Two truths and one lie about hemp — it influenced the Second World War, it is accepted worldwide with arms wide-open and it played a part in America’s independence movement. Well, you probably know which part is a lie. However, even a kneejerk reaction to other two facts would make the lie too hard to stomach for a normal person — sadly, the world is yet to mend fences completely with the hemp plant.
Although the plant has a nefarious reputation among the contemporaries due to its association with the Cannabis Family, it was arguably one of the paramount plants among the bygones. So, let us roll back to the ancient times and see how the good-guy-hemp turned villainous as the time progressed.
The early days:
Use of hemp dates back to 800 B.C — thanks to Carbon dating — its early traces were found in the parts of China, Middle East, Europe and Africa. When the origins of human agriculture (we’re talking 10,000 years back) are put into perspective, it would be safe to say that hemp was one of the first agricultural crops.
Hemp’s early use was creating paper. Starting with the Egyptian history, the Goddess of Wisdom, Seshat, wrote the first word on the paper made of hemp leaf only — as per the depiction of Egyptian hieroglyphics — while in the ancient history of Japan, the medicinal use of hemp (from hemp seeds and flower tops) was mentioned in their cave paintings during the stone age. Even in the Chinese antiquity, the initial texts of hemp cultivation were written on a paper made of hemp. Take a moment and think of reading about the first written words on the earliest form of paper, on a digital device — let that sink in.
Although, British didn’t focus much on the medicinal use as they were more focused on the idea of colonisation. They employed their farmers in hemp cultivation for the requirements of the raw materials for the inventory of their Naval fleet. The components of battleships, its construction, sails, oakum, etc. were all created by the use of hemp oil and hemp fiber. And it’s not like they didn’t fancy the use of hemp paper. Their maps and logs were made of Hemp paper only.
Hemp enters American History:
Hemp treaded into the American soil from North America. In the early 1600s, the first ruling house of early settlers in Virginia passed an order for aggressive cultivation of hemp in their American and Indian colonies identifying the crop as a ‘vital crop’. As the time passed by, hemp started turning into a cash crop and its skyrocketing demands made it a success — so successful that the farmers could even pay their taxes with hemp cultivation. Production of hemp grew with the growing number of American colonies; British Navy’s heavy reliance on the items made of hemp made them hurl American farmers to make hemp the most important crop of their land. The hemp production in America was gradually hinting their forefathers to salvage more out of the wide popularity (especially in Europe) of the crop.
Americans started realising the worth of their hemp production as the 18th century started and so did the Britishers. By the end of the 1700s, Britishers paid a massive bounty to the farmers a decade before Uncle Sam gained independence. Even the declaration of American Independence was written on a hemp paper!
As the first President of America considered hemp an important plant and decided to promote its production in the cost of reduced tobacco cultivation. In 1794, George Washington passed on his thoughts about hemp to his Gardener by saying, “Make the most you can of the Indian Hemp seed and sow it everywhere”. Even the Thomas Jefferson called hemp “the first necessity to the wealth and protection of their country” — what a revolutionary crop!
From Revolutionary to “Illegal Crop”
Regardless of hemp being a part of US history, the winds of change in the early 1900s were all about fighting against drug abuse. The government’s attention turned to Marijuana and its ilk. As both the plants come from the cannabis family, they were clubbed together in the same category and thus came the controversial Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. The plant that once was the fundamental parts of independent America was now a “dangerous plant”. As a matter result, massive taxes were imposed on the sales of hemp products and Hemp industry started plummeting.
However, some argue that the law had nothing to do with the repercussions of Cannabis intake, instead, the growing industry was a threat to some of the emerging industries during that time and plenty of interesting conspiracy stories about the act surfaced.
Quite interestingly, the industry got another lifeline with the onset of the second world war (1942). As the Japanese invasion in the Philippines sliced down the supply of Jute, the Army was forced to turn their heads back to their old man, hemp. As a result, the ban was lifted for a brief period in order to suffice the demands of ropes and canvas that were made from hemp. The farmers were encouraged by the Department of Agriculture to produce hemp and the government even released a documentary called ‘Hemp for Victory’ to promote hemp production. In the period of 1942-1945, a hemp plantation binge was set in motion and a whopping 400,00 acres of hemp was planted.
However, as soon as the war came to a close, America’s relationship with its rebound lover was over — what a shame! The prohibition came back into the system and hemp continued its survival with its unpalatable reputation.
Although, if we looked beyond America, Hemp had different reputes in different parts of the world. Then in 1961, United Nations laid down some standards for Universal Coordination for the use of narcotic drugs. The act encouraged the governments to lay down control measures to avoid abuse of the drugs. Plants of Cannabis family were also clubbed in the control measure —although it didn’t apply to the exclusive use of hemp for industrial purposes. All in all, industrial hemp still belongs to the category of Control Substance along with the likes of cocaine and heroin.
Even though the governments were well aware of the benefits of the hemp plant, no one was taking a step forward to allow the use of hemp. In 1998, after 60 years of prohibition, Canadian government enabled the plantation and processing of industrial hemp under the care of Health Canada and ensured high-level of sophistication in the regulation and monitoring. Farmers could now grow and process hemp fibres and foods, and export their products beyond the terminus of Canada. In spite of the hype, a massive amount of Cannabis production was done in Canada but it ultimately failed to do justice to its publicity. The supply was exceeding the demands and farmers suffered significant amounts of financial losses for many years.
Although, the time around the year 2009 rekindled the demand of Hemp. This time, it was because of its nutritious food value. As the years passed by, a decent balance was introduced between the supply and demand — as the growth in the demand was relatively stable this time. Over the course of last decade, the shady reputation of the entire cannabis family has been watered down in the US and other parts of the world.
Hemp and Cannabis Family in the current time:
Canadian Industrial hemp today gets exported across more than thirty different countries worldwide. The demand for hemp seeds and hemp oil has only gone up in recent years and the whole Cannabis industry has experienced immense growth. Over 20 states in the US have accepted the hemp bill that was introduced in over 33 states.
The times have changed a lot over centuries. From being revered as the crop of the highest importance to being called a “dangerous crop”, hemp’s reputation has changed in a yo-yo fashion. Regardless of how 20th century turned out for hemp, its place would still stay intact in the American history. It would still be hallowed for its contribution to the economy and the way things have progressed in the last decade, Hemp might make America great again!