Hemp: A Five-Minute History

Historically, one of the few things crucial to long distance travel by sea was hemp. Every early seagoing nation used this strong, natural fiber on their vessels. Sails, ropes, clothes, oils, even ships themselves were made watertight by mixing hemp with other materials to make a tar able to withstand the harsh marine environment. (The sun and salt quickly breaks down other materials.) It was the world standard for thousands of years.  It is doubtful Europeans could have settled as early as they did without using it in many ways. Ensuring a steady supply was crucial for early nations. No Armada or trading fleet could have been effective without it.

From Sea to Land

In North America, hemp was one the first plants sewn by newly landed settlers. Looking back through historical records we know it was a staple: settlers simply would not have survived without growing and using it. It was encouraged throughout the early colonies and the first cannabis law in the world was written right here in North America. In what would become Virginia the law required every settlement to grow hemp. It even served as a currency in 17th and 18th centuries.  As tension built between the Colonies and Britain, hemp was used as one of the first ways to assert independence. Britain wanted the raw hemp fiber and needed it to keep the sea trade and warfare going. The colonies wanted to process and use it at home. It flourished and was used for paper, clothing, rope, linen, oil and many other essential items. The first flags and the Declaration of Independence were made from hemp.

Hemp Meets Pharma

By the mid-1800’s, hemp became America’s third-largest crop next to cotton and tobacco. But with the advent of the cotton gin, hemp for industrial purposes slowed and the fiber began to emerge as a medicine in North America. As published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, it was found to be effective at suppressing headaches, appetite and helping sleep. By 1850 it was available at Public American Pharmacies (an official authority for prescribing OTC medicines), to treat appetite, sex interest, mental disorders, gout, cholera, hydrophobia and insomnia. Through the 19th and 20th centuries, liquid and hashish could be bought at drug stores. “By the late 18th century, early editions of American medical journals recommend hemp seeds and roots for the treatment of inflamed skin, incontinence and venereal disease,” writes Patrick Stack and Claire Suddath of TIME Magazine. “Irish doctor William O’Shaughnessy first popularized marijuana’s medical use in England and America… He found marijuana eased the pain of rheumatism and was helpful against discomfort and nausea in cases of rabies, cholera, and tetanus⁸.”

Commoditization and Criminalization

As the United States developed and modernized, manilla replaced hemp for cordage, and chemically manufactured goods became cheaper to import and took the natural fiber’s place in many ways. Alcohol prohibition was lifted and cannabis prohibition began. In effect, hemp was pushed out of the country. The plant that grew the world would soon become enemy number one to the United States government. People who were once simple farmers selling a much needed commodity suddenly became criminals and enemy of the state. Interestingly, this was true until WWII in the South Pacific stopped trade. During wartime, the US government had the Department of Agriculture distribute hemp seeds to US farmers. There was huge need for cordage on battle ships, for parachutes, and much more.  This was called “Hemp for Victory.” Cannabis production surged and farms came together for the war effort and their government only to be turned criminal once again with the controlled substance act in 1970.

Public Enemy Number One

Today, The United States Federal Government stills sees hemp as a threat. They argue it breaks down society. However, more and more people are advocating to allow American farmers to grow this wonder plant. We know it holds properties superior to cotton both in the end product and the amount and of chemicals needed to ready it for usage. Compared to trees, hemp is a superior paper making material in that it is more recyclable and takes less time to go from raw to ready to use. It can be used to make plastics that are durable and environmentally friendly. It can even replace corn to make ethanol and make way more of it, faster. The list of pros for hemp goes on and on. 

There is a reason it was a major American crop until 1937.

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