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The History of Hemp: How and Why It Came to Be Illegal | Quadratum Hemp | Hemp-Based CBD Products

The History of Hemp: How and Why It Came to Be Illegal

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The truth is that hemp has been a legal and valued plant for the vast majority of its time as a human crop. In fact, hemp is the first plant known to have been cultivated by humans since at least 8,000 BC. Carl Sagan even proposed that not only might hemp have been the first crop cultivated by humans, but that it may have also led to civilization itself.

“It would be wryly interesting if in human history the cultivation of marijuana led generally to the invention of agriculture, and thereby to civilization”

Carl Sagan – The Dragons of Eden, Speculations on the Origin of Human Intelligence, p 191

Hemp has only been illegal across the United States since 1937. So, in 10,015 years of human use, hemp has been illegal here for 78 years. To get the percentage we take 78/10,015 = .007788, and we have hemp being illegal for less than .08% of its human history. The reason for widespread hemp cultivation was because of its many incredible uses. Throughout its history, hemp has been used for medicine, fabrics, paper, rope, construction and more recently, plastics and fuels.

Hemp’s American history began in 1619, when it was required to be grown in Jamestown Colony, Virginia. Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew hemp. Since then, there have been periods in history when one could be jailed for not growing hemp, and as recently as the late 1800s, taxes could be paid with hemp. The government even started the Hemp for Victory campaign during World War II to encourage farmers to grow hemp for ropes and fabric, despite its status as an illegal crop at the time. Cannabis was added to the U.S. Pharmacopeia (an official public standards setting authority for all prescription and over-the-counter medicines) in the 1820s, and it had over 100 known uses before it became illegal.

So how did such a useful and historic plant become illegal?

Recreational cannabis use was common in the United States, and it dates back as far as several of our founding fathers; however, it wasn’t until around the start of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 that marijuana even became a term known to Americans. During this time there was an influx of Mexican refugees into the southwestern United States. Historical evidence of the fight against marijuana suggests it was an extremely xenophobic one. Many Mexicans coming to the United States were accustomed to smoking marijuana as a leisure activity, but racism fueled “yellow journalism” started discussing “reefer madness” and the perils of marijuana. As funny as it may seem, reefer madness was the idea that marijuana was making Mexicans violent. It also claimed that marijuana made Mexicans sexually aggressive towards White women and made White women more susceptible to Mexican and Black seduction. Knowing what we know now about marijuana, this may seem crazy, but, with the help of the media, this propaganda became the prevailing thought of the time.

Americans were already familiar with the term hemp, but by referring to it as marijuana and reefer, anti-cannabis policy was able to progress relatively unchallenged. A notable exception came from the American Medical Association, whose board realized too late that this new “marihuana” policy also included hemp – a necessary ingredient in many medicines at the time.

But why?

This is how hemp became illegal, but it doesn’t entirely answer the question of why. Why were journalists portraying marijuana this way? Why did legislators reject the American Medical Association’s proposal to regulate hemp as a medicine despite its efficacy? Is it really possible that 1930s America was just so racist that it wouldn’t even allow hemp to be used as medicine for American citizens? Many people believe that the ban on hemp, while fueled by racism, was started by special interests that benefited from the ban. A quick internet search should turn up details about Henry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the US Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics; Andrew Mellon, the Secretary of Treasury and Henry Anslinger’s uncle-in-law; the invention of nylon by the DuPont Company; William Randolph Hearst’s investment in the paper industry, his ownership of the major news media, and yellow journalism; and how these people benefited from the hemp ban.

Is this conspiracy theory true? It’s hard to say if any of these people intentionally promoted an anti-hemp agenda for personal gain, but the truth is that most of them did indeed benefit. The DuPont Company’s nylon went unchallenged by hemp fiber, and the superior and cheaper hemp paper that was quickly becoming the norm would not undermine Hearst’s paper investments. Anslinger was able to greatly expand the influence of his new job, and it has been argued that his uncle was invested in the DuPont Company.

Regardless, hemp has a long history as a valuable crop for human beings, and we are glad the prohibition is over.

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