These days, nearly everyone has heard about CBD, CBD oil, and the difference between hemp oil and CBD oil; but little is known about the plant from which it’s extracted. Hemp: a stout, aromatic herb with a slender cane-like stalk. Believe it or not, hemp was widely considered to be one of the most significant crops that humans cultivated up until the last century.
With global hemp demand rising around the world, people are becoming more interested in the plant’s history. What is hemp? What is Hemp Oil? Where does hemp come from? Where does hemp oil come from? How long have humans been involved in hemp cultivation? What are the uses for hemp? In this article, we will answer these questions and everything you need to know about the history of hemp.
The Rise of Hemp
Hemp is now most commonly known for the production and extraction of cannabidiol, or more commonly known as CBD, but this represents only one of the applications of how hemp is used.
Humans have had a long and winding history of using Hemp. The plant is native to South or Central Asia, where early humans encountered it and started using it immediately. It is among the first crops ever to have been used by humans, with archaeologists finding hemp cords as old as 12,000 years. Hemp has also been cited as a key tool used in the construction of Egyptian pyramids in 1,200 BC. It wasn't long after that that ancient religious leaders started smoking hemp in their ceremonies because of the psychoactive effects. When Columbus made the trip across the Atlantic Ocean, his ships’ sails were made of hemp. Throughout history, hemp has been used by humans in over 50,000 different ways. This has given the plant a reputation of being one of the most versatile plants mother nature has to offer.
Depending on which part of the plant is being used, there are different applications that humans have uncovered. The stalk of a hemp plant is sturdy yet easily pulled into individual strands in mass quantity. It is broken down into fiber and hurds, which are used in a variety of ways including paper and fiberboards. Hemp fibers are used to create textiles, insulation, and rope.
Hemp seeds are broken down into oil, seed cake and hemp nut, which also all have a variety of usages. The oil is perhaps one of the most versatile components of the hemp plant. Food seasoning, dietary supplements, and body care products all commonly use hemp oil in their formulas. One of the more unexpected uses is biofuel, and it has been touted as a potential source that will ease our dependence on fossil fuels. Finally, the hemp nut and seed cake are used in a variety of cooking processes and ingredients like flour.
The Death of Hemp
By the early 20th century, hemp production saw a significant decline, due in part to the post-civil war freeing of slaves. Hemp was a crop mainly processed by hand, and therefore extremely labor intensive. The steps of cultivating, deconstructing, stripping, and weaving the hemp plant could take weeks. Creating a final woven cloth, for example, could take months. Farmers deemed the production of hemp no longer viable. The industrial revolution and the subsequent use of machinery provided an extraordinary opportunity to streamline the production of hemp. Specifically, the Decorticator machine, which could do the work of hundreds of men, was primed to revolutionize the industry.
Hemp, however, with its low production cost and diverse applications posed a significant threat to competing industries. Hemp was recognized as a valuable source for more than its fiber content. It was discovered that many parts of the plant, especially the cellulose which could be used for fuel,
building materials, medicines and more. Wealthy industrialists including Hearst, Dupont and Mellon realized that hemp threatened to replace some of their most profitable industries including wood pulp paper, cotton, petroleum, and chemicals. Conspiracy theories have been considered that these powerful men conspired to have hemp outlawed altogether. They stood to lose billions of dollars as hemp could be used to do everything their resources could, but cheaper and more efficiently.
Campaigns were funded along with the aid of politicians to demonize marijuana and thus hemp. Propaganda was used to scare the middle class majority into hating the plant ultimately lead to its unfortunate prohibition and lingering reputation.
Hemp declined in importance during the industrial revolution. It became easier to process other crops which had been more expensive prior to industrialization. Cotton, for example, had to be hand-pulled prior to the 1790's, but the invention of the automated cotton gin made cotton more cost-competitive than hemp. Later, synthetic materials supplanted many natural ones. Virtually all sails are now made from synthetic materials, and of course the great sailing ships of the earlier era have been supplanted by vessels with engines and no sails at all!
Despite declining in popularity, hemp continued to be a cash crop for farmers in Europe and elsewhere. Hemp continued to be a minor contributor to textiles and other applications, and it was considered the best fiber for ship rigging for many years.
In 1937 Congress enacted the Marihuana Tax Act levying a prohibitive $100/ounce tax on Cannabis. This legislation was drafted by Harry Anslinger who was the Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) and a well-known anti-cannabis prohibitionist. This legislation was largely seen as the first step in the prohibition process. This tax act required in part that every person who sold, acquired, or possessed marijuana to register to the IRS and pay special occupational taxes. Further, selling marijuana became illegal unless there was a written order of transferee between the buyer and seller.
With the onset of World War 2 in 1939, the 1937 Tax Act was lifted briefly, and farmers were again encouraged to produce as much hemp as possible to aid in the war effort. Hemp fiber was crucial to produce strong military grade rope, cloth and cordage for the U.S. Navy. In 1942 the U.S. Government produced and released a film called Hemp for Victory detailing the importance of hemp production in the War effort. This juxtaposition would also serve the theory that monopolistic greed and the economic insecurity of a few threatened industries led to the demonization of hemp.
Fortunately, modern day scientists, through exhaustive research, have been able to dispel long-standing misconceptions and stigmas associated with Cannabis. This has led to many countries legalizing or relaxing regulations on cultivation and usage.
Fast forward to the 21st century, the views on hemp have changed radically. This is in part thanks to people like Michael Lewis and the Growing Warriors, who in 2013 were among the first private citizens to grow and cultivate industrial hemp in the US in over 70 years.
This long and drawn out battle to legalize Hemp in the US finally came to a close in the 2018 Farm Bill. The Agriculture Improvement Act, as it is formally known, formally legalized the cultivation, processing, distribution, and sale of Hemp in the US. Specifically, the bill defined Hemp as any cannabis plant that contains less than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). What is most interesting about the legalization of this plant was that the US Congress recognized hemp not only for the extraction of CBD, but also for its potential in textiles, cosmetics, and biofuel industries.
The global Hemp industry impacts a variety of industries, as show above, and the US isn’t the only country that stands to benefit. Europe has seen similar changes in regulations allowing legal CBD in every country except Slovakia.
The re-introduction of the Hemp crop has fueled significant job growth not only in the farming of the plant, but also in complementary industries that are required to support the plants resurgence. This includes everything from retail locations, to transportation services, to extraction services, to accountants, and beyond.
Stories like this demonstrate the deep cultural relationship farmers have with the cultivation of Hemp. And this is also what makes the re-opening of the hemp industry so exciting. CBD is becoming a widely available product and a historic move forward for consumers. The reintroduction of hemp cultivation will fuel that boom and the historic reintroduction of hemp as a mass-produced crop across the world will be a major factor in the growth of the CBD market.
It is CBD and other naturally occurring cannabinoids within the hemp plant that make up the majority of products available on Elements of Green.