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The American Arrival

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USS ConstitutionIt is hard to believe that there were times in history when hemp was such a significant economic crop that farmers were punished for NOT cultivating it. Its highly regarded status in England and Europe was a most influencing factor for its arrival into the Americas, along with its continued cultivation throughout Colonial America.

During the reign of England’s King Henry VIII in 1535, hemp cultivation was the law of the land and farmers had to set a portion of their acreage for hemp, otherwise, they would be fined. Henry mandated hemp cultivation to make rope, sails, nets and other naval equipment because it was the fiber of choice for maritime uses due to its natural decay and salt resistance and its adaptability to cultivation. Each warship and merchant vessel required miles of hemp line and tons of hemp canvas, which meant the Crown’s hunger for the commodity was great. Ship captains were ordered to disseminate hemp seed far and wide to provide fiber wherever repairs might be needed in distant lands.

At that time in history, England was a black sheep among European countries because of the Reformation – England’s split from the Catholic Church (the Brexit of today). To prevent another European kingdom from forcing England back into the fold, Henry assembled one of the world’s first professional navies.

The threat of invasion slowly became a reality under the reign of Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I, who faced war with Spain—the global superpower of the 16th century, so Elizabeth ordered even more hemp to be grown and made the penalties for breaking that law even stiffer. Henry’s and Elizabeth’s preparations paid off in 1588, when England’s hemp-outfitted ships destroyed the Spanish Armada. So, in an alternate history, Spanish might be the official language throughout North America if it were not for the hemp plant.

Hemp arrived in the Americas with the early colonists as early as 1606, when farmers first began to grow the coveted plant. Their need for it was for far more than just maritime uses. It was used to make paper, rope, clothing, canvas, fuel for lamps, and other retail goods. By the mid-1600s, hemp had become an important part of the economy in New England, and south to Maryland and Virginia, but much of the processed fiber was exported back to the motherland. By the 1700s, American farmers were not only patriotically compelled to grow it but were legally required to grow it as a staple crop. While America remained under Britain’s control hemp was considered legal tender and could be used to pay taxes.

Hemp crops quickly spread and arrived in Kentucky with settlers from Virginia just prior to the Revolutionary War. These settlers set the stage for what would become one of the most important and long-standing hemp industries in America.

Americas founding fathers George Washington grew hemp and encouraged all citizens to sow it widely and Thomas Jefferson bred improved hemp varieties and invented a special machine for crushing the plant’s stems during fiber processing. The first drafts of the Declaration of Independence were penned on hemp paper.

Along with Missouri and Illinois, Kentucky farmers produced most American hemp until the late 1800s, when demand for sailcloth and cordage began to wane as steam ships dominated the seas. By the end of the Civil War, Kentucky was the only state with a significant hemp industry until World War I and remained the nation’s leading producer of hemp seed.

Although hemp was an absolute staple crop and at an all-time high by the time the 20th century rolled around, that era also saw a major change of heart in the way people viewed hemp and the cannabis plant.

Tangled up in sensationalist and racist roots, the media began to paint cannabis in a negative light during the 1930s. This was, coincidentally, a time of great national unrest in Mexico, and many immigrants were making their way to the United States, bringing along with them “marijuana.” This was America’s first introduction to the plant being used in a recreational and psychological manner, and society did not respond well to it.

While the plant had always been referred to as cannabis or hemp, the media took over the Spanish term “marijuana” and ran with it, making the plant feel as foreign, frightening and unpredictable as possible. Smoking “marijuana” became associated with hypersexuality, hallucinations, and even murder, as portrayed in the 1936 exploitation film Reefer Madness. Directed by Louis J. Gasnier, the film’s purpose was to terrify parents and demonize a plant that had been used safely and resourcefully for several centuries and millenniums—and it worked.

In 1937, the U.S. government passed the Marijuana Tax Act, which added a licensing and taxing system that greatly hindered hemp farmers and made it costly and difficult to produce the plant. Synthetic fibers emerged around the same time, making it that much easier for manufacturers to slowly, but surely, turn away from the increasingly stigmatized hemp. There was, however, a brief period during WWII where the U.S. was cut off from foreign exports, including hemp, and American farmers were patriotically encouraged (in a national program called “Hemp for Victory”) to produce it once again. After that short stint of acceptance, hemp quickly returned to its “outlawed” status for much of the 20th century. 

The early 21st century brought welcomed changed to the hemp industry, when the U.S. government changed the definition of hemp to a cannabis plant with a THC percentage below .3% by dry weight. This finally excluded hemp from the marijuana umbrella, allowing it to be imported and used in products once again. The passage of the 2018 Farm Bill made hemp federally legal in the U.S. and officially removed it from the Controlled Substances Act.

Today, hemp is legal to grow anywhere in the United States, with each state having its own regulations. Because of this legalization and renewed acceptance, many brands have turned to hemp for production, and we have begun to see more innovative hemp products on the market than ever before. From dog treats to lotions to skincare to beer and of course, CBD extract, hemp is being found and used in the most surprising, but effective, places.

Clothing brands, like Patagonia and Levi’s, are also beginning to return to hemp for production. Its reputation in America has come full circle, and it will be interesting to see how it is utilized over the next few decades and how narratives surrounding the plant continue to develop and evolve.

Welcome back and Helloooo Hemp!

Donna is a Horticulturist and Cannabis advocate and has lived in the Quepos area for over 13 years. She recently transplanted her business—HelloHemp!—here to serve the local community.

For more info, questions or comments:
hellohempar.com, [email protected] or 6007-7779.

One Response to “The American Arrival”

  1. Rachel Solt said:

    Thank you, Donna, for a wonderful historical look at origins of hemp! We are so happy to be offering Costa Rica the incredible healing benefits of CBD with our company Ojalá Naturals. Hello Hemp!!!