A Brief History of Hemp

To follow up with my article last week on the history of CBD, today I thought I’d touch on the considerably wider topic of the history of hemp itself.

As I mentioned in my last article, ‘A Brief History of CBD’, hemp has been used agriculturally for thousands of years and may well have been humanity’s first crop. It was, at least, the first crop cultivated in ancient China; according to a brief article on the Washington State Hemp Commission’s website, titled ‘The History of Hemp’, archaeological records evidence the usage of hemp in China as far back as 4,000 BC, long before the cultivation of other crops such as rice and millet. Was this because hemp is such an easy, hardy and high-yielding crop to grow? Hemp is easier to grow than almost any other plant and, in the wild, proliferates like a weed. It would be an obvious choice to cultivate this plant above others due to its unique and attractive attributes.

When one thinks of ancient China, the cultures of ancient Egypt and Greece usually also come to mind. It should come as no surprise that both cultures were associated with hemp cultivation in some way. Hemp was an important crop in ancient Egypt and was used to make rope. In fact, the article even states that “[p]ieces of hempen material were found in the tomb of Pharaoh Akhenaten at el-Amarna, and the pollen of the mummy of Ramses (ca. 1200 B.C.E.) has been identified as Cannabis.”

As a brief note, since you may be curious, both hemp and marijuana come from the same plant, Cannabis Sativa. Most Western nations legally separate the two by stating that Cannabis Sativa which comes in at under a certain threshold of THC is considered hemp, while any Cannabis Sativa which comes in above that threshold is considered the drug marijuana. Historically speaking, marijuana is Cannabis Sativa which has been bred to be high-THC, and hemp is Cannabis Sativa which has been bred to have as little THC as possible and which has been grown predominantly for textile fibers. An article titled ‘What’s the Difference Between Hemp and Marijuana?’ at alternet.org goes into more detail regarding the historical split and nomenclature regarding hemp and marijuana. What makes the situation even more confusing is that male Cannabis Sativa plants, like most male plants, are not flower-bearing and generally have low levels of THC, which has led some people to believe that the difference between marijuana and hemp is that marijuana is female Cannabis Sativa and that hemp is male Cannabis Sativa, which is not technically the case. In fact, it is only recently, in the aftermath of marijuana prohibition, that there has been such a strict difference in popular understanding of the difference between marijuana and hemp. In the past, both the female, flower-bearing, high-THC form of Cannabis Sativa, and any other form of the plant, including low-THC female plants or male plants, were quite commonly called ‘hemp’.

According to the Washington State Hemp Commission article, archaeological records also show that hemp was used in ancient Europe, citing the Greek historian Herodotus who “wrote of the Scythians bringing hemp to Europe from Asia during their westward migration around 1500 B.C.E.” So, while it is unknown whether the ancient Greeks actually used hemp or not, they were at least aware of its usage in other cultures in the general region.

In those circles where the virtues of hemp are frequently lauded, one of the common points that is brought up is early American culture’s absolute fascination with hemp. An article from the official magazine of the Williamsburg, Virginia colonial site goes into some detail regarding the use that colonial Americans got out of this crop. According to the article, to early Americans, the “ability of cannabis to intoxicate was incidental. They were instead interested in a trait they considered far more valuable. Hemp fibers are exceptionally strong and durable, and in an era before science could do better, that made this a commodity worth growing.” It was the usage of hemp in sailcloth and rope aboard English navy vessels which originally sparked the hemp industry in colonial America; farmers were required to produce hemp fiber so that it could be used on navy ships. Just to dispel any misconceptions of a joint-toking George Washington, the article goes on to say that “[t]hough the hallucinogenic properties were well known by the 18th century, there’s no evidence to suggest that colonial Americans were taking advantage of this mind-altering quirk of the hemp they grew.” For more details as to why this appears to be the case, please see the article.

One of the positive attributes of hemp in terms of industrial cultivation was remarked upon by Thomas Jefferson, who noted that “hemp ‘is abundantly productive and will grow forever on the same spot,’ unlike tobacco, which depletes soil nutrients. While cultivating hemp was easy and preferable to the cultivation of tobacco in many ways to early American colonists, processing the crop was a more formidable task. According to the article, “[a]fter [a] period of drying, laborers used a hemp brake, a wooden tool that is shaped like the jaws of a crocodile, to crack and separate the unwanted flakes of waste from the long fibers”. This process was lamented by Jefferson as “slow… laborious… and so much complained of by our laborers”. This, however, did not deter the growth of the colonial hemp industry, which, by the time of the revolution, was thriving in every colony where climate permitted its abundant growth.

According to the article, demand for hemp as a textile crop continued unabated until the mid-20th century, when individual states and the federal government illegalized hemp cultivation on the grounds of the danger to marijuana to society. The article gives the somewhat watered-down explanation that “[t]he harmful effects of the plant’s ability to intoxicate were too great a threat, its useful products notwithstanding. There were, after all, synthetic fibers capable of filling the role hemp once did.” Personally, I think that the story of hemp/marijuana prohibition is a bit more complicated than a) marijuana was deemed dangerous and b) synthetic fibers took the fore, but I’ll refrain from expressing controversial views in this setting.

All that I can say is that I’m very pleased that hemp cultivation is back on the rise here in America and abroad. It’s my belief that no society, no matter how technologically advanced, should have to do without such an abundant and efficient source of textiles, and of course, other important substances. As I’ve touched on before in other articles, the Agricultural Act of 2014 opened the door for the industrial cultivation of hemp in the USA and, since then, hemp-derived CBD has helped countless numbers of suffering people throughout the country and across the world with its profound anti-inflammatory and healing effects. Just this year, Washington State passed a law clearing the way for a thriving hemp industry to take root in our home state. While I take the founding father’s view, that the psychoactive components of Cannabis Sativa are neither here nor there, I know that any society could benefit enormously from both the non-psychoactive cannabinoids and textile fiber that can be derived from hemp. I hope to see this industry grow more and more every year as demand for sustainable textiles increases and more people become attuned to the unique benefits that CBD can provide in so many facets of daily life.