Past, Present, and Future: The History of Hemp

From health and wellness products to building materials, hemp has thousands upon thousands of different uses. With its variety of different purposes and legalization on the rise, some see hemp as the material of the future. Yet it also has a long and storied history that dates back thousands of years, all the way to the dawn of civilization.

Do you know the history of hemp? Here’s a quick look at how hemp has been used throughout the ages.

Early History

The first traces of hemp date back all the way to around the year 8,000 BC. One of the earliest known examples of its use was found in a site called Yuan-Shan, in modern-day Taiwan. Pottery discovered on the site had woven hemp cord pressed into it during the drying stage, though no one is sure if there was a specific purpose for this. Some believe it was simply for decoration, while others speculate it was a way of labeling that hemp seeds or oil were stored inside the jars. Additionally, hemp-based cloth has also been found in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq/Iran) that dates back to the same period.

Over time, hemp spread through Asia, finding use both as food and in textiles. It would also steadily be introduced and adopted across the globe, reaching modern-day Europe, the Middle East, and Africa between 1,200 BC and 900 BC. This was at least partially led by the Scythians, a nomadic group of warriors who lived on the steppes of Eurasia and traded hemp seeds to the ancient Greeks. Over time, the plant’s potential for textiles was further developed, with China creating the first paper entirely from hemp. Meanwhile, early medical texts highlight hemp’s medicinal qualities.

By the 1400s, hemp was well-established as a textile crop, though some still resisted the plant’s medical potential. France, Russia, and Spain all produced hemp in large numbers, while the United Kingdom made it one of their primary crops. Hemp was in such high demand in the UK that in 1535, King Henry VIII mandated that farmers grow a quarter of an acre of hemp for every 60 acres they owned. UK’s hunger for hemp would carry on for the next several centuries: before the American Revolution, British colonists were required to grow hemp to send back to England. Later on in the 1800s, the King of England would later offer free land to immigrants who moved to Canada to grow hemp.

Modern History

Despite hemp having been much sought after for millennia, interest eventually began to wane in many countries by the early 1900s. The UK outlawed hemp in 1928, while in the United States it faced strict regulation following the passing of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. The law dictated that hemp could only be grown through specifically issued government tax stamps, which made any type of possession or transfer without a tax stamp illegal.

Despite these setbacks, many still saw industrial hemp as a major cash crop, with the U.S. seeing heavy demand for hemp during World War II, with American farmers cultivating roughly 400,000 acres of hemp between 1942 and 1945. However, demand fell after the war, as did hemp production. In 1957, the last commercial hemp fields were planted. Not long after in 1970, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act went into effect. This replaced the previous Marijuana Tax Act and effectively made all cultivation of cannabis illegal by establishing a zero-tolerance rule for THC.

Hemp’s Present & Future

After relatively little progress for the next few decades, the 1990s saw efforts to change cannabis and hemp laws. In 1990, Manitoba Hemp Alliance is formed, which secures a government grant to source hemp seed and conduct experimental trials. Their efforts resulted in hemp crops that contained undetectable amounts of THC, less than 0.003%. The research along with years’ worth of advocacy laid the groundwork for legalization, with industrial hemp first being legalized in Canada.

As industrial hemp started gaining mainstream acceptance, the US Drug Enforcement Administration launched a campaign in 2001 that aimed to make sales of all hemp products illegal. However, they faced heavy pushback from both the hemp industry and consumers. In 2004, the 9th US court of appeals issued a permanent ruling blocking the DEA’s regulations. From here, hemp legalization took off, with production rates skyrocketing.

The past decade shows just how far cannabis has come from its low point in the mid-20th century. 2014 saw President Barack Obama sign the 2014 Farm Bill, which officially defined industrial hemp as being distinct from cannabis, which allowed US research institutions to start piloting hemp farming for research purposes. A few years later in, President Donald Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill, which federally legalized hemp production in the United States.

People have been using hemp for centuries now and while hemp usage declined considerably in recent history, the last decade has seen a surge of interest as industrial hemp has seen widespread federal legalization. With hemp having so many possible uses, we’re excited to see what the new hemp industry gives us. Given what we’ve seen in just the last few have brought us, one thing is sure: the future looks bright!

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