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The Rise and Fall of Hemp in America


Hemp, otherwise known as Cannabis sativa L, is one of the oldest and most versatile plants in the world. As far back as 8000 B.C., hemp has been utilized for herbal remedies, clothing, building material, paper, ships, and much more. This plant was so desired and useful that communities and colonies built their livelihood around it. The use of hemp in America helped build the very foundations of this nation and, additionally, it provided a massive amount of wealth for burgeoning elites and our founding fathers. In this article, we will discuss the Rise and Fall of Hemp in America.



How did hemp become this popular in the U.S.?


Hemp was first introduced to the New World by the Spanish in 1545 and brought to Jamestown by the English in 1611 as a commercial crop alongside tobacco. The popularity of the herb was such that the Virginia Assembly in 1632 ordered,


that every planter as soone as he may, provide seede of flaxe and hempe and sowe the same.

From the Canadian Territories to the southern most colonies, hemp was being cultivated, manufactured and shipped in large number. Although, by the 18th Century, the Maryland and Virginia colonies took the helm of producing the most crop in the Americas.


In the American colonies, the need for hemp was in ropes and oakum (twisted and tarred hemp fibers pounded in between a ship’s board as waterproofing) for commercial and defense ships. The imports of hemp to the European nations also provided textiles for clothing along with the production of building material.

From Hemp and Flax may Canvas Sails And Ropes be drawn, that seldom fails, In stormy Winds, to act their Part, If twisted well by human Art.

- Sotweed Redivivus, or the Planters Looking-Glass, 1730



Hemp's Increased Production During the Revolution


During the revolution for American Independence, the demand for large quantities of hemp increased for ship, paper and building construction. The USS Constitution alone documented the need for 60 tons of hemp for its construction.


History has it that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were hemp farmers, the prototype of the American flag by Betsy Ross was made from hemp fibers and the Declaration of Independence was also made from hemp.


Hemp is of first necessity to the wealth & protection of the country.

- Thomas Jefferson


The cut off of fabric imports from England, after gaining independence, pushed American-made hemp cloth into the limelight. Unfortunately, with much of the American hemp considered inferior in quality due to poor processing, it became necessary to import high-quality hemp from Russia and Italy.


The claims were off-base since American Hemp Farmers, predominantly in Kentucky and Virginia, used the same methods of processing as the Russians. Eventually, comparison tests revealed that the quality of American hemp is similar to that of Russian hemp, which drastically increased domestic production. This provided the majority of GDP for Kentucky’s and Virginia’s economy until the 1930’s. Before the American Civil War, the majority of slaves worked on Plantations that cultivated Hemp instead of cotton.


Make the most you can of the Indian Hemp seed and sow it everywhere.

- George Washington


Then enters Harry J. Anslinger. A former railroad cop and Prohibition agent, Anslinger was named the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) in August of 1930. According to Common Sense for Drug Policy, Anslinger decided to create some excitement with the transformation of marijuana from a low-grade nuisance into an evil substance. Anslinger was reported to have linked the use of marijuana with outlaw behavior on the part of African-Americans.


It was also reported that a handful of Congressmen forwarded a controversial bill that would eventually fill the prisons. The first person ever convicted under the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was an unemployed Colorado laborer Samuel R. Caldwell, who was sentenced to four years of hard labor and fined $1,000. This marked the beginning of America’s decimation of its thriving industrial hemp business.


However, the outbreak of the Second World War led to a shut off of the supplies of Manila hemp fiber, which led America to push for Hemp production again even though it was illegal. The propaganda film released in 1942 titled "Hemp for Victory" was aimed at encouraging farmers to increase the growth of hemp as the plant became an important resource for the U.S. war effort.


After the dust settled in World War II, the hemp industry seemingly disappeared, and all efforts to revamp the industry were further dealt a blow with the 1971 announcement of a War on Drugs by President Nixon.


Many states have adopted policies to legally grow industrial hemp. These recent actions have caused a resurgence of hemp in the market. Sales of hemp foods and personal care products have increased since the nineties. The Hemp Industries Association (HIA) estimated total U.S. sales of hemp foods and personal care products for 2014 to be $200 million and $620 million for all products. As of December 2018, President Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill into law that has officially legalized Hemp Production, Manufacturing, Cultivation and Sales in States that allow it. It seems that hemp is on the rise again in America, but we shall see how the major powers like Big Paper, Big Pharma, and Big Oil will step in to keep that from happening.


The use and sales of hemp in the United States have gone through several twists and turns. Yet, the future looks bright for hemp, as it is predicted that it will become a major crop again in the United States and throughout the world.

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