The History of Hemp

Hemp has been used for thousands of years and for many purposes. The first recorded evidence of hemp cultivation and usage dates back far into the BCE era, below are some of the major events that have sculpted hemp’s history.

Hemp History–Before Common Era(BCE)

Dating all the way back to before 8000 BCE, hemp was used in pottery found in an ancient village in what is now known as modern day Taiwan and thus marking it as one of the oldest agricultural crops. Neighboring countries such as China began cultivating and using cannabis and hemp around 6000 BCE for food, oils, medicines, textiles and other fibrous materials.

Around 2000 BCE cannabis and hemp are used medicinally and also as an offering to the god Shiva in India. The plant is also mentioned in the holy Hindu text Atharvaveda as one of the five sacred plants.

Scythians, an ancient nomadic warrior tribe began their extended influence over all of Central Asia around 1500 BCE. Their influence began the spread of cannabis and hemp cultivation all over Asia and into eastern Europe, they had even begun to leave cannabis seeds as spiritual offerings at tombs and grave sites.

600 BCE, Russians began using rope made with hemp; and around 200 BCE, hemp rope is found in Greece.

China invents the first hemp paper around 100 BCE.

Record of cannabis’ psychotropic properties is found in the Pen Ts’ao Ching–Chinese book of agriculture and medicinal plants–between 100-0 BCE.

Hemp History–Common Era(CE)

In the early beginnings of this era, Greek and Roman authors, naturalists and physicians such as: Pliny the Elder, Plutarch, and Dioscorides began studying and recording the uses and effects of cannabis–medicinal, analgesic, intoxicant.

From 100-1000 CE the spread of hemp continued across Europe, hemp rope was imported to England and was used by many naval fleets and merchants of the world. Vikings took hemp rope and seed back to Iceland, furthering the worldly spread of hemp. A French queen, Arnegunde was buried in hemp cloth.

Cannabis cultivation and usage exploded in the Ottoman Empire–south eastern Europe into the northern coast of African and Middle Eastern countries between 1090-1300 CE. Many used cannabis for it’s intoxicating effects; the smoking of hashish became very popular during this period.

The cultivation and usage of hemp is still going strong in Europe at the beginning of the 1500’s, King Henry VIII of England began fining farmers if they did not grow hemp crops for industrial use. In the mid 1500’s French, Portuguese and Chinese physicians began reporting on the medicinal effects of cannabis.

We will now turn our attention more toward hemp and cannabis history within the U.S.

At the beginning of the 1600’s the French and British spread cultivation of hemp and cannabis to the America’s–specifically, Port Royal in Jamaica, Virginia and also Plymouth, Massachusetts. In 1616, settlers of Jamestown, Virginia began growing hemp for the strong fibers that the plant provides, these fibers were used in the production of ship sails, rope and clothing. Cannabis and hemp cultivation continues in large scale all across the colonized settlements of the America’s into the 1800’s. Hemp was even grown by our presidents, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Hemp begins to take a backseat to cannabis around this time all over the globe as word begins to spread about the intoxicating effects of cannabis; smoking hashish becomes increasingly popular in Europe and the Middle East.

In 1914, the Harrison Act was passed in the United States labeling the consumption of cannabis as a crime. In 1916, chief scientists for the United States Department of Agriculture, Jason Merrill and Lyster Dewey created paper made from hemp pulp and concluded that hemp paper uses far less plant material than that of traditional paper made from wood pulp, making hemp paper much more environmentally friendly. Hemp crops can be grown far faster than trees, and hemp pulp for paper does not have to be bleached unlike wood pulp. American factories had already made hefty investments in machinery that could handle processing wool, cotton and linen thus leaving no room for the processing and production of hemp products such as paper and fabric.

Prohibition of non medicinal use of marijuana began in the United States in 1915. The 18th Amendment was passed in 1919, which prohibited the sale, manufacture and transport of alcohol–many turned to cannabis as an alternative. 1933, alcohol prohibition ended and in 1937 U.S. Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act criminalizing cannabis. Later in 1941, cannabis and hemp are removed from the U.S. Pharmacopeia and no longer recognized for it’s medicinal properties.

The status of hemp and cannabis stayed in the same position for many decades, a position of a criminally used intoxicant. Many advocates have since tried to reverse the stigma and re-legalize cannabis and hemp, which was unsuccessful until more recent years.

Finally in 1996, California passed the re-legalization of cannabis for medicinal uses like AIDS and cancer. Thirteen other states followed suit over the next few years. Even after laws and initiatives like such were passed, medical research findings were ignored. For example, The Institute of Medicine was commissioned by the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy to examine the medicinal benefits of cannabis therapy, they concluded that it was a safe an effective medicine and research should be expanded–all findings were ignored.

The “war on drugs” raged on until 2009, President Obama guided the Department of Justice to end federal prosecution of medicinal cannabis users and distributors as long as they abide by state laws.

November of 2012, Colorado and Washington make recreational use of cannabis legal. Many states to follow in the upcoming years, the U.S. now has 10 states where recreational and medical cannabis is legal–Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Michigan, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada and Alaska. 23 other states have made medical cannabis legal.

The Farm Bill of 2018 stated that cannabis plants cannot contain more than 0.3 percent THC to be considered hemp. States now have to work with the federal government on plans for licensing and regulation and must be approved by the Secretary of the USDA before plans can be put into action. The law also outlines violations and punishment for those found producing and processing cannabis containing over the 0.3 percent THC allowance without proper license. The Farm Bill legalizes hemp but does not do so in such a fashion that individuals can grow it as freely as they would any other plant in their garden, but rather legalizes it for highly regulated industrial production.

Hemp and cannabis has been around for as long as history has been recorded and has taken quite a journey in spreading globally. Hemp has gone from a revered medicine commonly used to a demonized intoxicating substance and back again to a more positive status as more research is conducted and more states push for legalization.