Cannabis is one of the most widely used drugs in the world today, and humans have been using it for millennia for therapeutic, spiritual and industrial purposes. The hemp plant, Cannabis sativa L., has over 10,000 uses (some say 25,000), from natural biodegradable fibres to bioplastics to hemp seed oil, which can be used as a fuel or as a source for Omega 3 and 6. In fact, in 1776 Kentucky became the hemp growing centre in the US and the declaration of independence was first drafted on hemp paper.
‘Hemp for Victory’ was a black-and-white American governmental film which was released during WWII, in 1942, explaining the benefits of hemp fibre and why farmers should grow hemp to help the war efforts as imports of other industrial fibres were in short supply. Between 1942-1945 around 400,000 acres of hemp were planted!
Figure 1, left, shows the ‘Hemp for Victory’ governmental film released in 1942, and Figure 2, right, shows a special tax stamp, allowing farmers to grow marihuana during the war.
Before that, in 1533, King Henry VIII would fine farmers half a year’s wage if they didn’t grow a ¼ of an acre of hemp for every 60 acres they owned. Due to the split from the Catholic church, Henry VIII was worried that another European country would invade, and thus used hemp fibres to make sails, ropes and nets for one of the world’s first professional navies. The invasion began under the reign of Elizabeth I where Spain, a superpower at the time, attempted to invade England. Elizabeth I ordered farmers to grow even more hemp and imposed stricter penalties for those who didn’t. This paid off, and the English defeated the Spanish Armada in a couple of days. This was in part due to the smaller ships with higher quality ropes and sails made from hemp allowing a faster, more dynamic range of ships in the English navy.
If it’s so incredibly versatile, and is entwined in our history for millennia, then why was it prohibited since 1937? There are several possible factors why the hemp trade ceased and prohibition of hemp ensued, but the most convincing, in my opinion, was mainly due to a man called William Randolph Hearst.
William Randolph Hearst was an American businessman, newspaper publisher and politician known for developing the nation’s largest newspaper chain and media company, Hearst Communications. He used a method of journalism known as yellow journalism (tabloid journalism in the UK) which reports on news with very little or no factual evidence, with eye-catching headlines to increase the revenue of sales. Hearst’s empire reached a peak circulation of 20 million daily readers in the mid-1930s.
During the 1937 chemurgy conference, it was estimated that during the paper production process, an acre of hemp could save five acres of forest. Hemp could also be harvested every four months in the right conditions. Hearst had a monopoly on the paper production through his patents on the pulp-process, through DuPont, a chemical company. Although this process was cheaper, the paper quality was considerably lower quality, and the process used countless harsh chemicals which were damaging for the environment. Hearst’s ally, DuPont, owned the pulp sulphide process, but also had just secured a patent for nylon, which was a direct competitor with hemp as a fibre. All these factors caused DuPont and Hearst to work together through politics and yellow journalism to prohibit Marihuana, and therefore hemp. In 1937, The Marihuana Tax Act was enforced which imposed a tax on cannabis, which effectively killed the industry.
Figure 3, left, shows a poster for ‘Reefer Madness’, a film revolving around the melodramatic events that occur after smoking cannabis, and Figure 4 shows Hearst’s ‘yellow journalism’.
The last hemp fields were planted in Wisconsin, U.S., 1957. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classified hemp as an illegal Schedule I drug. Strict regulations imposed on the cultivation of industrial hemp as well as marijuana. 28 years later, in 1998, the U.S. began to import hemp seed and oil. 2004 saw U.S. businesses being allowed to import dietary hemp products. The first ‘new-age’ hemp farm licenses were issued in 2007 to two farmers in North Dakota – 50 years after the end of hemp farming due to the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act. 2014 saw Obama sign the hemp farm bill, which allowed research institutions to start piloting hemp farming. 2015 was a significant milestone. The introduction of The Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2015 (H.R. 525 and S. 134) made amendments to the Controlled Substances Act to allow ‘industrial hemp’, defined as delta-nine tetrahydrocannabinol concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis, to be cultivated. This was the first of several attempts to legalise hemp. On December 20th, 2018, U.S. President Trump signed the hemp farm bill into law, which removed the hemp plant, along with any of its seeds and derivatives from the Controlled Substances Act. In 2019 there was an estimated 500,000 acres of hemp licensed across 34 states, although only about half were actually planted and harvested. Currently, as of early 2020, there are 33 states which have legal medical marijuana status, and 11 legal recreational states. It’s fair to say it has been quite the rollercoaster with marijuana, corrupted by politicians and companies, on its journey back to legalisation. There is obviously much more history of cannabis to delve into, and it is truly remarkable how entwined we are with the crop. The book ‘Hemp: American History Revisited: The Plant with a Divided History’ is a good read if you are interested in discovering more.