The History of Hemp in America

Uncovering the Contested History of Hemp in the United States


If you were to google that phrase, “what is hemp” you will most likely be overwhelmed by the number of websites that attempt to make the same point: that while hemp and cannabis are very similar, they are in fact very different--especially in the eyes of the law. With all of this information out there, it can be hard to understand just what makes hemp different from its illegal counterpart, marijuana. While the modern discourse around hemp and cannabis is undoubtedly making its way into the mainstream with the rise of CBD products, we want to get to the root of this debate by looking to the past, specifically 1937, the year the government made marijuana and hemp simultaneously illegal.


Wait, What is Hemp?


While this history of hemp is important, you may be asking yourself  “wait, so what exactly is hemp?” Hemp is one of many varieties of the cannabis plant, and it is also referred to as “industrial hemp.” This means that it is non-psychoactive, and contains less than 1% THC. So, while hemp and marijuana come from the same species of cannabis they are very different from one another when looking at chemical makeup, cultivation, and use. So while hemp and marijuana come from the same type of plant, they are not the same. However, despite the fact that hemp and marijuana have very different uses, historically they have been lumped together when it comes to legality.


Taking a Walk Down Memory Lane: The History of Hemp


Hemp may be making headlines today, but it has been a staple crop throughout history, and it has played a large role in the early industry of the United States--the Declaration of Independence was even drafted on paper made from hemp. However, in 1937 the United States essentially made the possession and transfer of marijuana illegal through imposing an excise tax on all sales of hemp. This leads us to the simple question: why was hemp illegal if it played such a central role in the industrial and economic fabric of the United States? More importantly, if hemp does not have psychoactive properties, why was it outlawed with marijuana?


The simple answer to this question seems to lie in the logic that they are just too similar—due to both their biological make up, and their strikingly similar appearance in plant form. While the Marihuana Tax act of 1937 is widely known for being passed with the intent to levy a tax on hemp products and the commercialized sale of cannabis, it is also one of the first instances in which the government acknowledged the new drug that was known as “marihuana.” While the act was ultimately aimed at quashing the recreational use of marijuana, due to the lack of clear knowledge surrounding THC and the clear differences between hemp and marijuana, industrial hemp became an unintentional casualty of the act. More importantly, while this act was a stepping stone towards the eventual criminalization of marijuana, one might also see this as the moment that changed our perception of hemp as an industrial and commercial commodity.



Breaking the Stigma


While hemp and marijuana are indeed closely related from a biological perspective, it seems to be widely misunderstood that hemp is in fact quite different from marijuana. More importantly, despite the clear attempts to distance industrial hemp from the hot debate around cannabis and marijuana legality, it has been difficult to achieve true separation. While we know hemp was essentially made illegal due to its close biological ties to the psychoactive drug, marijuana, it seems to have had a hard time shaking off that legacy despite the fact that it has since been legalized. In order to fully differentiate hemp and marijuana let’s look at a few common--and legal--uses of hemp!



While hemp has many industrial uses, it can also be used in cooking, and hemp seeds are known for their health benefits, as they are high in essential fatty and amino acids. The hemp seed can be consumed in many ways, and can be eaten just like any other nut or seed. Many have even used hemp seeds in salad oils, smoothies, granolas, and some have even used them in baking. However, this is not an exhaustive list, there are many creative ways to implement hemp seeds into your diet! 


Beauty Products:

Beyond the nutritional benefits of hemp seeds, hemp has also been used in products like candles, body lotions, and essential oils. Due to the EFA content, hemp oil has proven to be a wonderful remedy for dry or cracked skin.


Industrial Materials:

While hemp has proven to have many restorative properties that benefit the human body, it is also widely used in industrial materials like plastics, paper, and fabrics. More importantly, hemp has been proven to be a highly sustainable material that is not only effective, but is also very environmentally friendly.


In Conclusion


Despite the fact that hemp has been very closely associated with marijuana in the past, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the only reason it was ever designated as illegal stems from a lack of knowledge about how and why hemp is different from marijuana. A task that was made increasingly difficult due to the fact that hemp bears a strong resemblance to marijuana in plant form. Moreover, while hemp was ultimately declared legal, many misconceptions about the use of hemp arise from the stigma of being outlawed under the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. But, more importantly, after many years, hemp is finally being recognized as not only legal, but also a nutritious superfood that has made its way in to the kitchen of many homes.


Written by:

Emma Newton

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