Hemp's Forgotten American History

Cannabis-hemp was once an essential part of the fabric of the United States of America— and much of the world. <a href="http:
Cannabis-hemp was once an essential part of the fabric of the United States of America— and much of the world. TreeFreeHemp

Washington and Jefferson Grew Hemp

Two of America's earliest presidents, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were hemp growers.

There has been some speculation that Washington may have used cannabis medicinally or recreationally because (1) he separated the male from the female plants and (2) he once wrote in his diary he hoped he got home in time for the hemp harvest because he “so enjoyed the burning of the slag.” Another entry in Washington's diary is frequently cited as the evidence he separated males and females and therefore used hemp recreationally.

The argument depends on a tradition that the quality or quantity of marijuana resin (hashish) is enhanced if the male and female plants are separated before the females are pollinated. There can be no doubt that Washington separated the males and the females. Two entries in his diary supply the evidence: May 12-13, 1765: "Sowed Hemp at Muddy hole by Swamp." August 7, 1765: "...began to separate [sic] the Male from the Female Hemp at Do—rather too late."

What Did George Mean?

George Andrews argues an even more direct indication Washington ingested cannabis for its psychotropic effects. In The Book of Grass: An Anthology of Indian Hemp, Andrews concludes that Washington's August 7 diary entry "clearly indicates that he was cultivating the plant for medicinal purposes as well for its fiber." Andrews agrees Washington might have separated the males from the females to get better fiber, but he argues the phrase "rather too late" suggests Washington wanted to complete the separation before the female plants were fertilized, a practice related to drug potency rather than to fiber culture. Nevertheless, without additional historical data, this is conjecture on the part of Andrews and many others. But, you never know.

Thomas Jefferson & Hemp

Jefferson was a fan of hemp and a critic of the tobacco plant. He said tobacco "greatly exhausts the soil" and "requires much manure."

A well-established agricultural fact is the best hemp and the best tobaccos grow on the same kind of soil. The former article is of first necessity to the commerce and marine, or in other words, to the wealth and protection of the country. The latter, never useful and sometimes pernicious, derives its estimation from caprice, and its value from the taxes to which it was formerly exposed.

The preference to be given will result from a comparison of them: hemp employs in its rudest state more labor than tobacco, but being a material for manufacturers of various sorts, becomes afterwards the means of support to numbers of people, hence it is to be preferred in a populous country.”

The cannabis plant of colonial America was industrial hemp. Washington and Jefferson, and the other hemp planters, grew the tall, spindly, high-fiber, low-THC varieties. They knew the difference between the tall sparsely festooned hemp and the squat, bushy, leafy, budding flower varieties.

It is easy to tell the difference between flower and seed and stalk varieties. If one can distinguish a tall, thin basketball player from an overweight midget, they can distinguish what is known as “hemp” from what is known as “marijuana.”

In the United States, law enforcement spokespeople have argued that our police can't tell the difference. This seems a mean, false condemnation of the observational and plant discrimination abilities of American law enforcement personnel.

It is a well-known fact that it's easy to tell the difference between hemp and flower varieties. This is why; in over 30 countries in the world today, the growing of industrial hemp is legal. Certainly our neighbors to the north in Canada have had no such problems distinuishing hemp and flower varieties.

In the colonies as elsewhere, the hemp fibers extracted from the hemp cannabis plant were used mainly for textiles, rope, canvas and paper. Hemp was also used in the manufacture of hemp food, hemp seed oil and other industrial products. Hemp seed oil fueled many of the colonists' lamps. Hemp based products such as clothing, books and lamp oil, were an integral part of American life for hundreds of years. During the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries in many parts of the United States, it was against the law to refuse to grow hemp. The first Bibles, maps, charts, the Betsy Ross flag, the first drafts of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were all made from hemp.

For at least 200 years (1620-1820), hemp was the most important agricultural crop produced in America. It is also why there are towns all along the Atlantic coast, and into the Midwest, with the names Hempstead, Hemp Hill, Hampton or something similar.

For millennia, the hemp fiber extraction process was extremely labor-intensive. The results were considered worth the effort. Hemp is softer, warmer, more water-resistant than cotton, and has three times as much tensile strength. In the 1820s, Eli Whitney's legendary cotton gin launched cotton as America's number one textile, but hemp remained the second most popular natural fiber until after the Civil War. As late as 1850, U.S. census records document 8,327 cannabis plantations of over 7,000 acres each.

Competition from the less labor-intensive cotton, the loss of slave labor and the rise of the steam driven boat sent the hemp business into steep decline after the Civil War. It struggled on in America until the last legal crop of hemp was harvested in Wisconsin in 1957.

The hemp industry had been introduced into Wisconsin at the turn of the 19th century by former state Governor Henry Dodge, who in 1890, had become the first U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. But, Kentucky is a state where the economy was not closely associated to hemp. Today, a marker placed by the state of Kentucky stands outside Leafland, Kentucky proclaiming hemp as the "State's Largest Cash Crop Till 1915."

The United States Fought a War Over Hemp

The British needed hemp for their maritime activities. This need for hemp was a motivator for Britain to settle North America and grow more. This need for hemp gave the British a strong reason to staunchly defend the colonies from infringement by the French and Spanish. Laws were passed in many colonies making it mandatory to grow hemp. At one of the first, if not the first English-speaking, rule-making assemblage in Virginia on July 31, 1619, one of the brand new laws stated every family must grow at least a patch of hemp.

Since hemp was the most profitable agricultural crop in the world for almost a thousand years, it's hardly surprising the British tax on the colonial production of hemp (e.g., the Navigation Act, one of the "Acts of Intolerance"), helped fuel support for the Revolutionary War.

The War of 1812

American school children learn the War of 1812 was something vaguely about the British impressment of U.S. seamen (e.g., U.S. merchant marine sailors being pressed into the service of the British). That is only the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the story involves European treaties, conflicts and military power. This is what was behind the British impressments of U.S. sailors that provoked the Americans to go to war.

From 1740 until well into the 1800s, Russia produced 80% of the Western world's cannabis hemp. (Note: This is as opposed to other products called hemp; sisal hemp, New Zealand hemp, jute aka Indian hemp, manila hemp and Decca hemp.) Russian hemp was the world's best-quality cannabis hemp for sails, rope, rigging and nets used on the high seas. This is because Russia had the best retting process. Retting is the process of curing the rope. The retting process slows the rotting of hemp by seawater. Hemp, not surprisingly, was Russia's number one trading commodity ahead of furs, timber and iron.

This is an excerpt from my book Drugs Are Not the Devil’s Tools: the first edition is available now on Amazon.com and the second edition will be released in early 2017.

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