History of hemp USA

History of Hemp in the USA

While hemp has made a resurgence in the United States over the past few years, the sustainable and versatile has a long history in America before being federally prohibited in the 1970s. Here you’ll learn the history of hemp in the USA, which even includes a period where the plant was considered a legal tender that could be used to pay taxes.

The history of hemp in the USA dates back even beyond the start of colonization. Thought to be one of the first domesticated crops in human history, hemp quickly became a staple in America before being federally prohibited decades ago because of its connection to its intoxicating cousin, marijuana. Today, hemp is legal in the United States and its resurgence over the past few years suggests that the versatile crop could once again serve as a valuable source of food, oil, and fiber.

A recurring question we hear from our customers is whether hemp CBD oil is legal to buy and use where they live. Now that hemp and hemp-derived products are legal, the answer to that question is no longer complex. If you’re in the U.S., the answer is yes! In fact, HempMeds® was the first company to ship hemp oil products over state lines to customers throughout the U.S. 

Yet, the path to that simple answer wasn’t always an easy or clear one. The history of hemp in the USA is filled with trials and tribulations across the legal, cultural, and worldwide landscapes. Read on to understand how we’ve reached present-day law and usage.

Britain and the Need for Hemp

Hemp’s presence in what is now the United States predates the arrival of the colonists. Hemp was already being cultivated by Native Americans in the New World when pioneers arrived. Hemp fibers are exceptionally strong and durable, and Native Americans grew the plant to produce thread, cordage, cloth, paper, and food.

The pilgrims also brought hemp with them, and not just in seed form. Hemp was on the Mayflower itself–it was used in the sailcloth and the rope rigging.

At the end of the 15th century, when Britain began to grow as a naval power one of the biggest challenges they faced was securing enough hemp to fully outfit their sailing ships.  This was a perennial problem for the British empire, and since their European adversary France had a more consistent supply of hemp, the British crown felt that securing raw hemp was a necessity.

To solve this issue, Britain mandated that hemp be grown in the American colonies. The goal was to secure a steady supply of raw hemp, and thereby secure their spot as a global power.  This plan, however, did not work out so well. As British colonies in America grew, so did their own need for raw materials.  The first ship-builders were established by the Massachusetts Bay Company in 1629; and like the British, they required hemp.

Besides shipbuilding, the colonial cottage industries which were sprouting up interfered with the British thirst for hemp. These companies produced clothing and furniture within the colonies, and they needed raw materials such as hemp.  Britain tried to create laws that would slow or stop the industrialization of early America, but they all failed; much of the domestic (colonial) hemp crop never reached Britain.  This (among many, many other things) caused some tension.

Hemp’s Role In Colonial America

Before the cultivation of hemp was criminalized in the United States, the versatile and sustainable crop played a major role in the building of a new nation. As the colonies grew in prosperity, so did their reliance on hemp. As a result, a few of the colonies had laws requiring farmers to grow hemp. Hemp was even used as legal tender and to pay taxes in the young American economy. At this point in history, Americans used hemp in many of the same ways the ancients did–and more. They produced ropes and cloth. They extracted oils from the seeds to use in lamps. They bartered with it and used it to support their families.

The first recorded use of hemp in America’s colonial years comes from 1632 when the Virginia Assembly mandated “that every planter as soone as he may, provide seede of flaxe and hempe and sowe the same.” Shortly thereafter, courts in Massachusetts and Connecticut passed similar mandates. In the 17th and 18th centuries, farmers cultivated hemp throughout the American colonies and it was exported to England where it was used for clothing, shoes, maps, books, ships rigging, and parachute webbing.

“Hemp is of first necessity to the wealth & protection of the country.” -Thomas Jefferson

In fact, according to the Children’s book of nature, Benjamin Franklin himself used hemp string to secure a key to his kite on one famous (if apocryphal) day in American history. Benjamin Franklin went on to open one of the first hemp paper mills in the colonies.

When the United States earned its independence from Great Britain in the late 18th century, hemp remained a crop staple. It was universally used for baggage, sails, rope, and tents. It was also used by various historical figures and even involved in historic events:

Historical Hemp Facts

  • According to some historians, the first drafts of the Declaration of Independence were written on hemp paper.
  • For over 200 years, hemp was considered legal tender that could be used to pay taxes.
  • George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew cannabis on their plantations.
  • Abraham Lincoln used hemp seed oil to fuel his household lamps.
  • Benjamin Franklin started one of America’s first paper mill, making paper from hemp.
  • Betsy Ross made the first U.S. flag out hemp fabric.
  • You could even be jailed in America for NOT growing cannabis during certain periods of time
  • The U.S.S. Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” was outfitted with over 40 tons of hemp rigging

hemp history in America

Hemp in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries

As a young nation, America’s reliance on hemp increased throughout the 19th century. Production spread to more states, including Illinois, California and Nebraska. 

Congress passed a law in 1841 that ordered the Navy to purchase hemp from domestic farmers. Technological innovations including the Hemp Dresser and the Decorticator machine revolutionized the industry and improved the efficiency of harvest and manufacturing processes. A Popular Mechanics magazine article published in February of 1938 projected that domestically grown hemp could be worth $1 billion.

Hemp: Public Enemy #1?

Domestic hemp’s dominance in the U.S. took a significant downturn in 1937 when, in an effort to regulate the psychoactive properties of cannabis, the U.S. government passed the Marijuana Tax Act. In what amounted to a smear campaign, opponents of “marijuana” used every tactic in the book to spread lies about “marijuana”, and through guilt-by-association tactics, hemp.

All types of different propaganda, including fear, misinformation, “yellow journalism”, and even racism were used to convince American citizens that  “marijuana” and its users were evil monsters, fueled by madness, and that the plant must be eradicated. This “Reefer Madness” period (taken from the propaganda-filled movie of the same name) had a definite impact on Americans and their views on “marijuana.” Due to hemp’s familial relationship to marijuana and a lack of understanding about the plants’ differences, laws were implemented restricting or prohibiting all cannabis growth. Throughout the 20th century, individual states and the federal government began to criminalize all cannabis. 

While the law didn’t prohibit the growing of hemp, it did turn over the regulation of licensing hemp production to the Department of Revenue and added a $100 transfer tax on sales that basically wiped out domestic farming of hemp.

Hemp had a brief resurgence during World War II after Japan cut off supplies of hemp from the Philippines. The federal government launched a pro-hemp campaign known as “Hemp for Victory” that urged American farmers to grow hemp for the war effort. Hemp cultivation was subsidized by a private company and the crop’s fibers were once again used to produce rope, cloth, and cordage. Following the war, however, the demand for American-grown hemp was no more.

It was in 1970 that the U.S. made all types of cannabis, including hemp, illegal under the Controlled Substances Act. The definition of cannabis, however, excluded certain parts of hemp from regulation, including sterilized hemp seed, hemp fiber, and hemp seed oil. Hemp could therefore still be imported and those parts of the plants used to make products.

Resurgence of Hemp in the USA

In 2014, President Barack Obama signed into law the Agricultural Act of 2014. Section 7606 of the act, Legitimacy of Industrial Hemp Research, defined industrial hemp as distinct from marijuana. It authorized institutions of higher education or state departments of agriculture in states that legalized hemp cultivation to regulate and conduct research and pilot programs. Quickly, many states adopted industrial production laws or begun researching this amazing plant to delve deep into the benefits of hemp CBD.

Then, the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill that was signed by President Donald Trump officially removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act altogether, opening the door for domestic production and clarifying the legality of all hemp and hemp-derived products, including CBD oil.

More About Hemp

You can learn even more about hemp and CBD by visiting our education page.

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