For years, the cannabis plant has been misunderstood and wrongly vilified. The history of cannabis is a long and complicated one, with many misconceptions and a lot of misinformation.
Not long ago, hemp was a legal crop grown and encouraged in the United States. In fact, cannabis (or industrial hemp) has a rich history in the country and its use as a psychoactive substance. The prohibition of marijuana and industrial hemp began partly with racial overtones, but it also has roots in xenophobia, nationalism, and even conspiracy theories.
Let’s take a closer look at the history of cannabis and explore some of the reasons hemp was made illegal.
A Brief Overview of Cannabis History
Cannabis is an annual plant in the Cannabaceae family. The cannabis plant produces a resin containing cannabinoids, which are used for medical and recreational purposes. Cannabis has been cultivated by humans throughout history, with the earliest use dating back to 8000 B.C.E.
The first recorded use of cannabis as a medicine was in 2737 B.C.E. when Emperor Shen-Nung prescribed marijuana tea for rheumatism and gout, among other ailments. The Chinese emperor Shen Nung (2737–2697 BC) wrote about the medicinal properties of cannabis in 2737 B.C., making it one of the oldest written records of medicinal herbs in existence.
In India, cannabis has been used as an entheogen since ancient times and has been part of Siddha medicine practised by Ayurvedic healers since at least 2000 B.C. In 600 B.C., Herodotus wrote about Scythians using cannabis steam baths. The Zoroastrians also used cannabis for religious purposes during their sacred rites and ceremonies.
Cannabis was grown in the United States as a crop until it was outlawed in 1937 by the Marihuana Tax Act. This act made it illegal to grow or sell cannabis without a tax stamp from the federal government.
The U.S. Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act (C.S.A.) in 1970, which classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug — meaning that it has no accepted medical value and is generally considered unsafe by the federal government.
Marijuana was listed alongside heroin and L.S.D. as one of three hard drugs deemed too dangerous for medicine or research.
The Difference Between Hemp and Other Cannabis Plants
There are two types of cannabis plants: hemp and marijuana. Hemp is a cannabis plant with a very low amount of T.H.C., the psychoactive component in marijuana that makes you high. Hemp has been used for thousands of years for its fibre, oil and seed.
Marijuana is a cannabis plant that has a high amount of T.H.C. Marijuana is used to get high and for medical purposes. The history of cannabis is different from the history of hemp. In the early 1900s, hemp was made illegal because it was mistaken for marijuana.
The difference between hemp and marijuana is about how much T.H.C. there is in the plant. Marijuana has more than 0.3% T.H.C., whereas industrial hemp has less than 0.3% T.H.C. and can be grown legally in many countries worldwide, including Canada, Australia, China and India.
Hemp's Role in the Economy Before Prohibition
In 1619, King James I issued a charter to Sir Edwin Sandys that granted him all islands southward between Virginia and Florida “to be planted with vines.” The English settlement on Roanoke Island in North Carolina included hemp seeds from John White, an artist who returned to England after his daughter’s death. He returned with supplies, including hemp seeds that he cultivated at Jamestown.
Before prohibition, hemp was a staple crop in the United States. It was used for various purposes, including making cloth and paper. The government even encouraged farmers to grow hemp because it benefited the economy.
But all that changed with the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937. This act effectively made cannabis and hemp illegal. The government claimed that cannabis was a dangerous drug, even though no real evidence supports this claim.
This decision had a disastrous effect on the economy. Farmers could no longer grow hemp, and businesses that manufactured products from hemp were forced to close. The loss of this industry had a ripple effect throughout the economy, and it would take many years for things to recover.
Why Was Hemp Made Illegal?
While hemp did not become a popular crop until the late 1930s, it has deep roots in American history. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp at Mount Vernon and Monticello. It was even mentioned in the United States Pharmacopeia from 1850 to 1937.
Hemp wasn’t illegal until 1937, when Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act. This law was meant to discourage American farmers from growing cannabis (also known as marijuana). It effectively banned marijuana by imposing a tax on its sale. The government claimed this would deter people from using it, but it only worsened things.
The law didn’t just make marijuana illegal to sell but also to possess or transport across state lines. In the U.S., cannabis has long been associated with Mexican immigrants and black jazz musicians. In 1937, film director Louis J. Gasnier made Reefer Madness, a sensationalistic propaganda film about the dangers of marijuana use.
At the same time, Harry Anslinger (the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics) claimed that marijuana led to insanity, violence and murder. The American Medical Association did not support this claim but did agree that marijuana should be outlawed because it caused violent behavior (and perhaps sexual promiscuity).
In the 1940s and 50s, marijuana was increasingly linked to the crime by a series of aggressive laws. The Boggs Act, for example – named after its sponsor, U.S. Representative Hale Boggs – enhanced the penalties for cannabis possession. Nixon-era policies solidified marijuana’s status as a controlled substance through the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.
Until the 2000s, hemp cultivation was virtually non-existent in the United States because of cannabis illegality under federal drug laws. Again, there was no distinction between hemp and its psychoactive cousin, marijuana.
Hemp has always been associated with marijuana, but only because they are identical twins.
The plant was so useful that many cultures worldwide widely used it as a food source, clothing material and medicine. In fact, hemp was one of the first plants ever cultivated by humans and was used to make rope for ships and sails.
But in the early 1900s, when all kinds of substances were outlawed in America, hemp was lumped into the same category as its twin—marijuana—and banned.
So why was it made illegal? Due to the war on drugs, especially cannabis, hemp got caught in the crossfire.
The Beginning of Cannabis and Hemp Reform
The first major legal changes to the cannabis industry occurred in the mid-1990s when lawmakers passed a bill allowing farmers who were members of state-licensed hemp programs to grow hemp and sell it commercially.
In 2011, an amendment to prevent federal prosecution of hemp growers was introduced in Congress. This amendment was not passed. But it did represent a first step toward opening up new markets for an agricultural crop that had been outlawed since 1937.
The current crop of cannabis legalization bills has been introduced in several states over the past few years, including California, Colorado, Oregon and Nevada. The bills would allow for commercial marijuana cultivation and distribution and medical cannabis sales — all under state control.
In 2018, the U.S. Congress passed a new Farm Bill, which included provisions to legalize industrial hemp. The bill, known as the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (also known as the 2018 Farm Bill) was signed into law by President Trump on December 20th, 2018. The bill legalized the production and sale of industrial hemp under certain conditions.
Cannabis remains illegal under federal law, but several states have legalized it for medical and recreational use. These reforms are in response to the growing number of people who want to use cannabis for medical purposes.
In fact, more than 20 states have passed laws that allow for the sale of medical cannabis and other cannabis products. The use of hemp has been allowed in these states as well.
However, most people are still unaware of the benefits of these plant-based medicines. This is because many believe that T.H.C. is the only part that matters regarding cannabis consumption.
The D.E.A. is also working on a rescheduling process that would allow more research into the medicinal applications of cannabis plants. However, this move has been met with resistance from some politicians who believe marijuana should remain a Schedule I drug due to its potential abuse by young people.
The Rise of the CBD Market
The CBD market is booming right now and will only get bigger. CBD is short for cannabidiol, and it’s a compound that’s found in cannabis plants. Unlike T.H.C., CBD doesn’t have any psychoactive effects, so it won’t get you high.
CBD can be extracted from hemp and marijuana plants, but most CBD products today are made from hemp. This is because hemp plants contain very low levels of T.H.C., while marijuana plants contain higher levels.
So why is CBD so popular? Some people believe that CBD has many health benefits, including reducing anxiety, relieving pain, and improving sleep.
If you’re thinking about trying CBD, you should know a few things first. Make sure you do your research and buy products from reputable sources. And always start with a low dose to see how your body reacts.
What's the Future of Hemp?
Hemp’s future is looking bright. With more and more countries legalizing cannabis, and the U.S. Farm Bill passing in 2018, it’s only a matter of time before hemp becomes a commonplace crop.
Industrial Hemp is the most versatile agricultural crop in the world. It is a hardy crop that withstands extreme weather conditions, grows quickly and doesn’t need pesticides or herbicides. From this, we can make many products, including paper, textiles, twine and cordage, building materials, food, medicine, and more. It is also one of the best natural resources for nutrition as it contains very high levels of protein, essential fatty oils and vitamins.
And because it’s so versatile, it has the potential to replace a lot of other products that are not as sustainable too.
For example, hemp can be used to make bioplastic, a plastic made from plant-based material. This is a great alternative to traditional plastic, which is made from petroleum and is not biodegradable.
Hemp can also make biodiesel, a renewable and clean-burning fuel. And because hemp grows so quickly, it can make paper without cutting down trees.
There’s no doubt that hemp has a lot of potentials. And with more and more people becoming aware of the benefits of this amazing plant, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes a staple in our society.
It seems hard to believe now, but at one time, cannabis was seen as a potential cure for several ailments. And while hemp was once lauded for its many uses, it was ultimately made illegal because of its association with cannabis.
The history of the cannabis plant is long, complicated and filled with incredible highs, extreme lows and everything in between. That the cannabis plant has survived is an impressive feat in and of itself, let alone to come out stronger than before. From its far-famed origins to the War on Drugs and beyond, this plant has seen it all–and we’re only now beginning to discover all that this plant can do.
If properly cultivated and distilled into its beneficial components, cannabis has a vast future as a medicinal wonder, a resource for sustainable energy and even an option for our food chain. Hemp may never become as commonplace as other crops, such as corn or wheat. But with its resurgence in popularity and modern technological innovations still emerging, hemp could very well be the staple crop of tomorrow…if not today. It makes sense why cannabis businesses can’t wait for legalization. The future is here, and it’s green.