Botanists agree there are some 390,000+ different species of plants on Planet Earth. None have been so controversial and taken on such a nefarious identity quite like cannabis. It’s been blacklisted for more than a hundred years because the buds of the female cannabis plant contain tetrahydrocannabinol. THC is a psychoactive agent that produces a high in people who smoke or ingest the dried bud (marijuana). The cannabis plant is also the source for industrial hemp. It’s a strong natural fibre that has many, many positive industrial applications. Go back beyond that last hundred years and the history of hemp and marijuana is different. It includes much more moderate – and sensical – views on both of these offerings from the cannabis plant.
Let’s take a look at the history of hemp today. Hopefully this opens a few eyes towards how cannabis’ ill repute is largely undeserved.
We’ll start with the history of hemp. Hemp and marijuana couldn’t be any more different despite the fact they’re products of the same plant. Hopefully nothing more needs to be said than hemp, unlike marijuana, typically never has anything more than .03% THC content. This makes it effectively useless as any type of psychoactive / narcotic substance. It has great use potential for producing cleaner fuel for motors, and making biodegradable plastics and environmentally-friendly textiles. Hemp products can be recycled, reused, and are 100% biodegradable at all times.
Alright, enough about that – onto the history of hemp, after which we’ll talk about ‘weed’ and the first recorded use of marijuana among other things.
Accompanying Agricultural Beginnings
Hemp is one of the first and oldest known human agriculture crops. Carbon tests suggest the history of hemp use dates back as far as 8000 BC. Hemp was cultivated in China and Mesopotamia as early as 4000 BC, and then also seen in Africa, Russia, and India in later times. One of the more notable points in the history of hemp is when King Henry the 8th of England decreed that one quarter acre of every 60 acres of tilled land was to be used for hemp crops. If plot owners did not follow his orders, they were fined.
As far as the history of hemp here in North America is concerned, the British began cultivating hemp in Canadian colonies in 1606. The first Pilgrims to the U.S. were growing it as early as 1632. In 1637 the Court of Massachusetts made it official that all families in the colony were required to plant one teaspoon of hemp seeds in their plots so that the community would have all they required for linen cloth. There and in other early U.S. colonies, hemp was so valuable it was even used to pay taxes. United States founding father George Washington grew it enthusiastically in his own garden.
Unfortunately, the history of hemp took a turn thereafter. It fell into disfavour in both the USA and Canada in the first half of the 20th century because it posed an economic threat to the timber (paper) and petrochemical industries, and to a lesser extent the cotton industry. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was the start of the history of the hemp plant getting darker as it was soon forced into obscurity and people became unaware of all the potential it had as a textile and fuel crop. It made it illegal to produce any type of plant that was part of the cannabis family. This was lifted temporarily for the 2nd World War, but the prohibition was reinstated immediately following it.
Then, in 1961, another milestone in the history of hemp was the United Nations drafting the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs that began universally coordinated efforts to control the use of any substance they arbitrarily deemed to be a narcotic. Industrial hemp was included in those substances, and the reasoning was that it was from the cannabis plant. Industrial hemp continues to be a controlled substance to this day. It is bunched in there with heroin, cocaine, and other very harmful drugs, all despite the fact that its almost nonexistent THC content makes it impossible for you to get ‘high’ from it in any way whatsoever.
In more recent years there has been more positive developments in the history of hemp. In 1998 the Canadian Government brought in legislation that allowed for legal planting and processing of industrial hemp while ensuring strict regulations through Health Canada. Farmers were now able to grow it for food, fibre manufacturers could process it, and exporters were allowed to ship finished products containing hemp fibres outside of the country.
Since 2009 most of the focus with hemp production has been to supply food production and processing interests, and most of the hemp food products produced in Canada are exported to the United States. All the while the U.S. DEA continues to keep their history of hemp very different, with industrial hemp still being illegal via the country’s Controlled Substances Act. In recent years there have been rumblings against this in states like Tennessee and Kentucky where the tobacco industry is faltering and there is a wish for a new viable crop.
Marijuana Over 1,000+ Years
The history of hemp has been different from that of marijuana, but both have been painted with the same brush. The first recorded use of marijuana is up for debate, but one solid argument is made for 800 BC. That’s when ancient Hindu text spoke of something called ‘Bhang”. Bhang was dried cannabis leaves, seeds, and stems smoked for their ability to heighten one’s spiritual and existential awareness.
How weed was discovered hasn’t been exactly determined. However, it’s safe to assume that it arose out of interest in smoking. Probably in much the same way tobacco leaves were discovered.
Again for the first recorded use of marijuana, there are records from 300 BC of a young woman in Jerusalem being given medicinal marijuana during childbirth. Greek physicians were also prescribing it around this same time and the Chinese were using marijuana extracts as an anaesthetic. Although there was plenty of history in between the first recorded use of marijuana and the 18th century, that’s where we’re going to fast forward to now. We’ll also leave the question of how weed was discovered up for debate.
In the late 18th century medical marijuana began being sold at dispensaries in the Northeastern United States, and by the start of the 19th century marijuana plantations were flourishing in New York, California, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Nebraska, and Kentucky. Marijuana and hashish were enjoyed by people of all different socio-economic levels. None of them were engaging in any type of criminal or degenerate behaviour. In 1850 the U.S. Pharmacopeia had cannabis added to it. From then until 1925 marijuana use across the U.S. was common. It was a medicinal drug and that was easily purchased at both pharmacies and general stores.
Recreational use of marijuana became more common and widespread following the Mexican Revolution in 1910. That’s because the many Mexican immigrants who moved to America introduced recreational smoking of marijuana to the American public. Unfortunately, 4 years later the Harrison Act defined the use of marijuana as a crime. Between 1915 and 1927 cannabis began to be prohibited for nonmedical use. California was the first State to prohibit it in 1915. However, the prohibition of alcohol in 1919 made marijuana an attractive intoxicant alternative. Use of it increased despite its illegality.
Before the Marijuana Tax Act was passed in 1937, Dr. William C. Woodward advised Congress that he represented the American Medical Association’s belief that ‘there is no evidence of marijuana being a dangerous drug.’ He added further that their investigations were in fact showing that there is substantial medical use potential for cannabis. His suggestions were ignored, and marijuana continued to be illegal. Unfortunately, the history of both hemp and marijuana has been characterized by close-mindedness and willful ignorance.
Things started to change in 1970. NORML (National Organization for the Reformation of Marijuana Laws) was formed, and the U.S. Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act repealed mandatory penalties for drug offences. Marijuana was also now categorized separately from other narcotics. In 1972 the Senate overruled the Shafer Commission’s recommendation that recreational use of marijuana be decriminalized. California voted down Proposition 19 to legalize marijuana by a 2/3 vote.
Positive developments were first seen in 1996, when California becomes the first state to re-legalize medical marijuana. Arizona followed suit later the same year. In 2012, Washington and Colorado became the first States to legalize marijuana for recreational use, and other states have done the same since. In 2003 Canada became the first nation to approve medical marijuana in Canada across the entire country, and legalization of marijuana for recreational use will come into effect on October 17th of this year.