For starters, the hemp plant used to be one of the biggest crops grown in the U.S.
Unfortunately, laws over the past century have lumped hemp and marijuana together, banning the cultivation and production of hemp and all its high-quality derivatives. Just recently, however, federal law permitted hemp production, which is huge for the industry, including cannabis.
Let’s take a look at the history of industrial hemp and how its legalities have changed over the decades.
While the concept of hemp might sound like something exclusive to the past couple of hundred years, it can actually be traced back to 8,000 BC, when hemp growers cultivated the cash crop in ancient Asian cultures. In fact, records have been found that show that the Chinese used hemp seed and oil for food. Even hemp cords that were used for pottery have been discovered from these ancient times.
As far as industrial hemp's introduction to the United States is concerned, the hemp plant made its entrance in North America in 1606. Back then, it was grown by American farmers to be used for several different commercial products, including rope, paper, and lamp fuel.
Considered a staple in the US for a long time, industrial hemp was an important crop from the colonial times through to the second World War, when it was planted across the nation to create products for the war effort.
By the middle of the 1600s, the economy depended a great deal on hemp production and distribution, particularly in New England, Maryland, and Virginia. Everything from clothing, to canvas, to cords and paper were made from hemp during those years up to the Revolutionary War. Hemp was also used in shipbuilding; hemp ropes were used for sailing ships’ lines and rigging, and sails were often made from cloth woven with hemp fiber.
Many of the founding fathers of the United States both grew and promoted hemp for its versatility and benefits, including George Washington. Even the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper by Thomas Jefferson in 1776.
By the 1700s, those involved in hemp farming in certain colonies were actually required by law to grow the plant. Hemp crops eventually spread to Kentucky, Missouri, and Illinois, which were the sites of the most hemp production in the US until the late 1800's, when demand for hemp-derived cordage and sailcloth dwindled as more innovative steamships took over.
Kentucky was the only state with a big hemp industry from the Civil War to World War I, and remained so until the end of the war when the demand for hemp fiber started declining.
By 1937, politics got involved in the hemp industry when the Marijuana Tax Act was passed by the federal government. The Act was established to regulate the narcotic nature of cannabis. The Marijuana Tax Act affected hemp farmers only marginally by requiring them to pay taxes on their plants and sign contracts promising not to use their cannabis as a drug.
The emergence of World War II triggered a renewed interest and demand for American hemp fiber. Thanks to the USDA’s Hemp for Victory campaign, farmers were encouraged to take up hemp growing. Many new hemp processing plants were developed during this time.
But before all plants that were planned to be built could be developed, the war ended. With the end of the war came a sharp decline in the demand for hemp once again. The last major hemp crop in the country was harvested and processed by 1958.
Throughout the 20th century, both the federal government and many state governments started criminalizing all cannabis. Since hemp is closely related to cannabis, lawmakers who had minimal understanding of the differences between the two plants implemented the restriction of all growth of cannabis crops, including hemp.
Hemp's decline was further exacerbated around the 1950s when synthetic fibers were introduced. Manufacturers came to depend much more on these fibers, which were a lot cheaper, though much lower in quality. As such, the demand for high-quality hemp fiber plummeted.
Hemp became officially categorized as an illegal substance in 1970 under the Controlled Substances Act when the plant was classified as a Schedule I drug. Because of this classification, strict regulations on cultivating industrial hemp were enacted.
Nearly three decades later, the US began importing food-grade hemp seed and oil in 1998, and by 2004, a decision by the Ninth Circuit Court in the Hemp Industries Association vs the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) lawsuit resulted in the permanent protection of the sale of hemp food and body care products.
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While marijuana is still illegal on a federal level, hemp is not. In fact, just this past December 2018, the 2018 Farm Bill was signed and passed by Congress.
That means hemp is no longer classified as a Schedule I drug. Farmers and other growers are now free to cultivate hemp crops and sell it to manufacturers to produce various products from it, including food, cosmetics, nutritional supplements, paper, clothing, and construction materials.
The bill also allocates billions of dollars in subsidies to farmers across the country in addition to legalizing hemp. Plenty of jobs are expected to be created as a result. In fact, the hemp industry raked in $1.1 billion in revenues in 2018, and it's estimated to hit $2.6 billion by 2022.
Advocates for marijuana are optimistic that the recent legalization of hemp will start to pave the way for legalizing it on a federal level. Many states have already legalized medical marijuana, and many others have also gone so far as to legalize it for both medical and recreational purposes.
Having said that, marijuana is illegal on a federal level. But with continued research into the medical and wellness benefits of cannabis of all sorts, it remains to be seen how much longer the federal government will hold out on finally legalizing it. Further, the legalization of hemp could also be important for researchers who want to study cannabinoids like CBD and THC in greater detail.
Hemp fiber is natural, and while synthetic fibers may be more attractive to manufacturers of things like cloth, they're also typically petroleum-based. Synthetic materials also non-biodegradable and can be toxic to the earth and environment.
Instead, natural hemp fiber is recyclable and biodegradable, unlike petroleum-based artificial fibers. Hemp plastic is increasingly being used as an environmentally-friendly alternative to carbon-based plastic.
Bioplastic derived from sustainable hemp plants is not only safer for human use, but it's also biodegradable and recyclable, which can be hugely beneficial to the world's mounting plastic issue that's currently plaguing the earth.
Using hemp pulp for paper can also help put a stop to the deforestation across the country and produce higher-quality paper that's more eco-friendly. Not only that, but hemp-based paper can be produced for a lot less than the price of wood pulp paper.
As far as clothes are concerned, hemp-derived textiles are stronger, more durable, and more absorbent than other synthetic materials, and may even be better than other natural materials, like cotton.
These days, hemp continues to be used for products already mentioned above, such as food products, cosmetics, supplements, paper, cloth, and building materials. It's also currently being used in organic body care, plastic composites, and even biofuel— the benefits of hemp are endless.
It's interesting to see how hemp has been politicized over the past century, despite its extremely long track record of many beneficial uses throughout the ages. Because hemp is not psychoactive, it's somewhat puzzling as to why lobbyists decades earlier jumbled hemp together with the mind-altering cannabis plant.
That said, with the recent passing of the 2018 Farm Bill legalizing hemp, as well as the continued legalization of marijuana at state levels, the future seems bright for both hemp and cannabis.