The Story of American Hemp

The story of hemp in the United States is one with many twists and turns along the way. Hemp, or industrial hemp, went from a key cash crop during the colonial and Civil War era to one that was eventually maligned and outlawed. In recent times, however, hemp has staged a comeback. With the recent signing of federal law known as the Hemp Farming Act of 2018, hemp has come full circle, back to being an important agricultural crop. Its future looks bright, and Americans can’t seem to get enough of the key component derived from hemp: CDB, or cannabidiol. 

Hemp & Hemp’s U.S. History

Hemp is useful. Industrial hemp is used in over 50,000 product applications, by some estimates. It was one of the first plants used for its fibers, with evidence that it was spun into textiles upwards of 10,000 years ago. It is used to make paper, clothes, biodegradable plastics, animal feed, insulation and rope, amongst many other products.  

Its wide range of uses made it one of the earliest crops introduced by the Spanish into the New World. As far back as 1545, Spanish colonists planted and harvested hemp in modern-day Mexico and Chile. From there it spread.

By 1630 it had made its way to New England. George Washington grew it at Mount Vernon and even considered replacing his tobacco fields with hemp as it could have been a more lucrative crop. Hemp was the main material used for making paper during this time, and even up until the 1880s between 75% and 90% of all paper was made from hemp.

It was hemp paper that was used to draft the Declaration of Independence. There is an old urban myth that the final version was written on hemp, though it was in fact parchment. But hemp was used for the first and second drafts of the Declaration.  You don’t get more American than that. 

Kentucky was the traditional centre of hemp production. In 1917 there were some 18,000 acres of land in Kentucky used to grow hemp. But soon thereafter, fortune began to turn against the plant.

The anti-cannabis hysteria claimed hemp as collateral damage. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 made it extremely hard to farm hemp, though it was repealed during the Second World War because of the necessity for this versatile and useful crop.

Hemp itself is a strain of cannabis that doesn’t produce high levels of the psychoactive substance tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. Though hemp, by definition contains less than 0.3% THC, the War on Drugs during the 1960s and 1970s effectively banned its cultivation.

By the 1990s there were some small efforts to roll back this earlier regulation. There was renewed interest in the industrial application of hemp, and this sparked a growing pro-hemp lobby.

In 1996, California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana. The pro-cannabis and pro-hemp movement grew together and expanded into many different states.

In 2014, there was a massive change with the Agricultural Act of 2014 that removed federal restrictions on industrial hemp, letting states which legalized it study the possible benefits of the plant.

Modern Day Hemp

In 2018, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader and Senator from Kentucky, signed, with a hemp pen, the Hemp Farming Act (HFA). The HFA made it legal throughout the nation to farm hemp with certain restrictions. It removed hemp, with less than 0.3% THC, from regulation under the Controlled Substances Act. The act was signed into law by President Donald Trump, as part of the 2018 Farm Bill on December 20, 2018. Hemp was back and consumers have welcomed its return.

The United States is now the third largest producer of hemp worldwide. With already 78,000 acres of land in 24 states being used for hemp production, it lags only behind China and Canada, in first and second place, respectively.

Hemp cultivation, production, and processing will undoubtedly keep growing. Interest in the positive effects of cannabidiol, or CBD, is widespread. It is used for pain relief, to treat anxiety and depression, and much more. It has found its way into chocolate bars and drinks, though not yet (August 2019) FDA approved. Remember, CBD derived from hemp is legal and it does not have the psychoactive effect on the user that cannabis containing higher amounts of THC does.

Twenty-four states already have some form of hemp industry. The nascent industry was worth $1.1 billion in 2018. In 2022, that’s expected to grow to $2.6 billion. The legalization of hemp cultivation is predicted to bring with it tens of thousands of jobs, from very high skilled managerial and executive staff right down to manual labor jobs out in the fields.

Under the 2018 Farm Bill states must submit a state plan to start growing hemp. The plan must keep track of and keep THC levels down. Only eight states do not have a plan in place for legal hemp growing. With the economic boom promised by reintroducing hemp production, it will not be long before all states have their own hemp industry.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed Georgia’s own Hemp Farming Act into law in May, 2019.  Under this act, the Georgia Department of Agriculture is tasked with promulgating rules and regulations for the industrial growth and processing of hemp crops.  Even the University of Georgia will play a pivotal role, devoting research to best practices within the hemp industry.

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