Early Worldwide Cultivation
For centuries hemp (Cannabis sativa L) has been harvested for its fiber, seeds, and flowers. A plant with seemingly endless possibilities, hemp fiber can produce textiles, rope, clothes, paper, plastic composites, building construction materials, animal bedding, food, drinks, and agricultural supplies.
It’s commonly believed that hemp is one of earliest plants to be cultivated in Asia, where it is believed to have originated. Recent analysis of fossil pollen has suggested that cannabis specifically originated high on the Tibetain Plateau. For years researchers have concluded the plant evolved out of Asia, but they were unable to pinpoint a more exact location as there isn’t much of a cannabis presence in fossil impressions left behind in rocks. Scientists did, however, have plenty of data on fossil pollen. After narrowing down the fossil pollen locations to those in treeless habitats, researchers were able to conclude that the earliest cannabis fossil pollen was 19.6 million years old and came from northwestern China. Scientists noted, however, that cannabis likely split from the Humulus genus (the genus responsible for the hops used in beer) at some point around 28 million years ago, so there is a chance it originated somewhere else while still a part of that plant family .
First most widely used for medicinal and spiritual purposes, hemp quickly spread around the world. With its origins in China, in 2000 B.C. it was brought to South Asia by the Aryan invading forces. Between 2000 B.C. and 1400 B.C. cannabis made its way to the Middle East by a nomadic Indo-European group, who then also took the plant into Russia and Ukraine. Germanic tribes brought cannabis into Germany, and from there it crossed into Britain during the 5th century Anglo-Saxon invasions. Over the following centuries, cannabis moved across the globe, from Africa to South America and eventually North America .
Hemp seeds are used for a variety of products including:
- Food: Hemp seeds are a nutritious high protein food that can be eaten raw or ground into meal. They are easily liquified for use in baking or for milk substitute products. While not as nutritious or popular as the seeds, hemp leaves can be consumed raw in salads or pressed into juice. Hemp seeds are notably high in fiber, vitamin B, manganese, phosphorus, magnesium, and iron. They also have an amino acid profile that rivals meat, milk, eggs, and soy.
- Fiber: One of its earliest products, hemp fiber has been used throughout history. Hemp fiber was especially useful in the production of rope, fabrics, and canvas for ship sails. With a texture similar to linen, hemp fiber is both durable and comfortable. In modern culture, hemp fiber is popular for clothing, shoes, accessories, and household decor.
- Building Materials: Hemp is mixed with lime and manufactured into a concrete-like block and used for building insulation. While not strong enough to support structural elements, hemp has been shown to be as usable as a wood replacement for many types of homes, especially those being built green or needing excellent circulation.
- Plastic Materials: By mixing together fiberglass, hemp fiber, kanag, and flax to create a composite, many automobile manufacturers use hemp as a component in automobile panels. Audi, BMW, Ford, Honda, Mercedes, and Volkswagen all use hemp in their cars.
- Paper: Hemp paper is created by using the pulp obtained from industrial hemp fibers. It is generally used as a speciality paper for things like cigarette paper and banknotes. Hemp paper has a longer fiber than wood paper and a higher tear resistance and tensile strength. It’s production costs run about 4 times higher than wood paper, however, so it is not used for large production products like printing or writing paper.
- Biofuels: Hemp seeds and stalks can be used to produce a biodiesel product called hempoline. It’s also possible to ferment the entire plant and create ethanol or methanol alcohol fuel. This fuel can be used to power diesel engines.
Early American Cultivation
British ships never left without a stockpile of hemp seeds and ship captains were ordered to spread hemp seeds widely in order to ensure there was fiber available in any land they may visit in case a ship needed repairs.
Seeds first arrived in the United States with the Puritans for the purpose of planting to cultivate strong hemp crops for use in producing clothes, shoes, ropes, paper, and food. Hemp fiber was found to be particularly useful in maritime endeavours, largely because of how easily it adapts to cultivation and its natural decay resistance. The Mayflower itself was constructed with hemp fiber in its lines, sails, and caulking.
Since all British colonies were legally required to grow hemp, by the mid-1600s it had become a major part of the New England economy and had expanded down to Maryland and Virginia. In the years leading up the Revolutionary War, the colonies were responsible for producing the rope, canvas, cloth, and paper that was sent back to Britain for its use.
After the American Revolution, hemp continued to be an important part of daily life in the young country. In fact, the first drafts of the Declaration of Independence were written on hemp paper. The first currency in the United States was reportedly printed on hemp paper, as were all sail canvases and much of the clothing. Farmers were told it was their patriotic duty to grow hemp and were allowed to pay their taxes with it. George Washington himself grew hemp and pushed for its growth and praised its usefulness in making rope and fabric. Even Thomas Jefferson grew hemp, eventually improving hemp varieties and inventing a special brake for crushing the stems during fiber processing.
Hemp in the 19th Century
Hemp crops remained popular and over the years spread into the American south. Settlers from Virginia brought the plant to Kentucky and started what would become one of the long-standing hemp states in America. By the late 1800s, however, demand for sailcloth and rope decreased as steam ships became the maritime transport of choice. As the Civil War ended, Kentucky was the only state still producing substantial amounts of hemp.
Hemp in the 20th Century
Hemp had lost some of its popularity from previous centuries, but was still a versatile and flourishing crop in America in the early 20th century. However, in 1937 the United States passed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 which lumped hemp in with marijuana and taxed anyone who dealt commercially in it. This law was a major blow to the hemp industry adding a tax that most farmers simply could not afford to pay.
Added to the sting of the new tax was the increasing popularity of synthetic fibers and new innovations in the timber industry, creating opportunities for cheaper and more efficient paper pulp. Between new increased and often impossible operating costs and reduced popularity nationwide, the hemp industry found itself in decline.
During World War II, however, when supply lines were cut off by Japan, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was temporarily suspended and hemp grown on U.S. soil was used extensively to make uniforms, canvas, and rope for American troops. Hemp had a temporary resurgence as it became renowned as a necessary crop to win the war, but unfortunately after the war ended the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was reinstated and hemp farmers were once again taxed heavily for their crops.
Mid to Late
In 1970 the Controlled Substances Act put the final nail in the coffin of the United States hemp industry by banning cannabis of any kind, including hemp. Under the new law, all cannabis was given a Schedule 1 classification, putting it in the same category as heroin, LSD, and Ecstasy. This classification declared cannabis as having no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Even though the hemp variety of cannabis had no psychotropic effects, it was still bundled into the cannabis classification with marijuana and outlawed. Hemp remained illegal under the Controlled Substances Act for the remainder of the century.
In 1985 a book called The Emperor Wears No Clothes by Jack Herer was published after he spent years compiling historical data about cannabis and its use as hemp and as a drug. The book was extremely popular and positioned Jack Herer to be known as the “Emperor of Hemp” as he became a well-known cannabis rights activist.
Hemp in the 21st Century
The Agricultural Act of 2018
The Agricultural Act of 2018, or 2018 farm bill, removed hemp from the Controlled Substances list, allowing more opportunities for hemp to be researched and used for its potential medicinal qualities. The push to legalize hemp came from the need to create large scale hemp farms across the country. With the recent slump of the tobacco industry, many farmers and community leaders again realized the potential of hemp farming and the possibilities of the plant.
While the farm bill does legalize the cultivation of hemp, it is still a tightly regulated industry and individuals are not allowed to grow plants at home. Hemp can only be grown on registered farms and is federally monitored for cultivation and production. It is legal to transport across state lines for both commercial and personal use, just as long as those hemp products are produced in a manner consistent with the law.
2020 and Beyond
Currently, the hemp industry is gaining in popularity as CBD becomes more recognized for its therapeutic benefits and wide array of potential medicinal properties . Since hemp is an excellent source of cannabidiol (CBD) and other cannabinoids like cannabinol (CBN), cannabigerol (CBG), and cannabichromene (CBC) it has been the plant of choice for supplying cannabinoid products like CBD oils, tinctures, flowers, and salves. Hemp has also seen a resurgence of interest in industrial applications, textiles, and food, as well as new interest in hemp-derived personal care and supplemental products. As hemp continues to be recognized for its usefulness in our changing world, it’s possible more uses will be found for it in the upcoming years and its popularity will continue to grow.