For about 162 years, marijuana and hemp were commonly and legally grown in the United States.
Hemp fiber, although derived from a cannabis varietal, contains little to no THC—0.3 percent or less in both the European Union and Canada—and it cannot get a person high. It has been used for centuries to make things like rope, cloth, paper and food. Our founding fathers grew hemp; the Model T was partially made from hemp, and hemp was even used as animal feed.
In the 1930s, the cultivation of hemp was curtailed in the U.S. A combination of big-money interests, including Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon—a major investor in DuPont—sought to make hemp illegal to make room for the synthetic (plastic) fiber industry—which, of course, also benefited the oil industry. Hemp paper posed a threat to the timber industry, too. However, since hemp was such a part of the American consciousness, it needed to be rebranded and demonized.
Enter the term marihuana (marijuana), then a rather obscure Mexican slang word for cannabis containing THC. The government and its allies in big business were able to use what we would today call “fake news” to create horror stories about cannabis use, including movies like Reefer Madness, a 1936 film that shows “reefer” driving people to become murderers.
In 1937, the Prohibitive Marihuana Tax Law was quickly moved through Congress. Because the public did not understand that hemp and “marihuana” had been looped together as the same thing—this was well before you could fact-check news on the internet—there was virtually no public outcry, despite opposition from the American Medical Association.
In the 1970s, the Controlled Substances Act further criminalized cannabis, even classifying industrial hemp as a Schedule 1 drug, making it illegal to grow or even research the uses of hemp.
The war on cannabis has now been going on for more than 80 years. For most of this time, the hemp industry has been working to decriminalize the growth of industrial hemp by actively working to decouple it from marijuana. However, that’s changed, as states have legalized medical and recreational cannabis—meaning the hemp industry is now in the process of re-hitching its wagon to a star.
As recently as 2015, the Hemp Industries Association (HIA), a leading industry trade organization, estimated that retail sales of hemp products in the U.S. totaled $573 million—largely using imported hemp. Hemp can be used not only for food, textiles and personal care, but also car parts, biodiesel, construction materials and many other things. From an environmental prospective, hemp just makes sense: One acre of hemp plants, grown in just three months, can yield as much paper as four acres of trees that have been planted for years. One acre of hemp can also provide as much fabric as two to three acres of cotton—while using a fraction of the pesticides. Hemp can also be carbon-neutral, as carbon that is released from burning hemp as fuel is reabsorbed by the next crop of plants as they grow.
Good news is on the horizon: A provision in the 2018 Farm Bill—legislation totaling more than 1,000 pages dealing with everything from farm subsidies to food stamps—paves the way for the legalization of industrial growth. The bill is due to be voted on by the full Senate before its July 4 recess, and although it would only block federal authorities from punishing hemp farmers and researchers in states where industrial hemp is legal, it is the first meaningful reform we have seen in decades. Even ultra conservatives like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnelll, a Kentucky Republican, are pushing for hemp legalization.
“I know there are farming communities all over the country who are interested in this,” McConnell said about hemp as the bill passed through the Senate Agriculture Committee via a 20-1 vote on June 13. “… Younger farmers in my state are particularly interested in going in this direction. We have a lot of people in my state who are extremely enthusiastic about the possibilities. As we all know, hemp is very diversified.”
This is huge news. America’s attitude toward cannabis production from both an industrial and recreational/medical perspective is rapidly evolving—and we may finally see a light at the end of the tunnel regarding the commercial cultivation of hemp.