Hemp has been a companion of the human race consistently for 10,000 years, leaving remarkable footprints throughout human history.
Hemp, as a versatile resource, played an important, sometimes crucial role in fundamental cultural changes over time. It was one of the first crops ever cultivated, and early on, it had a similar range to today's petrochemicals, providing materials for ropes, clothing, technical textiles, paper and oil products.
It is sad to see a product that was so widespread has deteriorated to an extent where its barely recognised as anything but a plant that “gets you high”.
HEMP'S EARLY HISTORY
Early in hemp’s history, it was primarily used for its benefits as a fibre. The fact hemp is tear-resistant, and weather-resistant predestined hemp for technical applications.
The earliest record of man’s use of hemp dates back to the year 8,000 BCE. Archaeologists discovered pieces of broken pottery decorated with hemp strips on an excavation site in Taiwan.
The use of hemp fibre for clothing and textiles has a rich 5,000-year history. Emperor Shen Nung taught Chinese people to grow 'ma' (hemp) for clothing. The oldest preserved hemp textile was found in a tomb of the Chinese Chou Dynasty (1122-249 BC), proving the long-lasting quality of hemp fibre textiles.
Hemp was first recorded being used for paper thousands of years ago in China. The excavated paper sample dates back to 140 - 70 BCE, making it the oldest preserved paper in the world. Throughout the early centuries, the Chinese empire was at the centre of hemp cultivation, the manufacture of hemp products and the usage of Cannabis Sativa for medical applications. This knowledge was transferred between different civilisations through the former trade routes.
Evidence of the processing of hemp can be found in almost all developed ancient, medieval and modern civilisations (Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, Spanish, British and US Americans).
It would have been nearly impossible for Columbus to discover America or the British to have had their colonial expansion if their ships weren't equipped with canvas and ropes made out of hemp fibre. The British King Henry VIII passed an act in the year 1535 compelling all landowners to sow 1/4 of an acre of hemp, or risk being fined.
Historically hemp had over 25,000 diverse uses ranging from textiles, ropes, paper, government documents, banknotes, food, medicine, canvas and building materials.
But as we all know, the widespread usage of hemp came to an end.
THE DECLINE OF HEMP AND ITS PROHIBITION
The decline of hemp started in the 18th century when cheaper alternatives threatened hemp. Worldwide propaganda and political meddling finally led to the almost global ban of hemp in the early 20th century.
Over centuries hemp was a significant source of raw material for several industries and products. But it was successively diminished by cheaper substitutes and advanced technologies.
The harvesting and processing of hemp were mainly done by hand, which was extremely labour-intensive and costly. The invention of the mechanical cotton gin (1794) made it easier and cheaper to process cotton; therefore, hemp could no longer compete on the market of non-technical textiles.
Furthermore, the decline of the sail-ship era let to less demand for hemp fibre for technical textiles. Until the beginning of the 20th century, the most essential technical applications for hemp fibre were ropes, canvas and sailcloth. This durable and water-resistant fabric had a multitude of uses.
In the mid-1850s, advancements in the production and utilisation of petroleum products led to their increased use as both fuels and oils. This further diminished the use of hemp ,which was and still is an adequate material for products ranging from biofuels to plastics.
The main crisis for hemp emerged during the 1920s and 30s in the United States and affected the worldwide cultivation and distribution of hemp.
Although hemp was in decline compared to its former distribution, new technical innovations led to hemp becoming competitive again in some areas. In the USA, mechanical hemp peeling machines and machines to preserve the cellulosic hemp cell mass became available in a technically mature form and at affordable prices. Big wood, paper and newspaper companies were threatened with billions in losses, if not bankruptcy. At the same time, the Du Pont chemical group had patented processes for producing paper from wood cellulose and plastic from oil and coal, and invented the nylon fibres.
These industries saw the plant as a threat to their businesses and launched a propaganda campaign against hemp, which effectively ended hemp cultivation. In addition to economic interests, political motives also played a significant role in prohibition. The demonising of cannabis was because it was mainly Latinos and African Americans who mainly partook of it. However, when voting to abolish Hemp, the Senate was not even aware that there was a difference between cannabis containing THC ("weed") and industrial hemp (<0.5% THC).
They received support from Harry J. Anslinger, the head of US Federal Bureau of Narcotics. At this time, most people would not know that "marijuana" meant "hemp". Anslinger took advantage of this and declared before Congress in 1937 that marijuana was the most violent drug in human history. Propaganda films like "Reefer Madness“ and books like" Marijuana, Assassin of Youth" made the rounds. The propaganda would go to the extent to say, “Only those who were lazy, dirty, Latino or black smoked the stuff. Murder, rampages, sex orgies and rapes of white women were associated with marijuana.”
This all finally led to the passing of the Marijuana Tax Acts in the USA in 1937, which virtually brought trade and cultivation to a standstill. Unfortunately, Anslinger's campaign also had world-wide effects. In 1961 the UN passed the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, whereby all signatories committed themselves to the pursuit of hemp.
By that time the worldwide cultivation and processing of hemp had virtually come to an end.
Hemp had almost disappeared as a crop after the worldwide cannabis prohibition. But times are changing, and the socio-economic perception and importance of hemp have developed over the last few years.
The environmental effects of the overconsumption of products made from limited resources, such products made from petroleum fossil fuels, and the widespread damage of deforestation from paper production are becoming ever more apparent. People are looking for a reliable and renewable resource that is easy to grow. Without surprise, hemp is one option that is getting some serious attention.
Areas of most interest are coming from the food sector. The healthy cannabis seeds have made their way into the mainstream and can be found today in almost all European and American supermarkets. Hemp made further inroads with the launch of the non-psychotropic cannabinoid cannabidiol (CBD), which has mild sedative and focussing effects in lower doses, and medical uses at higher doses.
The hemp industry is making a comeback with a total amount of 150,000 ha acreage in Canada, China and the European Union in 2018. In the US, the introduction of the Hemp Farming Act in December 2018 resulted in the removal of hemp (defined as cannabis with less than 0.3% THC) from the Schedule I controlled substances list, making it an ordinary agricultural commodity.
In just a few decades, the million mark of acreage can be reached, and hemp will again become as important as it was for humanity.
Carus, M: Eine Kulturgeschichte des Hanfes – von der Frühzeit bis heute (2019)
Vasu K. Brown, Budtender Medical Cannabis Certification Program
Abel, E. L. (1980): Marihuana, the first twelve thousand years. Plenum Press, New York 1980.
Clarke, R.C. and Merlin, M.D. 2013: Cannabis EVOLUTION AND ETHNOBOTANY, University of California Press, Berkeley – Los Angeles – London 2013.
Körber-Grohne, U. (1988): Nutzpflanzen in Deutschland - Kulturgeschichte und Biologie. Konrad Theiss Verlag, Stuttgart 1988.