Hemp production was vital to the health of early America.
Village women and children combing crushed hemp fibers prior to weaving into yarn. (Photo by George Silk/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Hemp’s roots run deep throughout American history, but that history is often overlooked. Not only was hemp production allowed during our country’s foundational years, but the first American settlers were legally required to grow it. There was even a four-year shortage in the newly-formed state of Virginia where citizens could earn a prison sentence for failure to meet hemp production quotas.
Though hemp was (and still is) considered a cash crop, it was also literally used as legal tender. For 200 years, citizens in newly-formed colonies or states could pay their taxes or settle debts with hemp they grew. There was even an image of a farmer harvesting hemp on the old $10 bill. However, that edition was phased out in 1914.
All of this begs the question: how did an incredibly valuable resource that served as the backbone of the British Navy and helped America during World War II become stigmatized? With the first significant effort to legalize hemp making its way through Congress now, there’s never been a better time to ask.
In 1607, England established its first permanent colony in North America. The settlement was called Jamestown and now exists in what is known as the present-day state of Virginia. The expedition garnered funding from a British joint-stock corporation called “The London Company,” which aimed to recover gold and silver from the Americas after witnessing Spain’s successful ventures in the New World. The expedition went poorly, and their efforts were initially unsuccessful, resulting in famine, death, and even cannibalism.
However, settlers discovered plants in that area. Among those plants was a sweeter strain of tobacco, which gave the settlers incentive to continue their efforts in the Americas. They also discovered “Indian hemp,” which was deemed far superior in quality and durability to that of Britain’s. As the demands of the settlement grew, so did its legislation and in 1619, the Americas saw its first hemp production law.
The First General Assembly of Virginia, which was the first committee to create legislation, implemented agricultural duties among its citizens. Though the law primarily concerned sowing silk flax seeds, it stated that citizens were required to “plant and dress 100 plants which being found a commodity,” and that “whosoever do fail in the performance of this shall be subject to the punishment of the Governor and Council of Estate.” The law continued, stating that “hemp also, both English and Indian” was to be sown and that “all householders of this colony, that have any of those seeds, to make trial thereof the next season.”
The Puritans, who would arrive shortly after in 1620 sowed hemp seeds in New England. It was said that the Mayflower, the ship that brought them over, used British hemp as well. Slaves eventually took over the grueling and laborious efforts of hemp production, among other forms of forced servitude.
Since Great Britain is an island, it depended heavily on its naval forces for importation, exportation, and colonization efforts. Its naval forces relied heavily on hemp for sails, cordage, and caulking. The American colonies initially provided large quantities of hemp to Britain until the American Revolution. Hemp production then played a crucial role in American liberation from Great Britain as it helped the nation flourish economically.
Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin, among other founding fathers, were all noted for overseeing hemp production on their plantations as well. Once the colonies united and gained independence from Britain, hemp production grew as quickly as the new nation did. Hemp became increasingly valuable as it gained more uses in medicine, animal feed, paper, and clothing.
American hemp production would eventually halt under the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, but the ban was lifted momentarily due to America’s involvement in World War II, which saw a rise in the demand for hemp. Hemp was necessary for the creation of ropes for porting, thread for the shoes for soldiers, webbing for parachutes, among many other uses, as explained in a film created by the United States Government titled Hemp for Victory.
Since hemp and marijuana are both subspecies of the cannabis plant, hemp is often considered to be the same as marijuana, even though it’s nearly impossible to obtain a psychoactive high from hemp ingestion. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 lumped hemp in with marijuana.
The bill did not explicitly ban hemp production but it implemented an extremely high tax on it and jailed anyone incapable of paying it. The taxation made it impossible for people to continue producing the crop, leading to its decline before and after World War II.
Other factors contributed to the end of American hemp production.
William Randolph Hearst, a newspaper tycoon, believed hemp production served as a threat to his empire, the foundation of which was built on investments in the lumber industry. He thought this would affect his printing business and was noted for encouraging the spread of yellow journalism about hemp production.
Another reason for the hemp production ban was Harry J. Anslinger. Anslinger was the head of the newly-formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which backed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. Propaganda films like Reefer Madness didn’t help either.
The most notable reason for the hemp production ban lies was the prohibition of cannabis, which was used as a tool to enforce racial discrimination, making it easy to prosecute persons of color or persons deemed lower class. This problematic history was even recounted earlier this year during a lawsuit against the federal government to end cannabis prohibition.
It seems unlikely that the federal government will legalize cannabis under the current administration, but there are a number of bills moving through Congress now which slowly chip away at it. Hemp production, in particular, is seen as one of the most promising efforts as it’s backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is educating fellow lawmakers on the difference between hemp and cannabis.
Hemp continues to have endless potential as a commodity for everything from skincare products to sustainable building materials. A recent analysis by the U.S. Senate projected that if hemp is legalized it could bring in $570 million dollars per year.
The Senate and House now have to reconcile different versions of the bill for hemp legalization before it can be sent to the president’s desk.