The History of Hemp
Also known as Cannabis sativa, hemp comes from the Cannabaceae family. The plant is coarse and bushy, with small green flowers.1
Historically, it’s been cultivated for a number of purposes, including textile and paper production.1,2 Today it’s often grown for its edible seeds.1,3
History of hemp: a timeline
Archaeologists have traced hemp back to Mesopotamia circa 8,000 BC, where they found traces of hemp cloth.2 The following timeline details the history of the plant and its cultivation for human use.
Hemp is used to produce rope, paper, and fabric in Europe and Asia.4
In England, King Henry VIII required all farmers to grow hemp.5
French botanist Louis Hebert planted North America’s first hemp crop in what is now Nova Scotia, Canada.6
The Virginia Assembly required all farmers to grow hemp.7 The crop was frequently used to produce rope, sails, and garments, and exchanged as a legal tender in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.7
George Washington grew industrial hemp for nutritional and industrial purposes.4 In 1776, the United States Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper.6
Abraham Lincoln used hemp oil to light his household lamps.6
US hemp production slowed after the Civil War as imports and other domestic alternatives started to replace hemp.7
Marijuana—another member of the cannabis plant family—is sold in public pharmacies and recognized as an important ingredient in many health and medicinal products.6
The Pure Food and Drug Act required labeling of all over-the-counter products that contain cannabis.7
USDA Bulletin No. 404 revealed that hemp produces four times more paper per acre than trees.6
The Marijuana Tax Act imposed strict hemp regulations, mainly because hemp was often confused with other types of cannabis plants. The law only allowed hemp to be grown after obtaining appropriate federal tax stamps, which delegitimized possession or transfer of hemp without government approval.6,8
The US Army’s Hemp for Victory campaign temporarily ended the Marijuana Tax Act during World War II, in order to increase domestic hemp production.8 US farmers grew over 400,000 acres of hemp between 1942 and 1945.6
Also in 1942: Henry Ford built a car with panels partially made from hemp fiber.6
After World War II, demand for hemp significantly decreased. The last commercial hemp fields of the era were planted in Wisconsin at this time.6
Leary v. United States examined the constitutionality of the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, and the US Supreme Court case deemed the law unconstitutional.9
The Controlled Substances Act, Title II of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, replaced the Marijuana Tax Act.6 It did not distinguish industrial hemp from marijuana and made the cultivation of any type of cannabis illegal.10
Scientists isolated phytocannabinoids from cannabis, which led to the eventual understanding of the endocannabinoid system (a molecular signaling system involved in a number of physiological functions).11
President Barack Obama signed the Farm Bill, allowing hemp to be grown in the US for research purposes.6
The US Senate passed the Hemp Farming Act, which removed hemp from the Drug Enforcement Administration’s list of controlled substances.5 Now hemp-derived products are legal on a federal level.6
Research shows that for millennia, hemp has served as a multipurpose global crop.1,2 In the US specifically, hemp production seems to have come full circle.6,12
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Hemp. https://www.britannica.com/plant/hemp. Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Accessed April 30, 2019.
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology – The Thistle Staff. The People’s History. 2000;13(2). https://www.mit.edu/~thistle/v13/2/history.html. Accessed April 29, 2019.
- Johnson J. Hemp oil benefits list. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324450.php. Medical News Today. Accessed April 29, 2019.
- Deitch R. Hemp American History Revisited: The Plant with a Divided History. 2003.
- Earleywine M. Understanding Marijuana. 2002.
- Hemp Academy Staff. Hemp History Timeline.https://manitobaharvest.com/hemp-academy/lessons/hemp-history-timeline/. Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods. Accessed April 29, 2019.
- PBS Staff. Marijuana Timeline. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/dope/etc/cron.html. PBS Frontline. Accessed April 29, 2019.
- US Food and Drug Administration. The Marijuana Tax Act. 1937. https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/75th-congress/session-1/c75s1ch553.pdf.
- Leary v. United States. n.j 6, 395 (Supreme Court 1969).
- Cornell Law School – Legal Information Institute Staff. 21 U.S. Code § 801: Congressional findings and declarations: controlled substances. 1970. https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/21/801.
- Lu HC et al. An Introduction to the Endogenous Cannabinoid System. Biological psychiatry. 2015;79(7):516–525.
- US House of Representatives. The Hemp Farming Act. 2018. https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/5485.
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