived from hemp. In fact, canvas is an Arabic word that means hemp.  A hundred years later, around 1700, farmers were actually required to grow hemp. It was that important to our early civilization.

Our Founding Fathers

George Washington wrote about hemp in his diary. About how his farm planted the seeds into the middle of April and then harvest in October. He reportedly grew 27 bushels a year. According to a diary entry where Washington wrote that he separated his male and female plants too late, it can be supposed that he was trying to cultivate females for their THC. Of course it is also suggested that male plants are much more coarse and not as desirable as garments. One can only speculate.

 The Founding Fathers of our nation were integral parts in the history of hemp in America.

The Founding Fathers of our nation were integral parts in the history of hemp in America.

Along with Madison, Jackson, and others, Washington was a major advocate for hemp’s uses and benefits. As we know today, the hemp plant hasn’t made its way through history without a little scrutiny.

From Hero to Zero

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was put into place to heavily tax anyone who grew and sold cannabis in the United States. The intention of the Act was to essentially destroy the industry. 

If you look at the history, it’s not hard to tell that this was the doing of powerful men in mid-20th century America. Businessmen like Andrew Mellon, Randolph Hearst, and the Du Ponts were heavily involved in synthetics intended for the same uses as hemp. They were hell bound on snuffing out the competition. 

However, the emergence of World War II and the Japanese cutting off our supply of imported hemp from the Philippines was a shot to begin growing again in U.S. soil. To meet demand for the production needed by the armed forces, both the United States and Canada lifted restrictions and provided farmers special permits to grow and supply hemp. 

The Department of Agriculture even went so far as to release a film called Hemp for Victory. “In 1942, patriotic farmers at the government’s request planted 36,000 acres of seed hemp, an increase of several thousand per cent,” said the film. “The goal for 1943 is 50,000 acres of seed hemp.” 

But guess what happened after the war? Despite hemp, a plant that is known to have 25,000 diverse uses, the government put the ban back into place. The original Levi’s jeans were made out of hemp. The Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper. Again, a bureaucratic society bent on developing modern technologies meant to replace hemp reared its ugly head. Those who lobbied against hemp made it out to be a dangerous plant. In fact, years later, hemp went from a prime cash crop in the United States to a Schedule 1 drug, as labeled by the government, which grouped it with hard drugs like heroin and LSD.

And Back Again

Some things heal with time. And though the whole cannabis revolution doesn’t get the treatment it necessarily deserves, we are seeing some progress. On December 20, 2018, President Trump signed an amendment to the Agricultural Improvement of 2018, also known as the Farm Bill. Signing the bill into law removed the hemp plant, along with its seeds and derivatives, from the Controlled Substances Act. A big win you might say for this plant that has come so far and done so much for civilization. 

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