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The History of Hemp: Origins

Updated: Jan 4

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Did you know the hemp market has been at an all-time high over the last decade? Well, now you do. Especially, after its complete legalization, thanks to the passing of the 2018 United States Farm Bill. Today, we enjoy an open and fair market, in which farmers and business owners can thrive, and consumers have their choice between hundreds of hemp-based products to address different daily needs.

But, the passing of the Farm Bill is only the latest of many points of evolution within a historically controversial industry. Due to hemp’s association with marijuana, another member of the cannabis genus, the plant has seen its ups and downs over the last several hundred years.

History of Hemp in Ancient Times

The new, buzzing energy around the hemp market makes it easy for us to forget that hemp has actually been used since ancient times, for the same purposes that we use it today. We know that hemp use dates back to at least 3000 BC, since archaeologists have discovered evidence of its cultivation and applications in day to day life.

It appears that hemp cultivation first originated in Central Asia, around where Taiwan is today. It wasn’t just used for medicinal purposes, as its fibers were used for various textiles, ropes, etc. The earliest known piece of fabric used in clothing dates back to 8000-7000 BC, and, was discovered in Iraq. Around the same time, China was using hemp in pottery and other applications.

Also, around this time, hemp cultivation began to spread throughout Asia and the Middle East, booming between 2000 and 800 BC. Meanwhile, regions in Iran and Turkey, once known as Assyria, used hemp ceremoniously, burning it like incense, while shamans began to explore marijuana for its psychoactive effects. There is additional evidence of hemp cultivation in Ancient Greece.

Weed Used Throughout the World Over the Centuries

Hemp, and cannabis in general, became an agricultural fixture in the Middle East around the year 1000 AD. The smoking of cannabis became common, and this practice soon spread to Africa, which we know from the beautiful pipes that still exist to this day, used to smoke the flower buds.

It’s hard to separate the history of hemp from the history of marijuana, since the two come from the same genus, but more importantly, because the trajectory of one has determined the trajectory of the other, especially when it comes to regulations and other legal hurdles that would come later on. Around the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, cannabis became popular throughout Europe, with Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops enjoying the more psychoactive member of the cannabis family, while regions in France and England sought the more industry-related benefits of hemp as the plant could be used to increase textile productions.

Hemp in Early America

By the mid-18th Century, cannabis transformed into a massive global industry. And, Americans brought it with them when first settling into the colonies, planting it in abundance. Hemp quickly became a huge source of agricultural profit by the early colonists, who discovered that the plant could be used in many industries including cloth, paper and rope. The plant was first cultivated in Jamestown, Virginia, where its primary purpose was to grow industrial hemp that would be used to make cloth sails for ships. It didn’t take long for colonists to be required by law to grow hemp and send it back to England.

By now, hemp had become an independent form of currency, used in international trade. The English saw it as a form of tax to impose on the new American population. Hemp cultivation in America became so dominant that we still have many towns throughout these original colonial regions named after the plant. Decades later, the medicinal uses of hemp would be established by the medical industry.

Around the same time, we began to see the first incidents of regulation placed on the cannabis trade. While hemp remained legal, more and more countries banned the use of marijuana. This is important, because just a couple of centuries later, cannabis as a whole would become controversial, as lawmakers would fail to separate hemp from marijuana.

The 20th Century and New Laws

By now, it was widely known that hemp was an incredibly valuable plant. Besides its usefulness in all kinds of industries, it was proven to offer benefits to the user. But, the problem was that the large majority of hemp farms throughout the country also cultivated marijuana, which at the time remained legal in the United States.

In October of 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act was put into effect, being the first means of restricting the industry. Immediately, cannabis farmers who grew both marijuana and hemp were dropping by the dozens, unable to withstand the heavy taxation imposed on them. This taxation act did have “marihuana” in its name, but in fact applied to cannabis as a whole.

In 1942, an exception was made for the hemp plant, as the USDA launched the “Hemp for Victory” campaign to encourage farmers to cultivate the plant so that it could be used as a commodity during World War II or the Second World War. The goal was to grow enough hemp for textiles that would be needed by the US military.

In 1970, hemp was dealt its biggest blow when 37th President Richard M. Nixon signed legislation making cannabis a Schedule I substance, creating no distinction between hemp and marijuana. This ended the hemp trade in America, for the most part. While some states continued to permit cultivation, federal law’s overpowering authority often interfered.

Before the Farm Bill, there was The Farm Act of 2014

The 2014 Farm Act makes major changes in commodity programs, adds new crop insurance options, streamlines conservation programs, modifies some provisions of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and expands programs for specialty crops, organic farmers, bioenergy, rural development, and beginning farmers and ranchers.

Present Day

Of course, today, that’s all changed. Hemp is once again a federally legal plant, due to the passing of the Farm Bill that legalized all hemp products containing a maximum of 0.3% delta 9 THC. Because of this, hemp can thrive again as a valuable market in our country. And, it has – the hemp market today is worth billions of dollars, proving that Americans never doubted the beneficial nature of the plant, and are more than happy to have more access to it than ever before.


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