It’s the single plant that can feed us, clothe us, house us, protect the environment and support human health. With more than 60,000 uses, hemp has the ability to support humankind on almost every level. So why is a plant that’s so multidimensional so misunderstood? Here is a look at the fascinating — and oftentimes rocky — history of hemp.
What is hemp?
Hemp is a variety of Cannabis sativa L. known for its tall, stalky growth, durable fibers, and high levels of the cannabinoid known as Cannabidiol (CBD). Unlike its close relative marijuana, hemp plants do not contain significant levels of the intoxicating compound known as Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Today, hemp is cultivated for use in many industries, including biomass to make textiles, seeds for oil and eating, and of course, CBD production. However, this was not always the case. Under recent federal legislation, hemp (defined as all parts of the plant Cannabis sativa L. containing 0.3% THC or less) was confirmed to be excluded as a Schedule I substance from the U.S. Controlled Substances Act (CSA). This has opened up the hemp industry to domestic production and the expansion of hemp-based products in the U.S.
However, it wasn’t always that hemp was so tightly controlled and regulated. In fact, hemp has been part of human society for millenia and is widely celebrated for its seemingly endless array of uses.
The timeline of hemp in human civilization
Hemp has a rich history of use in human civilization, which dates back to 8,000 BC. Hemp has been a staple crop for so long because of its immense versatility and ease of cultivation. Let’s start from the beginning:
The first traces of hemp are found in Asia. Soon after, hemp is found in Europe, Africa and South America, with hemp seeds and oil used for pottery and food.
2000 BC-800 BC
Hemp is considered a gift, referred to in Hindu religious documents as “sacred grass,” one of the five sacred plants of India.
The use of hemp continues across northern Europe, with hemp rope found in southern Russia and Greece and hemp seeds and leaves found in Germany.
China begins to use hemp to make paper.
The King of England, King Henry VII, prioritizes hemp by fining farmers if they don’t grow it.
North America discovers hemp as a key ingredient to make clothes, shoes, ropes, paper and food.
American farmers are required by law to grow hemp as a staple crop, with many of America’s founding fathers advocating for its benefits.
Some believe that Thomas Jefferson wrote the draft of the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper.
Abraham Lincoln uses hemp seed oil to fuel his household lamps.
USDA publishes findings that show hemp produces 4 times more paper per acre than trees.
Hemp becomes an excuse to search and deport Mexican immigrants. As a result, the word “marijuana” replaced “cannabis” as a way to directly associate the plant with the Mexican population.
Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the United State’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who was previously on record stating that cannabis use was “not a big deal,” changes his position when the ban on alcohol is lifted and tells the public that cannabis is a “devil drug” that “turned men into wild beasts that would attack women.” Anslinger contacts thirty scientists requesting evidence that cannabis is dangerous, and twenty-nine say they can’t find any valid proof. Only one expert agrees with him.
Many prominent American businessmen, including Anslinger, decide that cannabis, with no distinction between marijuana and hemp, poses a threat to their businesses. Anslinger joins forces with William Randolph Hearst, Andrew Mellon, and the DuPont family to draft the Marihuana Tax Act to begin taxing the plant. 1942
The U.S government realizes they need hemp for the war effort and encourages its production.
Henry Ford builds an experimental car body made from hemp fiber, which is ten times stronger than steel.
The U.S. government releases a pro-hemp documentary called Hemp for Victory, encouraging farmers to grow hemp to support the war. The U.S. Department of Agriculture promotes hemp and publishes articles sharing its benefits, leading to over 400,000 acres of hemp planted throughout the Midwest and Southeast.
The last U.S. commercial hemp fields are planted in Wisconsin.
Marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, grouping the plant with heroin and LSD. Extracts from hemp get swept up into this definition, classifying CBD from hemp as a Schedule I substance.
The U.S. Government approves a synthetic form of cannabis for the pharmaceutical industry. Marinol, made with a synthetic form of THC, is approved by the government as a legal drug to treat nausea and vomiting in cancer, HIV/AIDS, and anorexia patients. To this day, Marinol brings in more than $150 million in annual sales for the pharmaceutical industry in the United States.
The U.S. begins to import food-grade hemp seeds and oil for use
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services successfully files a patent on cannabinoids
A court case between the Hemp Industries Association and the DEA permanently protects the sales of seed-based hemp foods and personal care products in the U.S.
The first hemp licenses in over 50 years are granted to two farmers in North Dakota.
President Barack Obama signs the Farm Bill into law, allowing research institutions to start piloting hemp farming programs. The Farm Bill legally separates hemp from marijuana and legalizes the cultivation of industrial hemp, defining industrial hemp as cannabis sativa L. plants 0.3 percent concentration of THC or less (the intoxicating cannabinoid).
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves Epidiolex, a cannabidiol (CBD) oral medication.
The 2018 Farm Bill affirms the 2014 Farm Bill and confirms the removal hemp and its derivatives from the Controlled Substances Act.
Glossary of terms
2018 Farm Bill: The 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp, defined in the U.S. as Cannabis sativa L. containing less than 0.3% THC, for cultivation in the U.S. It was signed into law by President Donald Trump in 2018.
Cannabinoid: Cannabinoids are compounds found within cannabis plants that interact with the endocannabinoid system. Researchers have identified many dozens of cannabinoids so far.
Cannabis: Cannabis is a genus of plant that includes both hemp and marijuana. Three major species of cannabis have been identified: sativa, indica, and ruderalis.
CBD: Cannabidiol (CBD) is a cannabinoid found in cannabis plants that interacts closely with THC. CBD is thought to offer potential benefits across the bodily systems governed by the endocannabinoid system.*
Endocannabinoid system: The endogenous cannabinoid system is a series of receptors found throughout mammalian brains and bodies. Cannabinoids bind to the receptors, known as CB1 and CB2 receptors, to influence a wide range of bodily functions throughout the central nervous system and immune system.*
Hemp: Hemp is a variety of Cannabis sativa L. containing 0.3% THC or less. It is generally high in CBD content and is thought to be useful for many applications.
Industrial hemp: Industrial hemp commonly refers to the stalks, leaves, and seeds of the hemp plant, rather than the cannabinoid-rich hemp flower. Industrial hemp is used for the creation of textiles, biofuels, construction materials, topicals, and more.
Marihuana Tax Act of 1937: The law that is widely regarded as the official start of the federal prohibition of cannabis in the U.S. It was signed into law by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Marijuana: Marijuana is a variety of cannabis closely related to hemp that is legally defined in the U.S. as cannabis containing more than 0.3% THC content.
THC: THC is a cannabinoid found in cannabis plants responsible for causing the intoxicating qualities associated with consumption of the plant. Hemp plants contain0.3% THC or less.
What does the future hold for hemp?
While the history of hemp goes back thousands of years, we are still unlocking hemp’s potential. Though we can’t go back in time and rewrite hemp’s history, we can take action now to ensure a better future for one of the most versatile natural resources on earth.