The History of Hemp in America
Marijuana, or cannabis, has been the center of debate over morality and criminality for decades. No plant has a more volatile history within the United States than cannabis, and no group of people has been persecuted more because of this plant than People of Color (POC), especially those within Black communities. You may be surprised to learn that before cannabis was weaponized for oppression and injustice, it was actually an integral part of our country’s culture and economy in the form of hemp.
As we continue to work toward equity, justice, and access to cannabis in all its forms, it’s essential that we develop a deep understanding of how we got to where we are today.
Hemp has been revered as a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ crop across many cultures for millennia. To fully understand the scope of this ancient material, we’ll start in 8,000 BCE where archeologists found clues that people used hemp as pottery, sustenance, and a kind of natural medicine.
In Neolithic-age China, the ancient Chinese used hemp to make clothes, shoes, ropes, and an early predecessor of paper. During the 2nd century, hemp was referenced in the Mishnah, the first recorded written collection of Jewish tradition. In the Late Middle Ages (approx. 1250 -1500 AD) hemp was documented as an ingredient in cooking, such as filling for pies, or added into a soup. Fast forward a few thousand centuries, and its versatility and economic potential would prove to play a big role in the forming of our nation as well.
Hemp Cultivating Colonies & Slavery
You may remember learning in school how tobacco, sugar, and cotton helped early settlements thrive; we called them “cash crops” because they were easily cultivated and had high international value. It’s notable, however, that few of us learned of the significant role hemp played in this time.
Once hemp made its way to North America, it quickly became a staple, playing a large role in the building of the colonies. In fact, it wasn’t just an option to grow hemp - it was an order. Seeing its economic value, King James I decreed in 1619 that colonists in the Virginia Company must grow hemp.
Our founding fathers, most notably George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were big fans of hemp, too. Washington advocated for hemp as a cash crop, noting its propensity for rope and fabric in his 1765 diary. Northern states were encouraged to grow hemp through subsidies, but the market never took off. Instead, the Southern states held all of the cultivation power, forcing enslaved African Americans to plant, grow, farm, and harvest the hemp. Kentucky in particular exploited its enslaved population for hemp, producing nearly 40,000 tons - worth over $5 million dollars - through their unpaid forced labor in 1850 alone. That would be over $160 million today.
In his historical account of hemp cultivation in Kentucky, historian James F. Hopkins writes, “On the hemp farm and in the hemp factories the need for laborers was filled to a large extent by the use of Negro slaves, and it is a significant fact that the heaviest concentration of slavery was in the hemp producing area.”
He goes on to claim that hemp played a large role in spreading the practice of enslavement throughout Kentucky.
When slavery was abolished in 1865, hemp production in the United States decreased immensely. Then, prior to the Great Depression of 1920-30, a mass influx of migrants from Mexico stoked xenophobia throughout the United States. A significant shift in public perception of cannabis followed.
The idea of ‘Mexican Marihuana’ was used as a scapegoat to instill fear in the American public, who were not familiar with the plant. This was especially effective during the Great Depression, where a volatile economy and massive unemployment resulted in widespread anxiety amongst Americans. This xenophobic propaganda was unfounded. In fact, according to historian Issac Campos, “The vast majority of immigrants were not using marijuana.” Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for an intertwined anti-immigrant, anti-cannabis sentiment to become part of the conversation.
This racist rhetoric coincided with a similar anti-Black sentiment, and was wielded as a tool of oppression over minorities and the lower class. Prominent bigoted businessmen in America wanted to ignite fear in the American populace and create division, leading to the production of films such as Reefer Madness (1936), an anti-marijuana piece of propaganda.
It’s important to note that the word marijuana itself has its roots steeped in racism. While cannabis and marijuana are often used interchangeably today, for many decades the word marijuana was associated with fear. It was condemned as a dangerous substance that made users violent. It’s because of this false narrative that we stick with cannabis.
Tax Act Terror & Presidential Prosecution
The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 imposed a tax on anyone who had commercial dealings in cannabis, effectively driving the final nail into the coffin of America’s hemp industry. After this tax act was passed, future presidents would invent and perpetuate the so-called “War on Drugs.”
President Nixon coined this term in 1971, when he declared drug abuse our nation’s “public enemy #1”, at a time when less than 2% of Americans actually considered it to be a major concern. This “war” declaration led to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) creation in 1973.
Following his lead, President Reagan in 1984 signed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act into law, which made penalties for cannabis possession more severe and established mandatory minimum sentences, as well as procedures for civil asset forfeiture.
Clearly, the United States government had a vested interest in keeping cannabis illegal, and the corresponding policies have had a disproportionately negative effect on Black people.
A recent analysis by the ACLU finds that in every single state, Black people are nearly four times more likely than white people to be arrested for cannabis possession. To make matters worse, with recent hemp and cannabis re-legalization, many (mainly white) people are getting rich off cannabis, while other (mostly black) people are sitting in jail cells for low-level drug offenses.
To put the magnitude of this new, freshly exonerated industry in perspective: revenue generated by recreational cannabis increased by over $2 billion in the last year alone. It’s time the people are exonerated, too.
All hope is not lost, however, with organizations such as the Last Prisoner Project fighting for restorative justice in the cannabis industry. While CBD and cannabis are helping so many people, it is absolutely wrong that others are in prison, serving harsh sentences for nonviolent cannabis offenses.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Thankfully, it seems we are headed in the right direction, and many people are waking up to the hypocrisy currently surrounding cannabis in this country. The House of Representatives passed the MORE Act in 2020, effectively decriminalizing cannabis at the federal level. If passed through the Senate, this will be a major step forward. There are also more and more organizations across the country working on cannabis reform, and people working to fight for the rights of ex-offenders who are struggling under the weight of the prison label.
The history of hemp draws a clear parallel to the history of inequality and injustice in our country, and it is so important for us as Americans to educate ourselves, and share this vital knowledge with our communities You can help make change by supporting organizations and electing officials who are working toward cannabis reform.
Ready to learn more & get involved?
Here are some resources to get you started:
28 Days of Black History - Virtual exhibition of 28 works that celebrate Black legacy in the U.S.
Last Prisoner Project - Fighting criminal justice & reimagining drug policy
Cannaclusive - Created to facilitate fair representation of minority cannabis consumers
Equal Justice Initiative - Committed to ending mass incarceration & excessive punishment in the U.S.