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Our History of Hemp: Vikings, Herbalists and Scared Parents

Getting High On Hemp History From Chinese Medicine Right Up To Locoweed and the Farm Bill That Made Hemp Legal in America Once Again

Hemp has a global history bursting with stories that’ll send your imagination on an around-the-world trip. Think traces of cannabis mummified in ancient tombs, Asian jungles, Chinese emperors plus a lot of Viking raider rope. Oh, and George Washington!

Below, we’ll zipline through some ancient stuff, then zoom in on the past 120 years of cannabis in the U.S. The past century of U.S. policies regulating products like our CBD pre rolled joints made from the cannabis sativa plant is addled with false claims and is bursting with fear of immigrants and racist policing. Let’s see why (ahem, parents).

A Short Look at The Long History of Hemp

Human use of hemp predates written history. And for as long as cannabis has impacted humans - as a food, medicine, ceremonial plant and as an industrial material - so have we impacted it (think crossbreeding). The cannabis plant has migrated along with human civilization. It seems to have originated in Central Asia, says botanist Liz Rogan.

“Cannabis grows in disturbed areas, along water where all people and all animals have to go,” she said.

The plant’s initial value to humans was utilitarian. Its edible seeds provided protein and antioxidants plus aided in digestion. Consuming it orally seemed to make folks feel better; Chinese and Indian texts penned before 1000 BC attest to the healing value of hemp. In India it was mixed with milk as a healing drink.

Hemp rope factory in 19th century PhilippinesEarly 20th century photo of a hemp rope factory in the Philippines

Its stalky fibers were also used for making textiles like cloth and rope. Because of its useful nature, people brought hemp with them as they migrated. Two main variants developed in response to different environments.

Sativa variants that grew in moist Southeast Asian jungles had to contend with high, vertical layers of lush vegetation competing for filtered rays of sunshine. Cannabis plants growing in these humid jungles had to sprout tall, thin stalks and skinny leaves in order to catch light. The buds they formed were long and airy and burst with the mold-resistant terpene limonene (If you aren’t hip to terpenes yet, read this post). The plant had a long growing season and pollinated as winds gusted gently through the rainforest.

The indica variant developed in far different conditions. Zooming west to the craggy Hindu Kush Mountains west of China, imagine standing on a windswept ridge. Like the trees and shrubs growing around it, the cannabis plants here were necessarily short in this harsher, unrelentingly sunny environment where the growing season for cannabis is a mere 8 weeks. The plant stayed low to the ground to retain moisture. The nighttime cold turned the plant’s leaves a bit purple, and it pollinated thanks to insects attracted to its sweet terpenes. The buds of these Indica plants were harder and more densely stacked to resist intense winds.

Cannabis was catalogued by Chinese herbalists as far back as 2700 BC and mentioned in Hindu texts dating back to 1400 BC. Cannabis pollen and cannabinoids have been found in Egyptian mummies. By the 13th century, the value of cannabis for religious ceremony and recreational use was realized across Asia, Europe and the Middle East. This is all to say, everybody figured out how to get high with cannabis by then.

Knowledge of the recreational and religious value of cannabis spread in the same way as knowledge of how to use the plant for utility. Hemp ropes were used by seafarers from Vietnam to Italy and Scandinavia.

After spreading via the Silk Road across Europe, hemp was introduced to North America by the Jamestown settlers. Several founding fathers, including George Washington, grew it for industrial purposes: cloth, rope, paper. Every history of hemp in America points out that the Commonwealth of Virginia once required farmers to grow it and sanctioned it as legal tender.

So how did we wind up a country where everyone had to stash their grass?

Great-Grandad’s Grass: The Messy History of Modern U.S. Policies Governing Cannabis 

Hemp farm, Kentucky, 1920

Hemp farm, Kentucky, 1920

Let’s jump a few generations to the 1900s, to the days of snake-oil salesmen and tinctures promising all the fixes for all the ailments. Narcotics, alcohol and cannabis were tucked into all kinds of remedies: think “Baby Calming Drops.” Yipes (hey, it worked!).

In 1906, President Teddy Roosevelt signed the Pure Food and Drug Act into law. It required dangerous or addictive ingredients to be listed on food and medicine labels and banned the sale of misbranded or adulterated foods and medicines. The 1906 Act took decades to implement and led to additional legislation that coalesced in the creation of the FDA.

Anti-Mexican anti-cannabis propaganda in The Ogden StandardA 1915 example of anti-Mexican, anti-cannabis propaganda.

During this era, hemp and marijuana were known simply as cannabis. Derogatory names like “loco-weed” and “marihuana” entered the lexicon around the same time as Mexicans fleeing the Revolution of 1910 emigrated and settled in the American Southwest. These migrants did bring with them a culture of smoking marijuana recreationally, and sadly cannabis fell prey to the same xenophobic propagana as the new arrivals themselves. WIth the movement toward Prohibition marching forward in the background, scandalous headlines of the era proclaimed that Mexicans were distributing the “killer weed” to school-aged white American kids. Muy problemático.

1930s anti-cannabis propaganda

1930s anti-cannabis propaganda.

By 1931, at least half of all states had outlawed what had now become commonly referred to as marijuana. The terms hemp and cannabis virtually disappeared and the plant was referred to as marijuana so as to diminish immigrants from Mexico. In 1936 the release of a campy propaganda film called Tell Your Children - better known today as Reefer Madness - warned Americans that smoking “a burning weed with its roots in hell” can lead to insanity, suicide, murder and death. Cue high-pitched screaming white women jumping off balconies.

This all meant there was little public resistance to the federal Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which taxed the trafficking of marijuana and effectively criminalized marijuana. It did not pertain to cannabis grown for industrial purposes. According to the Journal of Animal and Environmental Law, this legislation did, however, place “all Cannabis culture under the regulatory control of the U.S. Treasury Department . . . [and] required the registration and licensing of all hemp growers with the Federal Government in an effort to restrict production of marijuana in the United States.” 

When not concerned with Mexicans, the federal narcotics agents of the era obsessively tried to bust Black jazz musicians they accurately suspected of smoking cannabis.

Happy Days for Hemp In World War Two End in a War On Drugs 

The federal government actually encouraged American farmers to grow hemp during World War Two because the supply of hemp it imported from the Philippines and elsewhere in Asia was cut off. The plant was needed for the war effort. Hemp was used to make ropes, webbing for parachutes, thread for shoes and cloth. The government even ran an extensive campaign called Hemp for Victory.

After the war, synthetic fabrics began to become widely available. The campaign to invest in hemp turned into a financial bust for farmers. Abandoned cannabis plants could be seen filling ditches all around the heartland. The last commercial hemp crop of this era was planted in 1957.

Sure, farmers still grew “marijuana,” but it was all a bit hazy and unofficial. The pressure on law enforcement officials to destroy cannabis grown for recreational consumption  slowly intensified with the War on Drugs. Eventually most hemp or marijuana found in the United States had been imported through Mexico through the black market.

In the 1950s and ’60s, beatniks and hippies began appropriating the use of cannabis from Black jazz musicians. It went fairly mainstream. But that party ended with the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, which President Nixon signed in May 1971. It banned the growth and possession of cannabis of any kind. It refused to distinguish between hemp and marijuana (both plants stem from the same genus of plants, cannabis) and added all forms and varieties of the cannabis plant to the list of Schedule 1 substances.

Decriminalize Marijuana California campaign poster from 1972

Poster from a 1972 California campaign to decriminalize cannabis.

As in the ’30s, worry about the effect of marijuana on children was high in the 1970s and 80s. The creation of parents groups expressing concern led to mandatory sentences for drug-related crimes and the three-strikes policy of the Regan era. There was no distinction made between hemp as an industrial crop and marijuana as a medicine.

The decades following 1970 have been fraught with problematic consequences - intended or not - of the War on Drugs begun under Nixon. Many of these continue, such as the over-policing of black and brown communities. In states where possession of marijuana remains a crime, the ACLU says Black people are at least 3 times more likely than whites to be arrested for possession of marijuana, despite the fact that Black people use marijuana at the same rates.

Awareness of this issue has grown; we at Dad Grass are supporting The Last Prisoner Project, which works to release cannabis prisoners and help them to rebuild their lives post-incarceration. A feature on our website lets you donate a few extra bucks when you make a purchase from us.

The 2014 Farm Bill Creates A New Opening For Hemp

A modern hemp farm: Sweetbrier Farm

A legal hemp farm.

Signed by President Obama, the 2014 Farm Bill began a shift toward separating hemp from marijuana. Finally, cooler heads.

It gave states and institutions of higher education the opportunity to create pilot programs to study the growth, cultivation and marketing of industrial hemp. The bill defined hemp according to its THC levels, not any botanical or other scientific destruction. It also required that THC concentration be less than .3% on a dry-weight basis. As a result of this legislation, 40 states  created pilot programs to explore the untapped potential of this magical plant.

“The bill did restart hemp growth in the U.S.,” said Bill Richmond, the chief of the U.S. Domestic Hemp Production Program with the USDA.

According to the Rodale Institute, just under 10,000 acres of hemp were cultivated in the U.S. under agricultural pilot and other programs in 2016. That number more than doubled to just shy of 26,000 acres in 2017.

The 2018 Farm Bill finally divorced hemp and marijuana and allowed licensed farmers to grow hemp as long as it did not contain more than .3% THC. More on this paradigm-shifting piece of legislation is coming up in a future post.

According to Project CBD, there were 230,000 acres planted with hemp in 2019.

Hemp History You Can Use

The revived separation of hemp from marijuana has, happily, created an opening for us to revive the mellow sensibility of the casual smoke with our CBD joints. We’re also buzzed about greater public awareness and research initiatives into the benefits of all kinds of whole-plant cannabis. It’s got a lot to offer, and the more that’s understood about hemp flower, how cannabinoids work in our bodies, and the effects of the policies governing it, the more we can all benefit.

Who knew Dad’s stash was so subversive? 

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