The History of Hemp in the United States

 Humans have had a relationship with hemp for thousands of years. Some records indicate hemp use dating back as far as 5,000 years ago in Romania, and is speculated to be the earliest fibre cultivated for textiles in ancient Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq and Iran) as early as 8,000 BC. Prevalent in a variety of ancient human civilizations, hemp is even believed to be the oldest example of human industry. In many ways, human civilization has grown alongside hemp, which makes it rather strange that cannabis has been criminalized so heavily within the last century. Some say that we co-evolved with the plant over these thousands of years, which would explain why human endocannabinoid systems interact so perfectly with the phytocannabinoids found in cannabis. 

In twentieth century America, hemp was somewhat of a controversial topic. It’s almost crazy to think that something so intrinsic to the human race was so heavily legally debated. In the late 19th and early 20th century, hemp was actually seen as a patent medicine, though was soon federally restricted due to the 1937 “Marihuana Tax Act.” The twentieth century view of hemp only degraded from there, which is quite a juxtaposition to the United States’s earlier relationship with hemp. In 1619, King James I ordered every property owner in Virginia to grow hemp to export but by the late twentieth century all forms of cannabis were made entirely illegal to grow or consume. Thanks to the “Controlled Substance Act” of 1970, cannabis was considered a Schedule I drug alongside substances such as fentanyl and heroin. This scheduling meant that the government didn’t consider cannabis to have any medicinal properties whatsoever, though research heavily debates that. 

Despite the past few decades of cannabis criminalization, things have slowly been changing in the twenty-first century. Research has shown that cannabinoids, which are molecules derived from cannabis, may help treat a plethora of different conditions. CBD, for example, has been shown to be anti-inflammatory. CBD is present in cannabis, however, legally CBD is treated differently depending on which type of cannabis it is derived from. Due to the 2018 Farm Bill cannabis is divided into two different legal categories: marijuana and industrial hemp. These categories are based on the amount of THC present per dry pound. Industrial hemp can only have 0.3% or less, whereas marijuana has -- often substantially -- more THC. The Farm Bill is in many ways a success, allowing people to access CBD more easily as long as it is derived from industrial hemp. Unfortunately, there are complications for farmers who are desperately doing their best to keep their industrial hemp farms legal. Plants aren’t always consistent, and it’s possible for even one bud of a hemp plant to exceed that 0.3% THC limit, while the others may be far below. On top of this, the legal distinction of <0.3% is an entirely arbitrary number and there is no logical reason for it being that exact number, or for that number being so low. 

While not perfect, great strides have been made in the past few years for the hemp industry and for CBD retailers. The evolution of the relationship people share with hemp is certainly a fascinating one. From making ropes to smoking the dried flower, there are so many applications for different parts of the hemp plant. Hemp potentially stands to replace other forms of textiles, plastics, and even some pharmaceutical drugs. Unfortunately, this means that powerful people in those industries are doing everything they can to keep hemp marginalized and stigmatized. Until all forms of cannabis are decriminalized and subsequently regulated, the fight is not over.

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