Over the last decade, hemp has become incredibly popular; thanks mainly to the fact that it makes an excellent source for extracting CBD. But just because hemp has become in vogue recently that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been in use for a long time. In fact, humans have been using hemp as a source of food and clothing for nearly as long as civilization itself. To help get you caught up on the last 8,000 years, here’s a brief history of hemp:
Hemp in the Ancient World
The first evidence of hemp use dates back 8,000 years to ancient Mesopotamia (which is now modern Iraq and Iran) and China. Although the full extent of hemp use in the ancient world has been lost to the ages, archaeologists have found fragments of hemp cloth and imprints of hemp cords on pottery; leading some to believe that hemp was the first fiber crop cultivated by humans.
Around 200 BCE, the Chinese became the first civilization to invent paper; using hemp as their primary source. By the year 300 CE, sacred Buddhist texts and medical journals written on hemp paper begin appearing. Over the next seven centuries, hemp slowly starts to spread to the furthest edges of Europe; from Southern Russia all the way to Britain.
Hemp in the Colonial Era
By the year 1000, hemp was widely used throughout Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. During this period, hemp would play an integral economic role as society became more dependent on international trade. Ships’ sails were made from hemp-based canvas, and hemp ropes and oakum were used due to its increased strength and resistance to salt water.
Hemp was so important during this period that in 1535 the British monarch King Henry VIII implemented a law requiring landowners to set aside one-quarter of their land for hemp and flax cultivation. The fine for ignoring this edict was three shillings and four pence, which roughly equals to half a year’s pay for most household servants.
In North America, hemp proved to be equally as popular. Not only was the first United States flag made from hemp, but also George Washington reportedly grew hemp and even considered giving up growing tobacco altogether in favor of hemp. While Washington ultimately chose to grow wheat in favor of tobacco, his dilemma still speaks to the ubiquity and popularity of hemp use during that age.
Hemp in the Modern Age
With the invention of the cotton gin, however, hemp slowly started to lose favor with farmers. The primary reason was that at the time, it was more difficult to process hemp than it was cotton. Though a number of machines aimed at making hemp processing easier were invented in the late 19th and early 20th century, they simply failed to catch on.
As cotton and synthetic fabrics became more popular, textile companies such as DuPont began lobbying the United States government to ban hemp and its intoxicating cousin cannabis, using a mix of racial fear and propaganda films such as the infamous Reefer Madness. In 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act was passed, and hemp production in the United States was criminalized.
Hemp cultivation enjoyed a brief respite from illegality during World War Two, when the Japanese cut off the United State’s supply of hemp in the Philippines. In response, the United States government began issuing special cultivation permits to farmers to help with the war effort. The government even released a propaganda film aimed at encouraging hemp cultivation called “Hemp for Victory.” Once the war ended, however, hemp production went right back to being illegal
Hemp production in the United States remained illegal in the United States until 2014, when Congress passed the 2014 Farm Bill Act. Among the many provisions in the bill was a section that allowed states to establish pilot programs where farmers could work with academic institutions to cultivate hemp for educational and research purposes.
Four years later when the Farm Bill was up for renewal, Congress moved to loosen restriction on hemp production even further and added a provision to the bill that removed hemp and hemp-derived products (including CBD) from the Controlled Substances Act; effectively legalizing hemp production in the United States once again.
From ancient Mesopotamia to the United States, hemp has played a vital role in the development of human society. With the recent explosion of interest in hemp and hemp-derived products like CBD, it is fair to say that hemp will continue to play an important role in our daily lives.