In 2018, congress passed the newest version of the Farm Bill—a New Deal era piece of legislation designed to stimulate and protect the American agricultural economy. Since its inception in 1933, the Farm Bill has gone through many different changes. Because the bill must be updated and renewed every five years, politicians are able to address the concerns of modern farmers.
In the bill’s most recent iteration, lawmakers included a ground-shaking provision that legalized hemp, introducing a new cash crop into the market.
But why was hemp made illegal in the first place? Keep reading to learn more about the fascinating history of hemp in the United States.
Hemp Vs Marijuana
Let’s start off by explaining the difference between hemp and marijuana, as the two are often confused.
Both hemp and marijuana refer to the cannabis plant; the difference comes down to levels of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol THC—the intoxicating cannabinoid, the infamous high we associated with cannabis use.
According to the Farm Bill, only cannabis that contains less than 0.3% Delta 9 THC per dry weight can be classified as hemp.
Marijuana, on the other hand, is a slang term with a somewhat racist history commonly used to describe cannabis with higher THC percentages.
How Hemp Helped Forge American History
For centuries, human beings have utilized the cannabis plant to various ends. From the onset of the first agricultural revolution, ancient cultures in East Asia cultivated indigenous hemp plants to use their seeds for food and fibers for some of the earliest forms of textile production.
By the time the British Empire colonized North America in the early 17th century, hemp was already an essential crop for the crown since the plant’s bast fibers were vital for producing the sails and ropes necessary to fuel early maritime exploration efforts. In fact, British colonies were compelled by law to grow hemp to satiate the empire’s growing need for the plant.
Even several of our founding fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, cultivated hemp commercially.
When Was Hemp Made Illegal?
After the revolutionary war, hemp remained a staple crop in the early American agricultural economy. It wouldn’t be until relatively recently, in the early to mid 20th century, that the United States would begin enacting legislation designed to formally ban the production and sale of hemp.
Before the 1900s, it was common practice for pharmaceutical tinctures not to list their ingredients and were instead secret proprietary formulas. However, at the beginning of the 20th-century, states began enacting new poison control laws regulating the sale of several ingredients commonly used pharmaceutically, including cannabis.
In 1925, the International Opium Convention met for the first time. The collection of world leaders made decisions regarding how they would attempt to control the flow of drugs throughout the globe. While the convention didn’t formally ban cannabis, they did ban the exportation of Indian Hemp (what we would call recreational cannabis today).
Five years later, the United States formed the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and appointed a man named Harry Anslinger to head the newfangled department. Anslinger would spend over three decades waging a proto war on drugs.
In 1937, the government passed the Marihuana Tax Act, which effectively banned the sale and cultivation of hemp and cannabis.
Why Was Hemp Banned?
So why did the hemp plant go from an essential crop to an illegal drug in the 20th century?
Some speculate that the Du Pont family and newspaper magnate Robert Hearst, who both played a significant role in drafting and passing the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, sought to remove the hemp industry from competition with nylon and timber.
Despite the backing from wealthy parties, the American Medical Association, and American hemp farmers, vehemently opposed the bill. In order to garner support for the Marihuana Tax Act, Anslinger intentionally conflated cannabis use with race—the name of the bill itself a dog whistle meant to associate cannabis with the influx of Mexican immigrants migrating to the United States.
Some telling quotes from Anslinger on the topic include: "Reefer makes darkies think they're as good as white men," and "There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others."
The Future Of Cannabis In The United States
When you look at how long marijuana has been illegal in the U.S., it becomes apparent that cannabis prohibition only constitutes a small fraction of the nation’s history. Hemp is once again federally legal, and more and more states are enacting cannabis reform legislation or outright legalizing recreational cannabis. It’s likely only a matter of time before cannabis prohibition laws wither away entirely.