People have been using hemp for various purposes for at least 10,000 years. Its original use was as a textile, and people often used it to make clothing, rope, and several other useful goods. With the greater acceptance of hemp and hemp products, you can find hemp clothes even today.
People might not have started using hemp products as a medicine and recreational substance for a few thousand years after its cultivation.
The many uses of hemp caused the plant to catch on in the early colonies of the New World, and thus began several centuries of fascinating history.
We’ll talk more about the history of hemp in America in the paragraphs below.
1. Coming to America
Hemp was first introduced to the United States by colonists seeking a better life. This occurred early in the 1600s when ships often relied on sails and rigging to move across the ocean.
Hemp was also mixed with tar and used to seal spaces between the boards on a ship. Hemp was water-resistant and could keep the ship afloat better than most other available materials.
This required extensive use of rope and textiles, largely made from hemp. Thus, it became standard procedure for English ships to carry hemp and hemp seeds on voyages so that the crews could make repairs whenever the need arose.
The crown provided seeds to the colonists so the English could create more sources of hemp wherever they colonized.
When the first English colonists set foot on the shores of the New World, they had little to their name except for a hull full of hemp seeds. So, they planted them and made a go of it as hemp farmers.
2. A Royal Decree
Hemp wasn’t just a cash crop, though. It became a matter of law almost as soon as the colonists landed. In 1619, King James I decreed that every landowner in the colonies had to grow at least 100 hemp plants to help supply the English navy.
This was one of many decrees and laws of that nature. Before the creation of the Virginia colonies, Henry VIII mandated that farmers in England grow a certain amount of hemp as part of their crops.
It’s important to note that in the early 17th century, England was on its way to becoming the most powerful naval power in the world. Spain had previously held the title, but investment in colonial pursuits, coupled with a series of costly wars, was beginning to hamper Spain’s ability to maintain its navy.
Meanwhile, England was on the rise. In 1604, it signed a treaty concluding a 19-year-long war with Spain. During this war, the English had held their own and scored several victories against the larger Spanish navy.
One of the most important battles of this war was the attack of the Spanish Armada, which officially secured England’s place as a major power.
Ordering the colonists to grow hemp made it easier to supply the ever-growing navy.
3. Colonial Use
The English crown wasn’t the only one to find value in hemp. The colonists themselves also made widespread use of it, making everything from paper to medicine. The people wore clothes made from hemp fibers and lived in homes lit by lamps that burned hemp for fuel.
The industry grew with the colonies and played an important role as the colonies started to vie for self-governance. It’s believed that at some point in their lives, the first five presidents of the United States all grew hemp.
Some have argued that many of the colonists and founding fathers also smoked marijuana, but that’s unlikely. The reason we say this is because hemp was grown mostly for textiles. Recreational marijuana didn’t appear to have any kind of market.
What did have a burgeoning market in the age of colonialism was tobacco. Tobacco is native to the Americas and was first brought back to Europe by Columbus. By the mid-1500s, the substance had become a craze in Europe, and the English colonies had turned it into their largest cash crop by 1619.
If the colonists and Europeans already knew how to smoke cannabis, why was tobacco such a huge discovery?
What we do know is that Washington grew extra hemp so that he could make fishing nets, which he would then use in a fishing operation he had created.
Benjamin Franklin ran a paper mill that created paper from hemp.
4. The New Republic and the 19th Century
Though it’s not talked about as much in the history books, hemp continued to thrive after the War of Independence. Early on in United States History, hemp was being used as a form of currency in several places because of how useful and valuable it was.
Hemp’s staying power in the fledgling United States can be attributed to the same reasons it gained traction in the colonies–it could make ropes, sails, paper, and plenty of other goods.
However, the 19th century also brought a lot of advancements that made hemp obsolete in various fields. The first came in 1807 when American inventor Robert Fulton created the first commercial steamship.
The steamship was still in its early stages, however. Fulton had created a ship that could travel five mph over short distances in rivers or along the coast. They still could not travel over the open ocean.
These types of ships would not be available until the 1830s and ’40s. While this ended the Age of Sail, it did not end the Age of Hemp.
It was still being used in making paper, ropes, oil to burn in lamps, many other ways. However, the 1800s was an age of scientific advancement, and more inventions would come to replace hemp in other places.
A man named Volta created the first battery in 1800. Matches were invented in 1826. There were also diesel engines and automobiles late in the century.
However, the 1800s also brought tools to make farming of all kinds more profitable. Cyrus McCormick invented a mechanical reaper to harvest crops more efficiently. Barbed wire allowed farmers to grow crops and raise livestock without fear of the livestock eating their plants.
5. The Mexican Revolution
We’ve already mentioned that recreational cannabis wasn’t common in the United States for some time. It didn’t start to catch on until 1910.
In 1910, Mexican President Porfirio Diaz encountered armed resistance to his rule. Many of the rebel factions were liberals and laborers seeking better rights in their homeland.
The Mexican Revolution was like the American Civil War in a few ways. One major issue of the war was the rights of laborers, indigenous peoples largely sided with the rebels, and every major figure had incredible facial hair.
The Revolution met with great success, initially. Diaz was overthrown, and one of the main rebel leaders, Francisco Madero, was elected president in 1911. Unfortunately, the Revolution would not be as quick and decisive as everyone hoped.
The rebel forces, while powerful, were very disparate. One of the only things they had in common was that they all hated Diaz. With Diaz gone, their differences were becoming more evident.
Madero served as president for two years, all the while fighting rebels, former allies who had ambitions of ruling Mexico. In 1913, Madero was ousted by one of his own officers, Victoriano Huerta.
Huerta proved to be a reviled figure who was ousted after less than two years in office. He was arrested by the US a year later (1915) for corresponding with German spies.
6. The Refugee Crisis and Cannabis
What does the Mexican Revolution have to do with marijuana? Like any war, the Revolution caused many people to become refugees, who often crossed into the US for a chance at a new life.
Many of them brought marijuana with them, and it soon caught on in the US. Though there probably wasn’t much difference in the demographics of who used the new drug, dubbed marihuana by papers, people soon began to believe there was one.
The word ‘marijuana’ appears to be Mexican Spanish in origin, although there’s still debate over what it’s supposed to mean. The important thing is that the name sounded foreign, which alarmists would later use to stoke up anxiety about the substance and the non-white immigrants who introduced it to the US.
As marijuana caught on, it soon found its way into youth culture, amongst the jazz clubs and speakeasies of the 1920s. This is where the stigma truly came together, combining three of the biggest concerns of the day into one big panic.
The fear of youth culture and the typical trend of adults thinking kids are being corrupted was part of it. Another part was jazz, an emerging music genre that was a little more liberal and suggestive than previous generations of music and was largely dominated by black musicians. The third and final panic was the use of marijuana by young people.
Combining these three, a campaign was launched portraying marijuana as a corrupting substance that caused young people to test boundaries, commit crimes, perhaps go insane, and even die.
7. Hearst and Anslinger: The Men Behind ‘Reefer Madness’
The key figures behind the campaign to demonize weed were William Randolph Hearst and Harry J Anslinger. These two proved to- be strange allies, but they made a big impact.
Hearst was a newspaper mogul who had created an empire of newspapers, which were created from wood pulp, which he was also invested in. Anslinger, meanwhile, was a politician in charge of the Bureau of Narcotics and a virulent racist. He believed marijuana was a dangerous drug that could cause criminal behavior, racial equality, and mixing of the races.
Hearst’s main concern was more financial. He feared the popularity of marijuana might pave the way for a new Renaissance of hemp-based products, thus sinking his paper business.
Together, the two created a campaign to demonize the new substance as a morally-corrupting poison that brought out the worst in people, especially people of color.
8. Age of Prohibition
In 1937, the government passed the Marijuana Tax Act, which effectively turned possession, sale, or use of anything hemp-related into a felony. This occurred a year after the success of the most infamous piece of marijuana propaganda–Reefer Madness, a movie so hilariously dumb that it’s now a classic among marijuana users that serves as a parody of attitudes and policies toward the substance.
Hemp faced a brief reemergence during WWII when supplies were needed for the US military. The military used it to make parachute webbing, shoelaces, and several other necessary pieces of equipment.
Before the war, the US had gotten hemp from the Philippines, but the Philippines were captured by the Japanese early in the war. To remedy this, the government started encouraging citizens to grow hemp for the war effort.
After the war, hemp and cannabis went back into prohibition, and the use of it was stigmatized again. Youth culture still embraced it and used it in secret throughout the fifties. In the 1960s, people began publicly flouting the ban to prove the substance was nowhere near as bad as everyone thought.
As with every youth movement, there was a backlash. The early 1970s saw the creation of the War on Drugs, put forth by Richard Nixon. The policy continued and expanded over the next two decades. The War on Drugs didn’t meet any serious challenges since the 1990s when the first laws legalizing medical cannabis were put on the books.
In the mid-2010s, the momentum grew, and today, 14 states have legalized recreational cannabis and 16 others have decriminalized it. Substances within marijuana, such as Delta 8, are gaining greater tolerance as well.
Delta 8 is one of a long list of cannabinoids, and we don’t have the time to go into detail about it here. If you’re curious, you can find this information by clicking the link.
The passage of the Farm Bill in 2018 allowed non-psychoactive hemp and cannabis products to be grown, sold, and used legally throughout the US.
A Brief History of Hemp in America
Entire books could be written on the history of hemp in America. We tried to cover some of the more important points in this article.
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