The past few years have seen a pivot in the way cannabis is viewed by society, especially when it comes to products that are THC-free like CBD, CBN, or hemp. Hemp specifically has been used to make a variety of products like food, dietary supplements, clothing, skincare, and more, but its origins in the United States and the world as a whole go a lot deeper than most people are aware of.
One of the earliest agricultural crops recorded in history, evidence of hemp use dates back as early as 8000 B.C. in Asian regions. From what experts have been able to gather, hemp cords were often used in pottery, clothing production or rope-making, while hemp seeds and oils were used for cooking, medicinal purposes, and skincare.
As civilization progressed, so did hemp, spreading throughout different countries and communities and serving a variety of purposes along the way. Evidence of hemp use has been found in regions like Asia, Africa, Europe, and South America. As more people became acquainted with the plant, it was further ingratiated into cultures, even appearing in Hindu and Persian religious documents as something sacred.
Traces of hemp were found in North America as early as 1606, when farmers first began to grow the coveted plant. Americans often used hemp to make paper, rope, fuel for lamps, and other retail goods. Even George Washington is known to have grown hemp plants on his estate.
While America remained under Britain’s control, hemp was a key component when it came to paying taxes. It was considered a legal tender, so Americans would ship hemp to England as a valuable export for several years.
After the Revolutionary War, Americans continued to produce hemp, growing the plant on plantations and paper mills. By the 20th century, hemp was an absolute staple in the country for both harvesting and manufacturing purposes.
Although hemp was at an all-time high by the time the 20th century rolled around, the early 20th century also saw a major change of heart in the way people viewed hemp and the cannabis plant as a whole.
Tangled in sensationalist, racist roots, the media began to paint cannabis in a negative light during the 1930s. Coincidentally, this was a time of great national unrest in Mexico, and many immigrants were making their way to the United States, bringing along with them “marijuana.” This was America’s first introduction to the plant being used in a recreational, psychological manner, and society did not respond well to it.
While the plant had always been referred to as cannabis or hemp, the media took over the Spanish term “marijuana” and ran with it, making the plant feel as foreign, scary, and unpredictable as possible. Smoking “marijuana” became associated with hypersexuality, hallucinations, and even murder, as portrayed in the 1936 exploitation film Reefer Madness. Directed by Louis J. Gasnier, the film’s purpose was to terrify parents and demonize a plant that had been used safely and resourcefully for several centuries–and it worked.
The following year, the U.S. government passed the Marijuana Tax Act, adding a licensing and taxing system that hindered hemp farmers and made it costly and difficult to produce the plant. Synthetic fibers emerged around the same time, making it that much easier for manufacturers to slowly but surely turn away from the increasingly stigmatized hemp. Despite a brief period during WWII where the U.S. was cut off from foreign exports and forced to turn to their own farmers to produce at a higher rate once again, hemp remained effectively “canceled” for much of the 20th century.
In the early 21st century, the U.S. government changed the definition of cannabis, excluding certain hemp products from the umbrella and allowing it to be imported and used in products once again. In 2018, hemp was fully legalized with the passage of the Farm Bill, which officially removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act.
Today, hemp is legal to grow anywhere in the United States. Because of this legalization, many brands have turned to hemp for production, and we’ve begun to see more innovative hemp products on the market than ever before. From dog treats to lotions to skincare to beer, hemp is found in the most surprising but effective places.
Clothing brands are also beginning to turn back to hemp for production, like Patagonia and Levi’s. Hemp’s reputation in America has definitely come full circle, and it will be interesting to see how it is utilized over the next few decades and how narratives surrounding the plant continue to develop and evolve.