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The history of hemp in America and around the world is nothing short of complicated. Even though the plant and its derivatives are now completely legal in many parts of the world, including the U.S., the journey to legalization was not an easy one. Hemp history involves political controversy, overseas conquests, and even a few U.S. presidents. Here is a concise and complete history of hemp:
Hemp in the Past
Historians believe hemp was one of the first plants to be cultivated by humans. The earliest signs of hemp use in ancient cultures date back to the Neolithic Age in Asia and Eastern Europe. Archaeological evidence suggests the Chinese used hemp fiber to fabricate clothes, ropes, and paper. Meanwhile, hemp usage was also documented in Eastern Europe where inhabitants inhaled hemp smoke as a ritual and for recreational purposes.
In the medieval period, hemp was primarily used as an ingredient in foods like pies and soups. Hemp was also commonly cultivated in the countryside for its fibers which were used for textiles and ropes. During that period, hemp ropes were the standard on most ships including those of Christopher Columbus. Eventually, hemp was brought to the Americas by the Spanish where it was successfully cultivated in the southern regions of the continent. In North America, records of hemp usage date back to the early 17th century, with settlers reporting cultivation and use of the plant by natives in different villages.
By the 18th century, hemp had become a valuable crop in early American settlements. George Washington was an avid advocate of hemp continually pushing for the widespread cultivation of the plant and even growing it himself. The value of hemp as a cash crop was so high; many slave plantation produced hemp as their main crop. In addition to Washington, other presidents known to have grown hemp include Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Andrew Jackson.
Hemp History in the 20th Century
Hemp continued to be used for textiles and fabrics in the 19th and 20th century. However, usage in North America sharply declined after political campaigns targeting cannabis gained traction in the 1930s culminating in the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. The act imposed a tax on anyone who dealt commercially in cannabis including hemp and marijuana. While the action didn’t criminalize hemp, it weakened the industry and set precedents for future efforts seeking to ban the plant.
Hemp in the United States did not become illegal until 1970 when President Nixon passed the Controlled Substances Act as part of his War on Drugs. The new set of regulations sought to criminalize marijuana, which at the time was at its peak thanks to the cannabis-friendly hippie movement. Unfortunately, the act lumped together marijuana, hemp, and other cannabis varieties into one group, effectively killing off the hemp industry for years to come.
Even though hemp was largely illegal for most of the second half of the 20th century, new studies and research continued to be conducted to gain a better understanding of the benefits of hemp products. As the benefits of hemp became more evident, a new movement to legalize hemp began to gain momentum, eventually leading to the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill. The bill established a new set of rules giving individual states the power to regulate the cultivation of industrial hemp through accredited research programs. States across the country quickly adopted laws promoting hemp cultivation and usage validating the movement’s motives and signaling the beginning of a new dawn for the hemp industry.
Hemp legalization became official in late 2018 with the passage of the Agriculture Improvement Act, also known as the Farm Bill 2018. The bill removed hemp from the federal list of controlled substances and classified it as an agricultural commodity. As a result, hemp and hemp derived products are now completely legal at the national level in the United States.
The legalization of hemp marks the most significant victory in the history of hemp in the United States. As the primary source of CBD, hemp is set to become one of the most influential industries for years to come with the CBD market expected to reach a value close to $22 billion within the next four years. However, the value of hemp goes beyond just CBD. With a wide range of hemp uses ranging from textile to medicinal, the future of hemp belongs to all of us.
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