Industrial Hemp in America

The cultivation of hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) has provided the people of the earth a sustainable source of fiber for well over the millennia. In fact, the oldest known human artifact is a piece of hemp fabric from ancient Mesopotamia dating back to around 8,000 B.C. The products manufactured from hemp are so numerous that they cannot all be named in a single article. Hemp has been made into paper, clothing, sails, ropes, fuels, medicines, and even plastics. However, this incredibly useful crop is not without its own amount of controversy.

Industrial hemp is a close relative of the modern marijuana plant which is well known for the psychoactive effects caused by a cannabinoid compound called THC. Industrial hemp has almost no THC, usually much less than 1% by weight and is used mainly for its fiber. Though differing greatly in this aspect from marijuana, the two have been lumped together through legislation and public opinion to the extent that the growing of industrial hemp was outlawed in the USA for a period of time.

The History of Hemp in the United States

The 1600s
Hemp made its fateful journey to America in the 1600’s aboard the Mayflower, the famous ship that carried the pilgrims to the “new world.” Hemp was an invaluable commodity for ships of that era due to its sheer strength and natural resistance to decay. Ropes, canvas, sails, netting, maps, log book pages, and the flags were all manufactured utilizing hemp fiber. Not only was the Mayflower equipped with hemp fiber products, but it was also equipped with a supply of hemp seeds to be grown at their new home.

The 1700s
It was common practice that most ships in Great Britain’s fleet to be stocked with a store of hemp seeds for distribution throughout the colonies of the empire and colonial citizens were often compelled by law to grow and process the plant for industrial use. Colonial America was no exception. In the 17th century citizens of the Virginia, Massachusetts, and Connecticut colonies could actually be sent to jail for not growing hemp on their farms. The importance of this easily-grown fiber source was so immense that for nearly 200 years colonial Americans could actually pay their taxes with it. Many of the United States’ founding fathers, including George Washington, grew hemp on their own land and encouraged others to follow suit. Thomas Jefferson even penned the first initial drafts of both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution on hemp fiber paper! The undeniable importance of hemp in early American history is hard to understate and its prominence as an industrial fiber was unmatched until after the Civil War.

The 1800s
After the Civil War, the world saw the rise of the steamboat, making hemp sails and other similar ship accessories nearly obsolete. Around this same time, other domestic materials such as cotton and tree fiber began to replace hemp in products like clothing and paper. Michigan, Illinois, and Kentucky continued to grow industrial hemp until the late 1800s as demand continued to drop.

The 1900s
By the 1900s, Kentucky was the only state in the union to continue an active production of the crop until the start of World War I when an increase in production occurred due to demand. During this same time period, advancements in the production and utilization of petroleum products led to their extended use as both fuels and oils. This added to the diminishing use of the hemp plant which was and still is an adequate material for products ranging from biofuels to plastics. Though domestic production of hemp was declining during this time period, there was still a need for hemp and its products. Most of the hemp fiber was imported and was the norm for the next hundred years.

The War on Hemp
Though the hemp industry was in noticeable decline, certain industry moguls still saw the plant as a plausible threat to their profits. Most notable of the bunch were the DuPont Chemical Company and William Randolph Hearst, the owner of Hearst Paper Manufacturing, a division of Kimberly-Clark and a growing empire of newspapers across the country. In the early 1900’s DuPont was manufacturing pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers that were used extensively in the production of cotton. In comparison to industrial hemp, cotton requires much more water and fertilization per acre and yields less usable fiber that is inferior to hemp fiber in many ways. DuPont also held patents for the processing of oil and coal into plastics, a process that Henry Ford helped prove was highly capable of the hemp plant. If hemp was to see another big surge in demand it could have surely spelled disaster for the company’s bottom line.

William Randolph Hearst also understood the threat that popularized hemp production could have on his paper industry. His business manufactured paper from tree fiber, and he understood that hemp grew much faster and could be manufactured cheaper than the product he was producing. In order for Hearst’s company to thrive, he knew he must be the main producer of paper in the USA and had to do something to prevent the production of hemp. But there was only so much these two companies could do to prevent another rise in the production of hemp. As the adage goes, we get by with a little help from our friends, especially if those friends are powerful.

Enter into the scenario the Secretary of Treasury under President Herbert Hoover, Mr. Andrew Melon. Andrew Melon was the owner of Melon Bank which was the financial backer of both DuPont and Hearst. As a man that undoubtedly understood the woes of his constituents and with these expressed concerns, he created the Bureau of Narcotics and chose none other than the husband of his niece, Harry Anslinger, to head the department. At that time Anslinger was out of work due to the end of prohibition, where he was a key figure in that campaign. Anslinger was the final piece of the puzzle, and the man they needed to help bring an end to industrial hemp production in the US. However, doing so would take a bit of finesse.

Enter into the equation the Mexican Revolution of 1910, which created an influx of Mexican immigrants into the United States. The immigrants brought along with them a tradition of smoking the flowers from the cannabis plant. The immigrants were not favorably welcomed, and Harry Anslinger began using their cannabis use as a way to demonize their population.

He effectively created a smear campaign equating Mexican immigrant recreational cannabis use as a cause of the violent crimes and socially-deviant behaviors committed by this “racially inferior” class of people. Feeding off the overwhelming popularity of racism, Anslinger consistently spread, through articles in William Randolph Hearst’s own newspaper publications, slanderous and unsubstantiated rumors that the use of cannabis by Mexican immigrants was leading to rapes and murders throughout the country. He even started using the Mexican slang for cannabis, marijuana, when referencing the problem and not once make a plausible effort to substantiate the difference between marijuana and industrial hemp.

The smear campaign continued through the 1930s. The great depression caused the resentment of immigrants to grow and the hatred or fear of marijuana to be solidified within the minds of the people. Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, leading to extreme regulation of industrial hemp and eventually the modern prohibition of the cannabis plant in the U.S.

Hemp in World War II
In 1942, the Japanese war campaign in the Pacific Ocean led to the invasion of the Philippines, which cut off supplies of Manila hemp fiber destined for the U.S. Understanding the importance of hemp fiber to their own war efforts, the U.S. government decided to distribute 400,000 pounds of hemp cannabis seeds to farmers from Wisconsin through Kentucky. The campaign was given the marketing slogan “Hemp for Victory,” and the USDA even produced a film and pamphlets outlining the importance and need for industrial hemp production. The government viewed industrial hemp as a major key factor to the war effort that it even waived military service duty for the farmers and their sons.

From 1942 until 1946, American farmers grew an average of 42,000 annually. When the war ended, the production of hemp and all remaining fields and crops were ordered to be destroyed. The remnants of these victory farms can still be seen on the edges of the fields they once populated where the plant is casually referred to as ditch weed, with most of the population not even knowing the history of how the plant got to be there. The final nail in the coffin of industrial hemp came in 1970 with the passing of the Controlled Substance Act, which classified all types of cannabis, marijuana, and industrial hemp included, as Schedule 1 drugs making them illegal to grow or possess and levying heavy consequences for those who are caught doing so. At this point, industrial hemp production was officially a thing of the past.

Necessity Dictates Change: Industrial Hemp Finds New Hope
As the environmental effects of the overconsumption of products made from limited resources, such products made from petroleum fossil fuels, and the widespread damage of deforestation from paper production are becoming ever more apparent, people in the U.S. and globally are looking for a reliable and renewable resource that is easy to grow. Without surprise, hemp is one option that is getting some serious attention, and the government isn’t trying to stop it this time.

A provision in 2014 was included in the Federal Farm Bill allowing for the cultivation of industrial hemp by state universities and state departments of agriculture for research under an agricultural pilot program or if the state has already passed a law allowing the industrial production of hemp. Currently, 21 states in the U.S. have enacted state laws approving the cultivation of hemp for industrial or research purposes. These laws are all built around three major points: (1) The laws strictly define hemp as different from marijuana (2) Industry is regulated, and the grower must be licensed and registered through the state. (3) Hemp is excluded from the states’ Controlled Substance list. On the federal level, leaders of both main political parties are taking steps to differentiate between cannabis the drug and cannabis the plant with industrial uses. Experts believe this will inevitably lead to the unrestricted cultivation of industrial hemp in the United States.

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