It's well established that hemp and mankind share a long history. Some would argue that they are intrinsic to each other. Now, by “some” we don't mean an isolated hippie pundit with some spurious “facts” and even more dubious research...

It would be wryly interesting if in human history the cultivation of marijuana led generally to the invention of agriculture, and thereby to civilization.

An interesting idea, to be sure. Some “stoner” thinks that because cannabis is so cool, it actually helped build civilization as we know it! What if we told you that the “stoner” in question was none-other than the late Dr. Carl Sagan(1), astrophysicist and author of Cosmos? Yeah. We'll give this guy's intellect the benefit of the doubt.

Hemp has been with mankind for about as long as we've been more than just wandering tribes of hunter-gatherers. There truly is good, solid scientific and archaeological evidence that cannabis/hemp was one of—if not the—first purposefully domesticated plant crops in human history, with evidence that showed its place in civilization back to its beginnings in ancient Mesopotamia (Iraq), Anatolia (Turkey), India and China. Hemp cordage, cloth, and other utensils made of hemp have been found (quite unlike many other wooden artifacts that rot away, or plant based fibers that easily decay; a testament to hemp's durability). Burials have been discovered where cannabis/hemp was laid over the body. Mummies have been found with hemp adornments and clothing. By 100BCE, China was making hemp paper, Britain was using hemp for rope.

Much later, King Henry VIII was fining English farmers who did NOT grow hemp. Later, 17th Century Dutch shipbuilders created such a need that hemp was the number one crop in almost all Dutch colonial territories (shipbuilding demanded hemp: one ship could easily have over 20 kilometers of hemp rope, and nearly all sailcloth was hemp-based. The word “canvas” is actually derived from the word “kannabis” and literally means “made of hemp”)(2). In short: humans and hemp have had a long history. But let's jump forward a bit, and look specifically (albeit briefly: this topic deserves its own book[s]!) at hemp in the U.S. How important was hemp in American history?

Not unlike many other cannabis boasts, some internet “facts” are pretty dubious, so we're sticking with those that have solid evidence of being true. Here are some actual North American / U.S. hemp FACTS:

  • 1606-1632: Hemp is introduced to North America, as French and British cultivate hemp at their colonies in Port Royal (1606), Virginia (1611), and Plymouth (1632).
  • 1616: British colonists in Jamestown begin growing hemp for its unusually strong fiber, using it to make rope, cloth, and clothing.
  • 1764: Medicinal cannabis is mentioned in The New England Dispensatory.
  • 1776: Hemp moves south, as Kentucky begins farming hemp.
  • 1794: George Washington—writing to William Pearce regarding management of his farm at Mt. Vernon—says “I am very glad to hear that the Gardener has saved so much of the St. foin seed, and that of the India Hemp. Make the most you can of both, by sowing them again in drills. [...] The Hemp may be sown any where.” Thomas Jefferson bred improved hemp varieties, and invented a special brake for crushing the plant’s stems during fiber processing.
  • 1797: The U.S.S. Constitution, one of the first American-built warships, sets sail with over 55 tons of hemp rigging, and even more used for sailcloth and hull caulking.
  • 1800: Hemp growing flourishes throughout the young United States and across North America, with plantations in Mississippi, Georgia, California, South Carolina, Nebraska, New York, and Kentucky. Much is used for cordage and rope-making, as well as building materials, fodder for livestock, and textiles. Its importance to the young nation can be seen still in names for early American towns and settlements, such as Hempfield, PA, Hemphill, KY, Hempstead, NY, Hempfork, VA, and many more.
  • 1840: American medicinal preparations base wholly or in part on cannabis or hemp are widely available. By 1850, Cannabis is added to The U.S. Pharmacopoeia.
  • 1861: The American Civil War begins. The First Battle of Lexington takes place at Lexington, Missouri, and is referred to as the "Battle of the Hemp Bales" due to the Missouri Guard's use of bales of hemp as fortification. Hemp is regularly used throughout the war as a textile and rope fiber for those states that grow it, but begins its decline as it begins to be surpassed—particularly in the South—by cotton.
  • 1898: The US wins control of The Philippines from Spain after the Battle of Manila. The US now has a massive source of cheap, strong agricultural fiber: Musa textilis (a relative of edible bananas), also called jute, and soon after, “Manila hemp”. Much military hemp use is displaced by this new American-owned off-shore resource.
  • 1937: The U.S. Congress passes the Marijuana Tax Act which criminalized the growing of cannabis, and thereby effectively prohibits hemp cultivation. Most plant fiber farmers switch to flax or other fiber crops due to the complex regulations required to grow hemp for any commercial reason.
  • 1938: The U.S. company DuPont patents a processes for creating plastics from coal and oil, and a new process for creating paper from wood pulp, thereby making hemp fiber farming even less worthwhile as an agricultural commodity. Rope and sail making is now based almost entirely on jute (aka “manila hemp”).
  • 1941: America enters World War II after The Empire of Japan attacks U.S. Forces in a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. American forces in the Philippines—under command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur—are ordered to withdraw from Manila, and all military installations are removed as of December 24, 1941. By January of 1942, nearly all of the Philippines are under Japanese control, and America has lost its primary cordage and canvas agricultural crop.
  • 1942: Having lost—or strategically abandoned—any interests in the Pacific to the Empire of Japan (and thereby its jute holdings), the United States is now unable to meet the fiber, cloth, and other military/industrial needs its new war efforts demand. The U.S. suspends the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, and encourages American farmers to grow as much hemp as possible to answer the U.S. military's needs, going so far as to produce the film “HEMP FOR VICTORY” to encourage and educate farmers on growing hemp. Because of the ease of hemp farming, and the speed at which the crop grows, hemp farmers make an important contribution to the U.S. war effort, and subsequent victory in both the Pacific and European theaters.
  • 1945: WWII ends, and hemp once again falls back to its de facto illegal status under the 1937 Tax Act. Hemp now falls into a deep industrial and commercial depression, with nearly all legal hemp products being imported from other nations like Canada, India, and the Soviet Union. Hemp is now relegated to only one regular American use: bird seed. This lasts for the better part of the rest of the 20th Century.

...but, as we know—dear reader—this will change...