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History of Hemp

Hemp has been cultivated on planet earth for over 10,000 years. It has been an important source of food and fibre with references dating back to ancient China and Mesopotamia. Applications of hemp plants evolved from simple rope and coarse woven fabric to paper and sail cloth. Hemp seed and flower tops were known to provide medical comfort from a variety of ailments during the period of 2700 BC through to Roman times.

Hemp Rope 

To set the record straight – industrial hemp is not marijuana. Both originate from the genusCannabis, but industrial hemp is defined as having 0.3% THC or less. They differ in the same respect that canola is different from rapeseed and spring wheat is different from durum wheat. They share similar characteristics but have unique traits for differentiation and application purposes.

Historically, hemp was a vital crop for North America and even in the early 1600s it was the law of the land to grow it. Early settlers produced hemp for various applications such as oil, clothing, sailcloth and rope.

Early Settlers Oil Press

Early Settlers built their own presses for crushing oilseeds such as flax and hemp. The oilseed was placed in the hole in center of the square timber. A round block was placed inside the hole overtop of the grain. Wedges at the top were hammered in which forced oil out the bottom middle hole. 

In the early 1900s, Henry Ford revolutionized the automobile industry by introducing the Model T. But Henry’s vision extended well beyond that early design break through and mass production concept. Ford envisioned a car manufactured and fueled by hemp. In the 1930s he produced a prototype of the automobile with a seemingly invincible body.

Henry Ford 1941 Prototype Car made with Hemp

 In 1938 Popular Mechanics published an article that described hemp as the “new billion dollar crop.” A billion dollars in those days was quite unimaginable by everyone regardless of their economic status. The article went on to demonstrate “over 25,000 uses for the plant ranging from dynamite to cellophane.” Hemp was coming into its own as a viable crop for North American farmers and a potential solution for literally thousands of consumer needs.

Unfortunately this article was “too little, too late.”  In 1937, The Marijuana Tax Act was passed making it illegal to produce marijuana and any plant type in association to the cannabis family. The smoking of marijuana had come to the attention of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics and President Franklin D. Roosevelt and, in spite of opposition from the American Medical Association, the act was passed and the moratorium began.

In 1942, the prohibition was briefly lifted to grant a war measures act to provide supplies of hemp for rope and canvas. Traditional supplies of jute from the Philippines had been interrupted by the Japanese invasion. At the end of World War II, the prohibition was immediately re-instituted and industrial hemp was once again an “illegal crop.”

After these laws were passed, industrial hemp was returned to Mother Nature as the custodian of the health and survival of the plant. For the next 60 years, hemp grew as a feral plant, even adopting the name “ditch weed”. The strongest varieties survived and maintained the germ plasm until the laws changed and geneticists and plant breeders stepped back in to recover the species.

In 1961, the United Nations drafted the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs outlining standards for universal coordination of the control and use of narcotic drugs, as well as international agreements on illegal activities. Industrial hemp was included in this control measure as part of the cannabis plant family. Although it was identified as an exclusion (“The Convention shall not apply to the cultivation of the cannabis plant exclusively for industrial purposes…”), the Act also spoke to the need for governments to provide adequate control measures “to prevent the misuse of, and illicit traffic in, the leaves of the cannabis plant.” From that point until today, industrial hemp is considered to be a Controlled Substance along with heroin, cocaine and a host of barbiturates and psychotropic substances.

In 1998, the Canadian Government provided enabling legislation allowing for the planting and processing of industrial hemp, but it remains highly regulated and monitored by Health Canada. For the first time in 60 years, farmers were able to grow it for food, fibre manufacturers were able to process it and exporters were able to ship processed products outside Canadian borders.

Increased producer interest in industrial hemp production began to build momentum once again in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 2005 and 2006, supply exceeded demand and large unsold carry-overs dictated a severe drop in production in subsequent years. False starts such as this are typical in the development phase of a new crop. Currently production contracts and supply management has help stabilize the industry. 

Historical Licensed Canadian Hemp Acres. Source: Health Canada

Initially, the Canadian market focus was on the development of hemp varieties to fill demand from the fibre sector. Production spiked above 30,000 acres in response to pledged opportunities in the market, but processors failed to execute on their contracts and many growers were left with unsold grain and fibre. This was a rocky start for the resurgence of the hemp industry and it left many farmers with a bad experience and financial losses. 

Since 2009, the focus of hemp production has been driven by the demand for its nutritious food value and processing. The climb in consumer demand has resulted in a more reliable growth trend and product uptake. There is now some balance between supply and demand in Canada with an exceptional outlook for the future and an exciting growth trend taking place.

Exports of processed hemp seed and by-products (oil and protein powder) have experienced the same strong growth trend over the past decade. The United States remains the largest single food market for Canadian industrial hemp production but processed products are being shipped to over thirty different countries worldwide.

What is important is the fact that hemp is still viewed as a Controlled Substance in both the United States and Canada. This status is a significant impediment to the expansion of the industry and efforts are needed to revise the situation.

Hemp in the United States

In the United States, it is still illegal to grow industrial hemp for commercial purposes. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) remains strongly opposed to the importation of viable hemp seed citing the Controlled Substances Act. This stance is frustrating the production of industrial hemp even though the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill, Section 7606, explicitly states that industrial hemp is approved for research by state agriculture departments and universities.

But individual state governments are at odds with the DEA and are aggressively supporting the research and varietal development in their respective states to inject economic activity and commerce. Replacing the shrinking tobacco industry is high on the agenda for states like Kentucky and Tennessee.

An unfortunate and distracting aspect to the renaissance of industrial hemp is the attachment to this progress by medical and recreational marijuana users. Their efforts to cloud the differences between the two plants in order to capitalize on the growth in the food and fibre sector is frustrating and damaging to industrial hemp. Both plants are experiencing varying levels of liberalization and recognition at U.S. state and individual country levels globally. It’s a confusing and exciting time in the history and evolution of the cannabis plant and one that will take time and effort to reach wide consumer and regulatory acceptance. But industrial hemp has far too much to offer and it will continue to reinstate itself as a viable and staple crop in North America.