The crop that is possibly among the very first to have been cultivated on a mass scale by humans since antiquity is making a comeback. And that has only piqued the interest of everyone in the ins and outs of the plant. In this article, we’ll take a look at the origin, growth, and popularisation (and un-popularisation) of hemp through time.
Hemp is perhaps the most versatile plant known to mankind. It is a variety of the cannabis Sativa plant and is often confused with marijuana. Although it contains fairly the same ingredients as marijuana, given that they are both varieties of the same plant, the concentration of the psychoactive compound (THC) in hemp is much lower and, therefore, causes no psychoactive effects on the human body.
We cultivate Hemp particularly for the industrial uses of the products derived from the plant. Typically found in the Northern Hemisphere, Hemp is among the first fibres to be spun into fabric. Owing to the technological inventions, hemp today is refined into a varied range of commercial items such as paper, clothing, textiles, paint, insulation feed, and many more.
The Origin of Hemp & Early Uses
Hemp originated in Central Asia. The cultivation of hemp for use as fibre was recorded in China back in 2800 BCE. It then spread to the Mediterranean countries of Europe in the early Christian era, spreading to the rest in the Middle Ages. In 1500, Chile started planting hemp and a decade later, North America was involved in the hemp cultivation too.
The earliest evidence of hemp usage is traced all the way back to 8,000 BC in Taiwan where hemp cords were a prime ingredient in pottery. If archaeology reports are to be believed, traces of hemp cloth were found in Mesopotamia around a similar time period.
It was around 6,000 BC that hemp seeds and oil were being used as a food source in China and in 4,000 BC, evidence of hemp textiles was found in the same region. Around the same time, hemp served as a warfare tool in China.
Beyond Food and Fashion
The first 4,000 years of the history of hemp indicate that the various uses of the plant were limited almost exclusively to China and some parts of the Middle East. Moving forward to 200 BC, China invented its first hemp-based paper. This was established by crushing the hemp fibres, mixing them with bark, and adding water. The oldest documents written on hemp paper are Buddhist text from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.
Though China kept this invention hidden for until the 5th century, it eventually found its way to other cultures, the true value coming on when it became a part of the Gutenberg Bible—the world’s most expensive, and most translated, book.
Once the plant caught the eye of the American entrepreneurs, a different door into the hemp industry was opened. Hemp was the second most commonly used material in making boats. While this was happening, China continued to use the plant and its various ingredients for curing a multitude of illnesses and as a source of nutrition. Multiple folk remedies and ancient medicines refer to the curative values of the leaves, seeds, and roots of the hemp plant. In ancient times, hemp seeds and flowers were recommended for difficult childbirth, rheumatism, insomnia, arthritic joints, and convulsions.
During the Middle Ages
Moving on to the middle ages, hemp became an important crop of great economic and social value. It served much of the world’s need for food and fibre. Owing to thrice the strength of cotton and resistance to saltwater hemp ropes found popularity in sailing ships. Up to the 1920s, 80% of the world’s clothing was made of hemp.
Popularity and Trade Organisation
It was only a matter of time before the crop would spread to regions across the world and find its way into every aspect of life. In 1994, forty companies met in Arizona to form the Hemp Industries Association. The aim of this faculty was to promote hemp and define product standards. This was very similar to the trade organisations promoting cotton, wool, and linen.
Eventually, hemp became the most versatile crop with its use in food, tax-payment, clothing, and whatnot.
Crisis for Hemp
The main crisis for hemp arose in the 1930s. This was because of the propaganda created by companies entrusted in new petroleum-based synthetic textile companies. They saw the hemp industry as the enemy. The US government, under their influence, proposed prohibitive tax laws and levied an occupational excise tax on hemp dealers. This was in September 1937 following which the production of hemp was banned altogether. The Canadian government followed suit and prohibited the production under the Opium and Narcotics Act on August 1, 1938.
The rest of the world followed soon after. Eventually, hemp was scheduled as a narcotic drug and its production, trade, and consumptions were either prohibited or highly governed by strict guidelines.
Hemp for Victory Campaign
The Hemp for Victory campaign is perhaps one major movement in the history of hemp that deserves special mention. Hemp plant played a crucial role for the US in the Second World War. World War II provided a new chance for the revival of the hemp industry.
The 1942 Japanese invasion of the Philippines cut the United States off from their major source of imported hemp. To meet the demands of the war, the governments of Canada and the United States lifted the bans and restrictions. Multiple farmers were given a special permit to grow hemp during the war period. The United States Department of Agriculture released a film titled Hemp for Victory in the same year. The film stated “patriotic farmers at the government’s request planted 36,000 acres of hemp seed, an increase of several thousand percent. The goal for 1943 is 50,000 acres of hemp seed.”
The agenda of the film was to encourage farmers to grown hemp for the war effort. It featured a short history of hemp and hemp products. And a quick manual on how hemp is grown and processed into rope, cloth, cordage, and other products.
The Curse Continued
Though hemp contributed to the victory of the United States in the Second World War, the ban on growing this plant continued after the war. Its association with marijuana cursed it to suffer the fate of a narcotic drug. Despite its strong commercial record, it couldn’t convince the Controlled Substances Act to make a distinction between hemp and marijuana. Industrial hemp was labelled as a Schedule 1 drug, its cultivation and use strictly prohibited.
Hemp’s Storied PastBefore we discuss the rather recent renaissance of industrial hemp, let’s briefly tour through its past.
The Agricultural Revolution, Antiquity, and Postclassical Era:
- 8000 BCE: the first clear signatures of hemp’s entrance in human lives in the form of cords imprinted on ancient pottery shards from China and Taiwan and hemp cloth from ancient Mesopotamia.
- 2000 BCE – 800 BCE: Hemp moves easts to Korean Peninsula and Japan and south towards the Indian subcontinent. The compilers of Atharvaveda anoint cannabis as sacred grass. By 1200 BCE, the plant was prevalent in ancient Egypt.
- 800 BCE – 200 BCE: Hemp reaches across Asia, North Africa, and the eastern Mediterranean. The Scythians from Central Asia bring cannabis to modern-day Germany around 800 BCE and by 200 BCE, the Greeks are advocating the plant’s curative properties.
- 200 BCE – 500: Chinese make hemp paper.
- 500-1000: Hemp spreads to the far ends of modern-day Europe. The Moorish invasion brings hemp to the Iberian Peninsula. By 1000, hemp is the first choice for ropes and cordages from southern Russia, Greece, Spain to the British Isles.
- 1000 – 1450: Hemp traces a route into sub-Saharan Africa.
The Early-Modern Era and the Colonial Period:
- 1492: Hemp fibre is used to make sails and ropes of Christopher Columbus’s ships.
- 1533: England notes the commercial potential of hemp and mandates the English farmers to grow the profitable crop.
- 1606 – 1616: Early American farmers put hemp to use in varied roles—rigging of their ships to lamp fuel.
- 1632 – 1700: Hemp’s value to the economy is deemed essential and by the end of the century, farmers all across the colonies are legally required to grow hemp as a staple crop.
The 20th Century:
- 1937: Hemp is caught in the crosshairs with marijuana. The American Congress passes the Marijuana Tax Act levying heavy taxes on all cannabis varieties including hemp.
- 1942 – 1945: Japan’s invasion of the Philippine Island cuts America off from its primary source of imported hemp. The Hemp for Victory campaign begins and the ban from hemp production and cultivation is lifted.
- 1970: Hemp is classified as a Schedule 1 Drug and its cultivation and use across America are prohibited.
Future of Hemp or Hemp for Future?
After decades of legal purgatory, hemp’s potential benefits—in commerce and medicine—make a renewed comeback. The world witnesses a rising wave of grassroots and political support for industrial hemp.
- 1998: the government can no longer ignore the increasing domestic demand for hemp products and thus lifts restrictions on the import of food-grade hemp.
- 2004: The Hemp Industries Association manages to convince the 9th U.S. Circuit Court for a verdict that puts permanent protections in place for domestic imports and sales for hemp-based food and baby-care products.
- 2007: The first American Hemp permit is issued in over 5 decades.
- 2014: The much famous, Farm Bill is passed that allows state agriculture departments and research institutes to oversee pilot research programs for hemp cultivation.
- 2017: In 3 years of the passing of the Farm Bill, more than 25,000 acres of American hemp being grown by nearly 15,000 farmers across 19 states is reported. At the same time, more than 30 different research institutions are involved in hemp research.
Where is India in the picture?
Cannabis has been considered one of the five holy plants in Hinduism since before the compilation of Atharvaveda. In local linguistics, cannabis is lexicalised as charas (resin), ganja (flower), and bhang (seeds and leaves). The cannabis Sativa plant is one of the many plants that were used to prepare soma in the Vedic period. The plant and its many therapeutic benefits have been praised in the Rigveda, the Atharvaveda, the Ayurvedic texts, and the tantric texts.
A Wave of Change
Things for Indian hemp changed when in 1798, the British Parliament enacted a tax on cannabis as an attempt to reduce cannabis consumption. While these attempts were mooted and continued in 1838, 1871, and 1877, and mooted again, it was in 1961 that the international treaty Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs classed cannabis with hard drugs. When the Indian delegation opposed to this, the treaty laid out a strict definition of cannabis and India agreed to limit the export of Indian hemp.
The treaty gave India a time period of 25 years to clamp down on recreational drugs. By the end of this period, the Indian Government passed the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985 which banned the production and sale of cannabis resin and flowers but allowed the use of leaves and seeds asking the states to regulate the latter.
An attempt to re-legalise cannabis in India was made in 2015 by the Great Legalisation Movement India. The idea of decriminalising cannabis in India for industrial and medicinal purposes was supported by multiple ministers.
However, among these restrictions, the National Policy on NDPS continued to recognise cannabis as a source of biomass and fibre. The cultivation of cannabis for industrial and horticultural use is legal in India.
In July 2019, the Delhi High Court agreed to hear a petition filed by the Great Legalisation Movement Trust challenging the ban on cannabis defining its grouping with other drugs under the NDPS Act as “arbitrary, unscientific, and unreasonable.”
What lies beyond the 21st century?
After what can be called an interesting history, hemp appears to be on the verge of making a comeback in human lives even more extensively than before. Throughout the times, hemp has had more than 25,000 diverse uses. These range from paints, printing inks, paper, banknotes, food, textile, canvas to building and insulation material.
With the advancements of technological inventions, these uses of hemp are being further deepened. New areas of hemp employment are being unearthed. Today, hemp can successfully be used in composite boards, motor vehicle brake, clutch pads, fuels, bio-diesels, plastics, and even accessories. While the world is in belief history never repeats itself, it might want to remind itself that it does rhyme. The way that the hemp market has been growing, it appears that not only a few countries but the entire world is soon to be engulfed in this wonderful crop.