America & Hemp: Getting Back to Our Roots
President’s Day; It may not have the commercial appeal of Christmas, or involve the food, family, and friends Thanksgiving does, but it’s an important holiday nonetheless. One thing we can and should be celebrating on this day is hemp and how our founding fathers used this cash crop to build a foundation for our nation.
New Colonies in Need of a Cash Crop
The early colonists didn’t come to America because they were looking for an easier life. If you decided to make the trek across the Atlantic you needed determination and the will to survive. That’s why it’s fitting that the first ships arriving on American shores had cargo holds stocked full of hemp seeds. These early settlers knew hemp was a resilient and versatile crop that would grow in almost any environment.
From day one, hemp provided colonists with a valuable source for crafting durable materials like rope and cloth, though the majority of hemp produced in the colonies ended up being sent back to England to outfit their naval fleet. Great Britain even made it a requirement for the colonists to grow hemp to send back to England.
Legend has it that the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper. Although this isn’t entirely true (the final draft is written on prepared animal skin) hemp paper was used in the original drafts of the declaration. Several Mark Twain, Victor Hugo, and Alex Dumas writings were recorded on hemp paper, along with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Even Betsy Ross, the gifted seamstress and friend of George Washington, crafted the first American flag using the most durable material available: hemp cloth. It’s no exaggeration when they say that hemp really served as the foundation of America.
“Make the most you can of the Indian Hemp seed and sow it everywhere.” -George Washington
Washington, along with fellow founding fathers Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Madison, were all huge proponents of hemp. At his Virginia home, Monticello, Jefferson chose to cultivate hemp instead of the more popularly grown crop, tobacco. By 1815, Jefferson was producing over 2,000 yards of hemp cloth annually. Similarly, Washington grew hemp on all five of his farms throughout Virginia, and his 90-plus mentions of hemp in his journals indicate that he may have cultivated and used hemp for more than just industrial purposes. In fact, in May 2018, horticulturists at Washington’s Mount Vernon estate re-planted hemp crops. This was in part to honor Washington and his love of hemp, but it was also motivated by the desire to showcase hemp’s usefulness as a crop and separate it from the modern-day assumption that it’s simply an excuse to grow marijuana. Let’s get one thing straight: Hemp is not marijuana.
Hemp in the Modern Era
Up until the end of the 19th century, hemp production dominated the agricultural climate in midwest states like Missouri, Illinois, and Kentucky. It would not be nearly as prominent until nearly a century later when World War II would spark the resurgence of America’s hemp industry. As a cheap, quick-growing, and resilient crop, hemp was in high demand for wartime production and was perfect for manufacturing items like parachutes, uniforms, tarps, tents, and ropes. Hoping to encourage and incentivize farmers to grow hemp, the government released the film, Hemp for Victory in 1936.
Unfortunately, the stigma associated with hemp began around 1937 with the passing of the Marihuana Tax Act. A year before the act was passed, the infamous film, Reefer Madness, was released by a church group who hoped to use it to incite fear about the dangers of recreational cannabis. Prior to 1900, cannabis had been widely marketed in America for medicinal purposes, but the use of it as a recreational drug cast it in a negative light.
Hemp received even greater stigma in 1970 when Reagan passed the Controlled Substances Act. This repealed the Marihuana Tax Act and classified all cannabis products as a Schedule I drug, which are considered to be the most dangerous with the highest potential for abuse; current Schedule I drugs include Heroin, LSD, Mescaline, and MDMA. It wasn’t until the passing of the first Farm Bill in 2014 that lawmakers began to openly differentiate between hemp and marijuana. This bill allowed for hemp to be grown under certain circumstances but did not fully legalize hemp as an industrial crop.
Homegrown American Hemp Today
Fast forward to this past December and the passing of the 2018 Farm Bill which finally legalized the industrial production of hemp. The passing of this law officially removed all parts of the hemp plant (leaves, stalks, flowers, and stems) from the Schedule I classification that previously made it federally illegal to grow hemp without a specific license. This now allows American farmers to once again cultivate the crop for commercial use, and gives America the chance to fully participate in this booming industry once again.
In fact, some industry experts believe that the global industrial hemp market will balloon to an estimated worth of around $10.6 billion by 2025. With extreme numbers like that, it’s high time the federal government cashed in on one of America’s most profitable crops.
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