Origins of Hemp

Hemp is among the oldest industries on the planet, going back more than 10,000 years to the beginnings of pottery. The Columbia History of the World states that the oldest relic of human industry is a bit of hemp fabric dating back to approximately 8,000 BC.

Fragments of hemp cloth have also been found in Chinese burial chambers dating from the Chou Dynasty (1122-249 B.C.). In addition to archeological evidence, written documents refer to hemp as a source of clothing. For example, The Shu King, a book dating to about 2350 B.C.

Ancient Egyptians had uncovered and used the medicinal properties of cannabis beyond what modern medical science has been able to do so far. The Ebers Papyrus was written roughly around 1550 BC and is one of the oldest finished medical textbooks to have been found so far. It mentions a number of formulas which make use of hemp to alleviate pain and inflammation caused by various diseases and injuries. Apparently, women in particular used marijuana as a way to waive off depression and other psychological problems in the early days of Egypt.

Hemp in the Colonies 

Industrial hemp has been grown in the U.S. since the first European settlers arrived in early 1600s. In 1619, it was illegal NOT to grow hemp in Jamestown, Virginia. Massachusetts and Connecticut had similar laws. In the 1700’s, subsidies and bounties were granted in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and other New England states in order to encourage hemp cultivation and manufacturing of cordage and canvas (the word “canvas” is rooted in “cannabis”).

 George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams all grew hemp and actively advocated for commercial hemp production. Benjamin Franklin owned a mill that made hemp paper, and Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper. Some historians say that the first American Flag in 1776 was made from hemp because no other fiber was strong enough to withstand the salty air on naval ships.

Hemp Use for World War 2 Victory

 The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor shut off foreign supplies of "manila hemp" fiber from the Philippines. The USDA produced a film called "Hemp For Victory" to encourage U.S. farmers to grow hemp for the war effort. The U.S. government formed the War Hemp Industries Department and subsidized hemp cultivation. During the war, U.S. farmers grew about a million acres of hemp across the Midwest as part of that program.

Hemp Smear Campaign

Viewing hemp as a threat, a smear campaign against hemp was started by competing industries. At the same time as these campaigns, cotton’s popularity increased, so did the improvisations of the inventions and machinery relating to cotton. The hemp’s machinery lagged and stunted the growth of America’s hemp industry. The smear campaigns must have worked, because during the 1930’s hemp was lumped under the umbrella of “marihuana” in the Marihuana Tax Act. The law was aimed at regulating the narcotic varieties of cannabis, but due to being lumped together, the hemp industry was effectively regulated out of existence.

Journey to Legalization

In 1937, Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act which effectively began the era of hemp prohibition. The tax and licensing regulations of the act made hemp cultivation difficult for American farmers. The chief promoter of the Tax Act, Harry Anslinger, began promoting anti-marijuana legislation around the world.

Hemp was no longer officially recognized as distinct from marijuana after the passage of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970. This is despite the fact that a specific exemption for hemp was included in the CSA under the definition of marijuana. The Agricultural Act of 2014 allowed for federally funded research on hemp for the first time since 1937. Since 2014, pro-hemp legislation has received increasingly bipartisan support, culminating with the Hemp Farming Act of 2018, which would remove industrial hemp from its current listing as a Schedule 1 drug, and allow hemp to be treated like any other agricultural commodity. In part because of this legalization, hemp production in the United States has the potential to increase substantially. This study describes what is known about the economic and regulatory considerations of U.S. hemp agriculture through the lens of path dependency. Important questions remain regarding the legal and regulatory landscape of hemp, and are further complicated by its current listing as a Schedule 1 drug.

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