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The United States is Taking Steps to Federally Legalize Industrial HempDecember 12, 2018
Yesterday a draft of the 2018 Farm Bill written by a House-Senate committee passed through the Senate with an 87-13 vote. The proposed bill included the federal legalization of hemp and hemp cultivation. This means that hemp (hemp being a cannabis plant that contains only trace amounts of THC but has a high percentage of CBD) will be legalized in the United States, if the bill passes through the House and is approved by the president before the legislation ends. The implications that this legalization has for both the medical and textile industries are huge. CBD sales alone are expected to reach $22 billion by 2022. Equally exciting is the prospect of hemp, once again, being used as a textile in the United States. Hemp has a long history of being used in this capacity, with the earliest recorded usage dating back to 8,000 BC in Mesopotamia (what is now Iraq and Iran). China’s history with hemp spans over 6,000 years. The Chinese are also credited with making some of the first paper out of hemp, a creation that dates back to the 1st century BC. Hemp as paper was a trend that caught on—maps, logs, and even bible pages that sailors used were, at one point, made of hemp.
France, Russia, Spain, and Chile all have had a long history with growing and using hemp as a textile. In the United Kingdom of the 16th century, it was ordered by King Henry VIII that farmers must plant this crop to provide their navy with materials to make ship rigging and sails. Hemp is saltwater resistant and stronger than cotton, making it a favorable material choice for ropes, sails, and other rigging items on ships. Similarly, infamous colonizer Christopher Columbus used hemp sails and rigging on his ships.
The United States’ history with hemp is sordid, long, and incredibly political. Hemp has passed through many phases of legality, bouncing back and forth between necessary and criminal. In early U.S. history, not only was hemp legal, but, in a sense, the country was founded on it—the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper, and the first American Flag was made out of fabric made from hemp. At one point in the 17th century, farmers could’ve even faced jail time if they weren’t growing the crop! The U.S. census conducted in 1850 lists somewhere around 8,400 hemp plantations spanning at least 2,000 acres. Hemp was laborious to harvest by hand and, in the wake of the invention of the cotton gin, couldn’t compete in the textile industry. However, hemp once again became a contender when the decorticator, which allowed farmers to harvest 1000 pounds—and sometimes even more—of clean hemp per hour, was patented in 1919.
In spite of this victory for hemp farmers everywhere, trouble was on the horizon. As hemp was becoming easier to harvest, it was also becoming easier to work with and, thus, discover the numerous uses of this versatile crop. These uses included hemp fibers being reworked and established as alternatives to the lumber and paper industry. As hemp was getting easier to produce and wildly more accessible, this burgeoning industry was beginning to feel like a threat to the preexisting lumber and textile industries.
There was, however, nothing that hemp seemed to pose more of a threat to than the petroleum industry. In 1930s Michigan, Ford Motors had a biomass conversion plant that was working on creating a biofuel out of hemp. They saw success with this endeavor, extracting seven key ingredients for fuel. It was feasible that hemp could be a threat to the oil industry in addition to the lumber and textile industries, and retaliation from companies like DuPont was swift and effective.
Lobbyists from these vulnerable industries began advocating for tax laws that would be prohibitive for the hemp industry. In 1937, the U.S. congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act, classifying hemp as cannabis although (unlike its more famous cousin) it possesses no psychoactive properties and effectively making the hemp industry unsustainable. But all was not yet lost! In 1942, Japan invaded the Philippines, then the U.S.’s primary importer of hemp. The U.S. army was actively using hemp products during the war, so they soon found themselves in a pinch. This resulted in the U.S. temporarily barring the Marijuana Tax Act and releasing a short film called “Hemp for Victory”—a propaganda piece designed to make farmers excited to grow hemp for a “good” cause.
After the war, the United States once again found that hemp was a wicked and indecent plant and decided to tax it back to hell. Later, that taxation came back with a vengeance in the form of the Controlled Substances Act, which generalized cannabis and did not distinguish between strains with the psychoactive element THC and hemp, a plant that only has CBD. This meant that hemp had been criminalized.
There are literally thousands of uses for hemp, and there still may be some that have yet to be discovered due to limited access to the plant. Now that legalization is on the horizon, it’s exciting to think about the all of the potential positive benefits for us and for the planet. The history of hemp is long and ever growing, and, hopefully, this story has a happy ending.
Disclaimer: Keep out of reach of children. For use only by adults 21 years of age and older.