Global Hemp History
Cannabis, family Cannabaceae, has been found on every continent in the northern hemisphere and its use has existed for over ten thousand years. Cannabis “hemp” is one of the oldest crops used for cultivation, as well as one of the most versatile. Its fibers, used for textiles and industrial use, its seed, used for food and fuel, and its hurd, used for paper and building materials, all played a critical role in the growth of civilization.
China began hemp cultivation as early as 10,000 BC. The archeological evidence comes from rope imprints on broken Chinese pottery, hemp clothing, and references in documents referring to the soil as, “rich with silk and hemp.” By 6000 BC, hemp seeds and oil were used for food, and 2,000 years later, textiles made of hemp were widely produced. The Chinese emperor, Chen-Nung, wrote about hemp’s medicinal uses and recorded its effects on malaria, female disorders, and other illnesses. Warfare also utilized hemp for its fiber’s durability and strength, which included bowstrings made with hemp rather than bamboo. Hemp produced many innovative products, but paper made from hemp fiber was China’s most prized invention, and spread throughout the East like wildfire.
The Egyptians were the first civilization to create hemp rope and twine by 4000 BC from water reed fibers.
The Scythians, a nomad group in Babylon, began hemp cultivation as early as 1500 BC. They used hemp fibers to weave some of the finest hemp cloth. The ancient Greek, Herodotus, wrote in 5 BC that the Scythians cultivated a plant that grew thicker and taller than flax.
The Persians referred to hemp as the “King of Seeds” and used the seed for many food uses.
By the time Russia began hemp cultivation, there was enough advancement for them to quickly become one of the leading nations of hemp production and a major exporter to England in times of war.
The Western World was introduced to hemp by migrating nomadic tribes as early as 2000 BC and the versatile crop, with its many products, spread widely across Europe. By 100 AD, the Romans recognized the many benefits of cannabis, such as a treatment for rabies, inflammation, epilepsy and tetanus, as well as depression. It was also discovered that a tincture of hemp and alcohol, taken orally, had a similar effect to painkillers. Later on, hemp rope and cloth hemp became common, especially in times of war where hemp’s versatility produced a number of useful, quality products. When Napoleon of France invaded Russia and blocked all hemp exports to England, England’s King Henry VIII required the cultivation of one quarter acre of hemp for every sixty acres of cultivated land—a strategic effort to provide materials for the British Naval fleet.
In Africa, hemp was used for pain relief, dysentery, fevers, and snake bites. The plant was also used as livestock feed.
U.S. Hemp History
Throughout the colonization and settlement of America, hemp remained completely legal and became one of the most significant and widely used crops. George Washington was a leading hemp advocate and encouraged all citizens to “sow it everywhere.” In fact, many of the first colonies, such as Jamestown and Williamsburg, were required by law to grow hemp. After American prohibition, hemp was reintroduced to the nation as critical to the war effort in WWII (watch Hemp for Victory video).
Similar to other societies in history, hemp cultivation and production only increased with time. Not to mention, hemp was used in America’s first wars for vessels, sails, caulking, food, and a number of other products. At this time, hemp was to the Navy what titanium is to modern military technology.
Kentucky, the “bluegrass” region, first planted hemp in 1775, and later became the most important and enduring hemp industry in America. The state remained the nation’s leading producer of the hemp seed.
Though hemp was flourishing, Congress passed the “Tariff of 1828,” later called the “Tariff of Abominations” on May 19, 1828. It was designed to protect and support industries in the north, which were being run out of business by low-priced, imported goods from Britain. U.S. textiles and wool were the target materials, which ultimately resulted in unrest for the hemp industry. Many southern states opposed this tariff because it harmed farmers, as well as New England importers and ship owners. John C. Calhoun, Vice President at the time of this tariff, and a South Carolina supporter, openly opposed this bill and urged nullification within South Carolina to restore the textile industry. By 1833, the nullification crisis was resolved and the hemp industry was able to be restored, though not at the same rate as before.
After the Civil War, in 1861, G.F. Schaffer of New York patented the Hemp Dresser, a machine to prepare the hemp for manufacturing. Industrialization led to only more advanced inventions. Out of these improvements, the Decorticator machine was invented, and hemp soon became the “New Billion Dollar Crop.”
Though a crop that built our nation and holds enormous potential for the growth of America, hemp was roped into the term Marijuana, which was never part of U.S. vocabulary before the 1920s. Though society knew hemp was harmless, it was unfortunately mixed together with all plants in the Cannabis species, through untrue “yellow journalism” of William Hearst. The Marihuana Tax Act was enacted in 1937 and cultivations of Cannabis sativa (including hemp) was completely prohibited. This prohibition began one of the greatest political mixups in U.S. history and one of the most detrimental decisions for our economy, environment, health and national well being.