The History of Hemp

Posted by Flora Sophia on

With the widespread availability of hemp products in recent years, it’s easy to take for granted the long history that made it so. 

Despite the wealth of uses (and cashflow) hemp can provide society, the crop wasn’t always so easy to come by. And up until the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp was considered in the same category as schedule 1 narcotics, essentially robbing the country of all the utility and health benefits of this amazing plant.

But as you’ll learn in this article, the history of hemp reaches much, much further back than you probably imagined. 

Hemp History Facts and Timeline

Before we dive into hemp’s rich history, let's get up to speed with these quick hemp history facts, laid out in chronological order.

  • Humans have been using hemp since before the organization of agriculture, somewhere between 9,000 to 50,000 years ago.
  • The earliest known evidence of hemp’s use comes from east Asia, roughly 8,000 years ago.
  • Relics of hemp’s use are prevalent all over the world in the form of depictions of hemp fabrics in art and impressions of hemp plants on pottery.
  • Greeks of the classical age were described as having smoked hemp seed during rituals and for its pleasant flavor.
  • Early smokers of cannabis sativa in South-East Asia (around the first millennium BC) were likely responsible for the movement of hemp’s popularity westward. 
  • Hemp was used for cooking in pies, tortes, and soups throughout medieval Italy and Germany.
  • Spaniards eventually brought hemp to the Americas around 1545.
  • 1605 marked the first year that hemp use was recorded in North America.

When was hemp first used?

The limits of written history make it difficult to know when hemp was first used with certainty. But as of this writing, historians believe the Oki Islands of Japan may be the first place that hemp use was recorded. Archeologists discovered parts of hemp plants (called achenes) dated at roughly 8000 BC. This is the only evidence from that period found in Japan, so what exactly they used hemp for at that time is, unfortunately, anyone’s guess.

What was hemp originally used for?

Hemp’s original use mostly depends on which country you’re talking about since the plant was eventually used all over the world. Pottery, medicine, and even food were among the first uses for hemp in the ancient civilizations of China, Taiwan, Japan, and some areas of Europe.

Around 850 CE, Arab peoples started using hemp to make paper. Around the same time, King Henry VI ordered local farmers to cultivate hemp or face the king’s justice. That’s a stark contrast to hemp’s future as an outlawed crop, huh? (More on that later.)

By the early 1600s, hemp arrived in North America. There it was used by colonists for making clothing, sails, and ropes. A lot of early legislation from America’s foundation was drafted on hemp paper, including the Declaration of Independence in the 1700s. And a century or so later, hemp oil lamps were a common way to light the house at night.

History of hemp in the US

Believe it or not, hemp enjoyed a long history of cultivation in the Americas, even since the days of George Washington. He promoted hemp as a cash crop useful for all kinds of wares and applications, going so far as to write about growing the plant in his diary.

American farmers freely grew hemp until 1937 when the Marihuana Tax Act was passed. The exact reason for the introduction of this tax is unclear. But several prominent businessmen of the era, all of whom had competing interests against hemp production, pushed the legislation. These men were in industries manufacturing newspapers, nylons, toothbrushes, and more products that could potentially be made from hemp. Hemp production effectively stopped across the country as a result of this act. That is, until the start of WWII. 

During WWII, the tax was temporarily lifted in order to allow for making military uniforms and supplies cheaply. The government even released a promotional film called Hemp for Victory to spread the good word about hemp’s utility. Unfortunately, this resurgence was short-lived and eventually forgotten as regulations tightened once again. In 1970, some drastic legal action (based on a fallacy) was taken.

Why was hemp made illegal?

In 1970, marijuana was listed as a schedule 1 narcotic (the same category as heroin). Lawmakers made no distinction between marijuana and hemp despite their vast differences, effectively outlawing hemp farming until the late '90s. Whether this was an intentional money-maker move for competing industries or done out of sheer ignorance is debatable. But either way, hemp was nowhere to be found (legally) in America until 1998.

Canada legalized hemp farming in 1998, making Americans wonder why they couldn’t farm the plant. As a stop-gap measure, hemp oil imports were legalized by exempting hemp seeds and fibers from falling under the same category as marijuana. It would take another 20 years for hemp to finally (and righteously) be freed from this false association. 

How is hemp used today?

Thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp’s status as a legal crop was reinstated. Hemp was completely removed from the Controlled Substances Act, shedding its classification as a schedule 1 narcotic (even though it has never and will never cause any intoxicating effects whatsoever in all of recorded history, but we digress).

In 2019, American farmers grew a record 500,000 acres of hemp, in part to fuel the surge of CBD’s popularity. Besides being used in various food and wellness products, the 2018 Farm Bill positions hemp to be an industrial powerhouse once again. It may be years until the market for hemp stabilizes and infrastructure is created for mass production, however.

But for now, thanks to this progressive legislation, Americans everywhere can finally enjoy all the wonderful benefits this incredible plant can deliver, legally and freely.

Flora Sophia CBD

Congrats! Now you can say you’re a Bonafide Hemp Historian. But before you go printing out your honorary certificate and slapping it on the fridge, check out our blog! It’s stacked with educational content on all things hemp and CBD. 

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