In fact, growing hemp is often associated with the birth of agriculture. According to astronomer Carl Sagan, hemp may have been the world’s first agricultural crop, leading to the development of civilization itself. Hemp was probably the earliest plant cultivated for textile fiber. Archaeologists found a remnant of hemp cloth in ancient Mesopotamia (currently Iran and Iraq) which dates back to 8,000 BC. Hemp is also believed to be the oldest example of human industry. In the Lu Shi, a Chinese work of the Sung dynasty (500 AD), we find reference to the Emperor Shen Nung (28th century BC) who taught his people to cultivate hemp for cloth. It is believed that hemp made it to Europe in approximately 1,200 BC. From there, it spread throughout the ancient world.
Hemp plants are exceptionally versatile. Both the seeds and oil were used for food in China as early as 6,000 BC. Two thousand years later, in 4,000 BC, there is evidence of textiles made from hemp used in both China and Turkestan. In 850, the Vikings transported hemp rope and seeds to Iceland, and by the year 900, Arabs were learning techniques for making paper from hemp. By 1000 AD, the Italians were using ropes made of hemp on their sailing ships.
Stories about the health properties of hemp mention Greek philosophers, Herodotus, Napoleon and other legendary figures. The physician for Nero’s army included hemp in his medical inventory. In 1563, the health benefits of hemp were discussed in a report by Portuguese physician Garcia da Orta.
Hemp arrived in Colonial America with the Puritans in the form of seed for planting and as fiber in the lines, sails and caulking of the Mayflower. British sailing vessels were never without a store of hemp seed, and Britain’s colonies were compelled by law to grow hemp.
Hemp was the fiber of choice because of its natural decay resistance and its adaptability to cultivation. Each warship and merchant vessel required miles of hempen line and tons of hempen canvas, which meant the Crown’s hunger for the commodity was great. Ship captains were ordered to disseminate hemp seed widely to provide fiber wherever repairs might be needed in distant lands.
By the mid-1600s, hemp had become an important part of the economy in New England, and south to Maryland and Virginia. The Colonies produced cordage, cloth, canvas, sacks and paper from hemp during the years leading up to the Revolutionary War. Ironically, the first drafts of the Declaration of Independence were penned on hemp paper.
Where did all of that hemp fiber come from? It came from the hemp fields of patriotic Revolutionary War-era farmers who originally grew the fibrous crop for the British Crown. Strong fibers formed strong nations in the pre-industrial age, and hemp was strategically important during the Revolutionary War. In fact, hemp fiber was so important that farmers were compelled by patriotic duty to grow it, and were allowed to pay taxes with it.
Early in the 20th century, companies began developing chemicals that were used in the processing of paper. For example, American chemist and industrialist Éleuthère Irénée du Pont was a leader in the chemical development of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers for the cotton industry. These chemicals were not necessary for hemp, as cotton uses much more chemical processing to convert the plant's yield to useful fibers.
Meanwhile, DuPont’s close associate, William Randolph Hearst invested in timber and mills to produce paper for his newspapers. His investment in timber was backed by Mellon Bank, which also backed DuPont. Andrew Mellon, the owner of the Mellon Bank, also happened to be Secretary of Treasury at the time. Shortly after prohibition ended, Mellon created the Bureau of Narcotics and made his nieces’ husband Henry Anslinger the commissioner. During this same time, new machinery was being developed to make hemp processing easier and more efficient. This was bad news for the chemical, timber and petroleum industries, which meant bad news for DuPont, Hearst and Mellon. Anslinger heard rumors about Mexican immigrants smoking the flowers of the sister plant to hemp, marijuana. Anslinger saw the opportunity to cement himself and Mellon’s agenda.
Through the use of Hearst’s newspaper empire, the largest in the nation, numerous articles about the evils of marijuana were printed. Stories of immigrants violently attacking women and children under the influence were spreading. Seventy-five years before the internet, the plan worked. In 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act was passed. Anslinger justified the inclusion of hemp into this bill, as he described it would be “impossible for my agents to tell the difference.” DuPont, Hearst and Mellon breathed a sigh of relief. Instantly, the growing of hemp became illegal and would remain so for the next 77 years.
Fast forward to the present. In 2003 and 2004, the hemp industries associated sued the federal government for the right to import industrial hemp and won. In 2014, Congress passed the Agricultural Act, also known as the farm bill. This bill authorized the domestic cultivation of industrial hemp for the first time in decades, This bill, along with the explosion of interest in hemp, has led Forbes magazine to predict that the industry will grow 700% by the year 2020. This represents a multi-billion dollar opportunity for entrepreneurs with the vision to look into the future and see exactly where this amazing plant is headed.