History of Hemp in the U.S.

History of Hemp in the U.S.

Hemp has a long and rich history in the United States. It was one of the most important crops grown in the Colonial Era and had a major role in the development of America. Industrial hemp was overshadowed and eventually banned during the 20th century, but is once again legal in the US and exploding in popularity. History of Hemp in the U.S. 

Hemp Arrives in America

As mentioned in the previous blog, History of Hemp Around the World, many scholars believe that hemp was used in the New World before the arrival of Christopher Columbus.  More specifically, experts have confirmed that the Vikings brought hemp to North America long before the first Jamestown settlers and the Pilgrims arrived, and explorer Jacques Cartier described hemp growing prolifically across North America in the 16th century. 

In 1606 the first English settlers arrived in what would later become the United States of America. Because of how prolific hemp was throughout Europe, these Jamestown settlers were already very familiar with both the cultivation and important uses of the crop. Industrial hemp quickly became one of the most popular and vital crops grown throughout the colonies. Hemp was used for food, fiber, fuel for lamps,  rope, fabric, netting, and paper. By the end of the 17th century hemp was so important to these settlements, that farmers across the colonies were legally required to grow hemp or they would face a fine. 

Hemp and Early America

The Industrial hemp plant played a large role in Early America. Many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp and recognized its importance.  Thomas Jefferson once stated, “Hemp is of first necessity to the wealth and protection of the country.” 

Hemp found its way into some of the most important symbols of the new country. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were both drafted on hemp paper. Some historians claim that the earliest versions of the flag were created by Betsy Ross on hemp fabric. Hemp was so important during this time that it was recognized as a form of legal tender and was used to pay taxes for almost 200 years. 

Throughout the 19th century hemp continued to be cultivated in huge amounts across America.  In 1841 Congress passed a resolution requiring the US Navy to purchase hemp from American farmers. This helped increase production and technological advances in hemp cultivation, harvesting, processing,and uses.  By the 1850s the U.S. census recognized around 8,400 hemp farms that each produced at least 2,000 acres of the crop. 

Many new uses for industrial hemp were discovered during this time. Levi Strauss made his first jeans from hemp fabric due to its durability. During the late 1890s Rudolf Diesel invented the first diesel engine. This engine was designed to run on diesel biofuel including hemp biodiesel. Hemp and other forms of the cannabis plant were also widely used for medicinal properties during this time. 

The Decline of Hemp

Despite the huge role that hemp played in the development of Early America, there were several things that contributed to the decline of hemp production in the US. Hemp is labor intensive to harvest and with the invention of the cotton gin in the late 1800s, cotton quickly became more profitable to farm.  During this time hemp was overshadowed by cotton and became a more desirable crop for many farmers. 

Between 1910 and 1920 over a million Mexicans migrated to America to escape the Mexican Revolution. Anti-Mexican sentiment began to rise and rumors based on racism and fear began to spread about violence committed when Mexicans used “locoweed.” For the first time cannabis began to be referred to as marijuana and because hemp is a genetic variant of the cannabis plant, it was often lumped in with this new negative view. By the 1930’s full “Reefer-Madness” had taken over and marjiuana and hemp were often viewed as the same dangerous drug.  

In the early part of the 20th century, major industry giants such as Hearst and DuPont sought to protect their businesses by lobbying against hemp. In 1916 the USDA published findings that hemp produced four times more paper per acre than trees. This was obviously alarming to William Hearst, the newspaper giant who also owned timber farms and paper mills.  DuPont was part of the invention of early plastics and synthetic textiles. He also created chemicals that were used for paper processing and chemicals that were used by the cotton industry. Industrial hemp was a threat to these big businesses.  

These men, and many others in the cotton industry, etc., used the fear and racism surrounding “Reefer Madness” to successfully lobby the US government to pass extremely prohibitive tax laws on all forms of cannabis. The 1937 Marihuana Tax Act  heavily taxed the hemp industry and virtually eliminated hemp cultivation and processing in America. Harry J. Anslinger, Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (the predecessor to the Drug Enforcement Administration - DEA), believed his agents would not be able to tell the difference between marijuana and hemp and promoted anti-marijuana (which by fault included anti-hemp) legislation around the world. This began the era of hemp prohibition. 

Hemp Prohibition

Once hemp cultivation became extremely difficult for American farmers, the US imported much of its hemp fiber from the Philippines. After the WWII attack on Pearl Harbor the supply of imported hemp was unavailable. The Department of Defense needed hemp for rope and other war materials, so in 1942 the USDA produced a film called “Hemp for Victory” to encourage farmers to once again grow hemp for the war effort.  The government formed the War Hemp Industries Department and actually subsidized hemp cultivation. During WWII over a million acres of hemp was grown by US farmers in the Midwest. During this time, Henry Ford created a car made from industrial hemp plastic as well! After the war, the government quietly shut down the hemp processing plants and the last commercial hemp was planted in Wisconsin in 1957. 

From the 1930s to the 1960s, the government and the public at large recognized that although both fell under the Marihuana Tax Act,  marjiuana and industrial hemp were two different varieties of the cannabis plant. In 1970 the American government passed the Controlled Substance Act. The Controlled Substance Act made all forms of cannabis illegal and a controlled substance Schedule 1 drug. The CSA did not distinguish between marijuana and industrial hemp. By failing to distinguish between the two varieties of the cannabis plant, hemp became illegal as cocaine or other drugs. 

Hemp in the 21st Century

Since the Controlled Substance Act of 1970 passed, farmers, activists, scientists, and legislatures have been fighting to have industrial hemp removed from the list of controlled substances.  The US continued importing industrial hemp for fiber and food grade hemp seed and oil during the time of prohibition. The US hemp industry was determined to bring hemp farming back to the US, and in 2004 the Ninth Circuit Court gave the industrial hemp industry it’s first judicial win in a case between the Hemp Industries Association vs DEA. The ruling permanently protected the sales of hemp food and body care products in the US.  In 2007 the first industrial hemp cultivation licenses in over 50 years were granted to two farmers in North Dakota. 

In 2014, President Obama signed the Farm Bill which allowed research institutions such as universities to begin pilot programs for hemp cultivation. This sparked the beginning of the hemp revival across America as many people began to once again look to the possibilities of hemp farming, processing and manufacturing. Finally, In December 2018, almost 50 years after hemp was made illegal, President Trump signed the Farm Bill which permanently removed industrial hemp from the Controlled Substance Act. With the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill growing, processing, manufacturing, and transporting industrial hemp became federally legal. In 2019 States began passing their own state laws regarding hemp cultivation and processing to match federal standards. Federal agencies are currently making changes to their policies regarding hemp as well. 


Industrial hemp was a major social and economic contributor to the development and prosperity of the US.  Our Founding Fathers acknowledged the importance of hemp to the American people and to the economy. During the era of prohibition racism, fear, greed, and misunderstanding lead to hemp being virtually banned and then eventually illegal throughout the US. Thanks to many activists, farmers, and legislatures the US hemp industry is now not only legal again, but it is booming. Many experts believe that the industrial hemp industry will once again have a huge economic and social impact on the US and the world. 

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