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The History of Hemp

Oct 25, 2010 12:29PM

The History of Hemp

Hemp has been grown since the beginning of human civilization for fiber used in textiles and paper.  The British monarchy had “must grow” laws, requiring that the American colonies grow hemp because of its importance for sails and rope, with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson among the most famous hemp farmers.  Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper.

Hemp was grown commercially up until 1937, primarily as a medicine.  Then things suddenly changed.

According to Julie Holland, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine and editor of the recently published  “The Pot Book: A Complete Guide to Cannabis,”  when Prohibition ended, there were thousands of federal agents who quite suddenly had nothing to do, so they decided to make the hemp plant, known technically as cannabis, illegal.  Inflammatory stories were circulated about this “loco weed” being smoked by Mexican migrant workers, renaming it marijuana as an ethnic slur. 

But there were even more powerful forces in play.

In the 1930's, hemp was about to take off as a commercial crop, especially for fabrics, paper and building materials, with the invention of a new machine that economically removed the fiber core from the rest of the stalk, a process that previously had been extremely labor intensive.  It appears there was so little public awareness for the need for a ban on hemp, or the resulting Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, that the editors of Popular Mechanics declared hemp to be the  "New Billion Dollar Crop” in 1938, apparently not realizing that hemp had already been effectively outlawed.

Randolph Hearst with his California newspaper empire was a big contributor to the “Reefer Madness” campaign, and he rarely missed an opportunity to suggest marijuana use in any sensational crime.  Hearst, not incidentally, had large holdings of timber that were being threatened by this new technology that would establish hemp as a superior substitute for paper pulp in newsprint, with an acre of hemp producing four times the amount of paper as an acre of trees.

The war on hemp abated during World War II, when the Japanese cut off supplies.   The U.S. Army and US Department of Agriculture passed out hemp seeds for the “Hemp for Victory” campaign and encouraged farmers to grow it for the war effort.  After the war, however, the anti-hemp forces returned, and it was effectively taxed out of existence in the 1950s.

The valuable industrial uses of hemp are slowly prevailing.  The Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2010, slowly winding its way through the US Congress, would exclude low potency varieties of the cannibis plant from federal prohibition. If approved, this measure will grant state legislatures the authority to license and regulate the commercial production of hemp as an industrial and agricultural commodity.  Hemp continues to be grown legally in most countries, including Canada, and imported into the US for a variety of uses, fabric being one of the more personally enjoyable.

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