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A Brief History of Hemp, Part 2

If you have not yet read part 1 of this blog post, and you would like to, click here!


(We left off, from part 1 of this post, around the year 1930. Just as hemp production was about undergo an industrial revolution, the country was derailed by the Great Depression.)


In 1935, a Dow Chemical chemist, named William Jay Hale, thought he could solve the causes of the farm crisis of the Depression by creating a plastic industry that was derived from plant fibers.


Hemp cellulose is made from the hemp hurd and was considered a byproduct of the fiber industry. 77% of the hemp stalk’s weight is made of hemp hurd, so there was a great amount of hurd left over from harvesting the fiber. One industry that utilized this abundant amount of hemp hurd was the dynamite and TNT industries.


A Popular Mechanics article in 1938 raved that hemp was the “Billion Dollar Crop”. In this year alone, there were thousands of tons of hemp hurd used in the manufacture of dynamite and TNT in the United States.


At that time, DuPont was the biggest supplier of explosives used by the American military during World Wars I and II. DuPont’s chemists were trying to figure out how to make synthetic fibers from petrochemicals that were left over from the war – in 1937 they came out with the patent on Nylon. DuPont began making nylon hosiery, synthetic linens, canvas, leather, carpets, latex paint, as well as silk parachutes and ropes for the war effort.


During this same year, DuPont also patented a new sulfate/sulfite process for making paper from wood pulp. This would greatly please one of their major chemical clients, William Randolph Hearst, as he owned vast timberland and had a vested interest in growing trees to support his newspaper business.


Hemp’s dreams of sustaining American agriculture and manufacturing sectors from its natural and non-polluting fibers were over. The invention of efficient machinery that could separate hemp’s fiber from the hurd, the invention of nylon, and the outlawing of hemp as “marijuana” all happened within the same year. It was a near fatal blow to the hemp industry. And it certainly changed the course of history.


There were many big names associated with the outlawing of hemp. Andrew Mellon from the Mellon Bank of Pittsburgh was one of the main financial supporters for both Hearst and DuPont. In 1931, Mellon was Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of Treasury, and he appointed his future nephew-in-law, Harry J. Anslinger to be head of the newly reorganized Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, a position he held for the next 31 years.


In the 1920’s and 30’s, William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers claimed that black and Mexican men would smoke this new drug, “marijuana”, lose their minds, and go off raping white women, while playing this new voodoo-satanic music called “jazz”. They referred to cannabis by the slang word “marijuana” so often that the American public started to associate hemp with marijuana, and the term “cannabis” was no longer used. People forgot that cannabis had recently been considered a household remedy and now thought about it as a devilish drug that was destroying minds and endangering white women. In 1936, the movie “Reefer Madness” was released, and it helped to mislead the public even further. Most didn’t realize that the campaign against marijuana was really a campaign against the plant that humanity had been using for food, fiber, and medicine for centuries.



A 1972 theatrical poster released during the film's "rediscovery" in the 1970's. (Courtesy Wikipedia)


Between 1935 and 1937, prohibitive tax laws were drafted to force the American hemp farmer out of business by taxing them to the point where they could no longer afford to participate. They had to pay a tax to grow hemp, another to process it, and yet another tax to sell it. It wasn’t illegal to grow hemp, but nobody could afford to grow it anymore.


On April 14, 1937, Herman Oliphant introduced the Marijuana Tax Act bill to the House Ways and Means Committee (instead of to other appropriate committees such as the food and drug, agriculture, textiles, commerce, etc.). By sending the bill directly to the Ways and Means Committee, he was able to send the bill directly to the House floor without being subject to debate by other committees. Ways and Means Chairman, Robert L. Doughty, was also a DuPont crony, and he quickly rubber-stamped it – sending the bill through Congress and on to the President.


There were some people who stood up at these hearings in defense for cannabis. Doctors from the American Medical Association testified that these laws could possibly deny the world of a potential medicine, especially now that the medical world had discovered that there were active medicinal compounds found in the cannabis flower. They testified that the plant was no more addicting than sugar or coffee and that there had never been any reported deaths attributed to cannabis. These doctors had only found out two days before the hearing that this horrible “marijuana” drug was actually the cannabis plant that had been commonly and safely used for all of human history. The doctors from the AMA voiced their opposition, but they were kicked out of the meeting by Anslinger.


When the Marijuana Tax Act bill came up for vote, it was asked if the AMA had given their opinion. Representative Vinson lied and told the committee that the AMA was in total agreement, and the bill was passed and became law in December 1937. Federal and State police forces were created, and the war on drugs had begun.


Together, Hearst, DuPont, Anslinger, and Mellon had pushed for the end of hemp cultivation, and their businesses were all secure now that hemp manufacturing was no longer a threat. But when we entered World War II, there was a demand from the U.S. Navy for the strongest fibers available, so the government created the “Hemp for Victory” campaign to encourage U.S. farmers to grow hemp for the war movement. Farmers who agreed to grow hemp were waived from serving in the military, as were their sons. By 1945, there was over 400,000 acres of hemp being grown in the United States for the war effort.


In 1941, Henry Ford’s bioplastic Model T was made of hemp, flax, wheat, and spruce pulp. This car’s body was lighter than fiberglass and was 10x stronger than steel. There is a video available online of Henry Ford hitting this car with a sledgehammer, and he doesn’t make a dent. The car ran on ethanol made from hemp that he grew, as well as from other agricultural waste. Henry Ford’s attempt to show American industry what hemp could do would be the last great attempt to prove hemp’s worth for many years to come.


By 1957 the last commercial hemp fields were planted in Wisconsin. During this time, hemp continued to be revered as a dangerous plant, and it seemed that America was ashamed of its history with hemp. So much history about hemp in America has been destroyed or forgotten – even the original copy of the “Hemp for Victory” film has disappeared. Museums in the U.S. removed hemp items from being displayed and tried to completely erase hemp from our history.


In 1970 hemp was categorized with marijuana as a Schedule 1 narcotic drug, making hemp cultivation illegal. It took another 50 years before a legal crop of hemp would be grown in the U.S. again, when there were 2 licenses issued to 2 farmers in North Dakota.


With Reagan’s War on Drugs campaign, the 1980’s and 1990’s saw a heavy crackdown on cannabis in the United States. In 1993 alone, Wisconsin Department of Narcotics Enforcement’s (CEASE) removed 9.3 million hemp plants throughout the state because they claimed that marijuana was being extracted from the plants. Apparently, they didn’t realize that they were wasting their time and money, as well as eradicating a piece of American history.


In 2014, President Barack Obama signed the Farm Bill into law, allowing research institutions to start piloting hemp farming programs. The Farm Bill legally separated hemp from marijuana and legalized the cultivation of industrial hemp. It defined industrial hemp as being cannabis sativa plants that contained no more than 0.3% THC.


In 2018, President Trump signed the Farm Bill into law, allowing private citizens the right to apply for hemp cultivation licenses. Now each state has their own hemp cultivation laws, but in many states, the industry is not supported by a steady market and, oftentimes, doesn’t have an adequate number of mills needed to process vast amounts of hemp.


Our country has had the need and the means to grow and manufacture a sustainable and renewable crop that can be used for nearly anything. Growing an acre of hemp can produce 500 gallons of ethanol and it would only take growing hemp on 6% of America’s farmland to sustain our country’s gas and oil needs.


The list of things that hemp can do goes on and on, but after 100 years of cannabis prohibition, hemp is still not getting the recognition that it deserves. Hopefully, we can encourage our law makers and politicians to get on board with hemp again and give American farmers and American industry the green and vibrant resources that our nation needs to become a more sustainable and self-sufficient nation.


We say, “Hemp for our Future!”


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