A History Of Hemp in North America

A History Of Hemp in North America

Isn’t Hemp Just Marijuana?

That is the common assumption. There is a large difference and a discrepancy in knowledge amongst it’s users. Hemp and marijuana both come from the same species: Cannabis Sativa1, they both contain THC and CBD. Think of it as an umbrella, two people are standing under the same umbrella, they are both humans, but they have many differences, Cannabis Sativa is the umbrella.

They are separate entities. Hemp plants do not flower, whereas marijuana plants do. Hemp contains very little THC and is mostly comprised of CDB, whereas marijuana varies per strain but generally contains much more of both chemicals. Hemp plants will grow very tall, fast and are durable when it comes to the elements.

How Did We Start Using It?

The discovery of these traits are what led to the use of industrial hemp 10,000 years ago2. The plant has many uses in our everyday lives, back then it's main use was to be spun into fiber. The fibre was used for cloth, rope and oakum (a plant based sealant similar to modern day caulk). The uses began to evolve, it's potential for fuel, building materials, paper, and cloth were outstanding and it's ease of growth made it a very good resource. Too good.

Hemp cultivation on a global scale was over 300,000 metric tonnes up until 1961, where it fell to 75,000 metric tonnes by the early 1990s and it has remained at that amount since3. The cause of that fall was it's criminalization. Now that we all know hemp and marijuana are two different plants, with hemp only containing a very small amount (0.3%) of THC, it seems ridiculous that it would fall into the same criminal laws as marijuana does. Well that's because it is ridiculous, hemp is an all natural, fast growing and sustainable plant. It's uses are plentiful, and the impact on the environment with its growth is minimal in comparison to the resources we ended up using instead.

How Hemp Became Criminalized Under the Same Laws as Marijuana

Restrictions on cannabis began on a local level, first in New York in 1860. Other states followed and by the 1910s and 1920s it was common state law4. In 1906 the FDA (at that time under a different name) started regulating medications that contained cannabis indica. In 1925 the U.S began to support regulation of "Indian hemp" (or industrial hemp) as use as a drug. Now regulations and restrictions are vastly different than an overt ban on a substance, especially a substance that contains next to no psychoactive chemicals. So how did we go from restrictions to a ban?

There are two assumptions made about what happened next and the reasoning for it. Mostly made by his critics, but there is nothing but anecdotal proof for either claim.

Harry J. Anslinger5 headed the Department of Prohibition at the time, when the prohibition on alcohol was still in effect he had claimed that cannabis was of no issue, did no harm, and did not cause violence in it's users. Prohibition of alcohol was repealed in 1933, however political opinions were shifting well before the repeal took place. Which meant Anslinger knew he would be out of a job once it happened. This is the first assumed cause of his actions.

A man who once claimed cannabis wasn't a cause for concern, started claiming the contrary. Gathering anecdotal evidence of cannabis causing crime and violence, Anslinger started a new fear campaign against cannabis. Prohibition didn't end in 1933, it just shifted targets, and with that cannabis saw a change in its name to what we all know it as now, Marijuana. With alcohol about to be legalized once again, there needed to be a new substance to prohibit to keep the Department of Prohibition alive. At least that's the assumption of reasoning behind why he did what he did. Anslinger soon became the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

Use of the Media to Further a Movement

Using a multitude of tactics in the media, Anslinger brought on a national anti-marijuana movement. Using yellow journalism6 (essentially clickbait but with newspapers) and "Gore Files"7 (collections of graphic quotes depicting drug users from police reports), he succeeded in his goal for support in this movement. To really play into the fear-driven public Anslinger started to use racially motivated themes in his anti-marijuana campaign, targeting jazz music/musicians, whom at the time were primarily African-American8.

Several propaganda films were produced in order to push this movement forwards. First in 1935 with "Marihuana:Assassin of Youth" followed in 1936 by "Reefer Madness" and "Marihuana: The Devil's Weed". The most well known of these films is "Reefer Madness", this film shows a man smoking marijuana and then proceeding to kill his family with an axe. However the funding for these films is where the second assumption comes into play.

Hemp being such a widely used resource was causing some disruptions in other growing industries, primarily paper. Most people assume that corporations who were projected to suffer profits due to the industrial hemp industry lined the pockets of politicians to get the ban on hemp started, however there is no concrete evidence of this.

The First Step Towards a Ban

In 1937 the Marijuana Tax Act9 was put into effect. This act imposed an occupations excise tax upon dealers in marijuana and a transfer tax in certain dealings. This act lead to the first two federal arrests for Marijuana in history, only a few months after the tax was enacted.

Now this is all American history, but we're in Canada so how did this affect us and our laws? Well just like most other things, the U.S and Canada generally influence each other.

Leaders from around the world gathered for what was known as The League of Nations. It was the first international organisation, created after the first world war, with the main purpose of maintaining world peace.

Here is where it is assumed that Canada had been informed of what was now growing concern of a "new drug" that was potentially harmful. Marijuana.

Cannabis was added to the Act to Prohibit the Improper Use of Opium and other Drugs in 192310. Industrial hemp however, was still a widely used resource for paper and cloth. Up until, not surprisingly, 1938. One year after the U.S had their taxation (which effectively criminalized the use, growth and sale) of hemp enacted, Canada followed suit but adding Cannabis Sativa cultivation to the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act, effectively banning it throughout the country in all forms11.

A Small Hope for the Future

Cannabis remain illegal in all forms for 23 years. In 1961 a limited number of experimental growers became licensed to grow hemp under Health Canada, purely for medical research purposes12. Throughout history cannabis had been used medicinally in many forms, scientifically there was little evidence however, and thankfully our government decided to do its due diligence. Industrial hemp once again became legal to grow and produce in 1998, however with the ban lasting through a majority of the 20th century, the hemp industry is still vastly behind where it should be in terms of a resource.

There we have it, a summarized history of hemp and it's criminalization. We hope that you are more informed now than when you first came across this page, and have a better understanding of the industry and why it is the way it is in its current state. We thank you for reading and progressing your knowledge in regards to this wonderful plant we should all have an appreciation for.


1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cannabis_sativa

2 Tourangeau, Wesley (2015), "Re-defining Environmental Harms: Green Criminology and the State of Canada's Hemp Industry", Canadian Journal of Criminology & Criminal Justice, 57 (4): 528–554, doi:10.3138/cjccj.2014.E11

3 Lynn Robins; et al. (July 2013). "Economic Considerations for Growing Industrial Hemp:Implications for Kentucky's Farmers and Agricultural Economy" (PDF). Department of Agricultural Economics, University of Kentucky.

4 "Senate". New York Times. New York City. February 15, 1860

5 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_J._Anslinger

6 "sensationalism". The Free Dictionary. Retrieved 21 February 2017.

7 "Victor Licata's Strange Legacy". Thursday Review. May 30, 2014. Retrieved February 12, 2016.

8 Herrer, Jack (1985). "4 & 5". The Emperor Wears No Clothes (11th ed.). USA: Ah Ha Publishing, Quick American Archives. p. 330. ISBN 0-9524560-0-1.

9 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marihuana_Tax_Act_of_1937

10 https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/health-concerns/controlled-substances-precursor-chemicals/industrial-hemp/about-hemp-canada-hemp-industry/frequently-asked-questions.html#a23

11 Textile Horizons. ITBD. 2005. p. 119.

12 "Industrial hemp now legal in Canada!". Cannabis Culture. 1 July 1998. Retrieved 12 January 2018.