The Interesting Story of Hemp

Hemp is more than a plant, more than a food, more than a material. Sometimes a hot button topic, impressions of hemp can range from misconceptions about its relation to drugs to the rough, all-natural craft items sold on the streets of Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California. But what is the history of this fascinating plant?

Hemp is one of the oldest cultivated crops, dating back archaeologically to 5000 BC in China. The Chinese later used hemp to make clothing, shoes, ropes, and even paper. Around 500 BC, classic Greek historians celebrated and documented the many uses of hemp, everything from its medicinal qualities, to using the plant as a fiber and even soap! Evidence shows that hemp grew and was utilized across northern latitudes of Europe to East Asia since the Neolithic period. Late medieval Germans cooked with hemp, using the plant as filling for pies or boiled down in a soup.

Later, Europeans began to cultivate hemp for its fibers; for example, the ropes on nearly every ship at sea including Christopher Columbus’ were made from hemp and European painters like Rembrandt, Gainsborough, and Van Gogh were painting principally on hemp linen canvases. Spanish settlers first carried the plant to the Western Hemisphere in about 1545, so hemp already was already growing in North America when the first European colonists arrived, during the late 1600s. Due to its incredible fabric utility, Henry VIII required the cultivation of hemp in the New World, compelling colonists to devote one-quarter acre of hemp for every sixty acres of land under tillage. Hemp was so highly valued that it could be used to pay taxes. So with all these obvious benefits and a long history of acceptance, why is Hemp a misunderstood material today?


In the 1930s, during Hoover’s presidency, strong steps were taken to quash hemp and the use of hemp products in the United States. To lead the fight against this plant, Harry J. Anslinger was appointed to head the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Motivated by economic reasons, financial bigwigs pressured the government to take action against this threat to their enterprises. In 1937, the federal Marihuana Tax Act levied a $100-an-ounce tax on cannabis. Although it did not actually outlaw the cannabis plant and exempted some parts of the plant, it made it prohibitively expensive for farmers to grow the plant. In post-Depression American, charging a $1 growing permit to farmers living off $12 changed the future of hemp in the U.S. forever.

Hemp had a small resurgence during World War II, when farmers were encouraged to grow hemp for uniforms, canvas, and rope. The U.S. government even produced a film explaining the uses of hemp, called Hemp for Victory in 1942. Still, as the 1950s began, so did hemp’s downfall.
The main critics of hemp throughout its history as a crop have always been people who would directly benefit from its failure. After the war was over and the need for hemp decreased, the government began taking hasty steps to make it virtually illegal to grow hemp by also the leverage the ties between hemp and its drug-related cousin marijuana. Sensationalized journalism contributed to the war on hemp by using dramatic and horrific headlines about the dangers of the Cannabis plant to grab the public opinion. The menace of marijuana made headlines everywhere and people were up in arms. The American people perceived that it was responsible for everything from car accidents to a decline in morality. Propaganda films like Reefer Madness, Marijuana: Assassin of Youth, andMarijuana: The Devil’s Weed depicted people doing terrible things under the effects of marijuana. By 1957, most major hemp processors went bankrupt due to these government initiatives. Since then, the legal penalties associated with Cannabis have gotten stricter and hemp has been for the most part unable to detangle itself from the illicit marijuana plant.

Today, while hemp has been cultivated worldwide for over 10,000 years, this impressive plant supplies a rapidly expanding market for hemp products unavailable to American farmers. The U.S. government, alone among the major industrialized nations prohibits domestic hemp cultivation — due primarily to confusion regarding hemp’s psychoactive cousin, “marijuana.” In 2001, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), under the Bush administration, attempted to destroy the U.S. hemp industry, issuing regulations purporting to interpret existing law to declare hemp illegal and seizing shipments of hemp seed and oil at the Canadian border.

You would be surprised to know how hemp is being used today by being grown in the rest of the world. Millions of cars built by Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Lotus, Mercedes Benz and BMW contain hemp composites for door panels. Hemp concrete can be found in energy-efficient homes, and retail stores are using hemp fiberboard displays. The thousands of products that can be made from hemp are wide ranging, from plastics to paper, textiles to building materials, even ethanol.

Despite some common misconceptions, it is definitely worthy to note the fact that hemp has no drug value. Using hemp products will not cause a false positive drug test. Leaders in clothing manufacturing are catching on to the notion that hemp can replace cotton, a crop that accounts for nearly 25% of all pesticide use in the U.S. The strength of hemp fiber makes it a favorite for specialty paper. And paper pulp made from hemp hurds (the woody core fiber) is an ideal additive to strengthen recycled post-consumer waste (PCW) pulp, thus expanding PCW’s use.

Hemp can be grown organically and aids in weed suppression and soil building, making it a favored rotation crop. It is one of the few plants that can grow on every continent on Earth except for Antarctica. Sources estimate the hemp market is worth about $450 million dollars annually and is growing rapidly. Hemp is a part of America’s agricultural heritage, and one of the world’s earliest cultivated crops, but because hemp cannot be grown in the United States, it has to be imported from other countries, like the current world-leading hemp producer, China. Other European counties, Chile, and North Korea are also leading producers of commercial produced hemp. Learning about the history of hemp can create a more informed present as well as a more sustainable future.

~ Nicole Bassett, Sustainability Director from

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