In the spirit of Independence Day, we’re taking a look at the history of hemp in the United States, its past and future, and its promise of hope in uncertain and frightening times.
The Cannabis Mystique
There may be no plant more mythologized than cannabis sativa. Over centuries of human history, this unassuming-looking bushy weed has been lionized and demonized in equal measure. In America, it’s played a role not unlike that of a charismatic side character in a fictional narrative – the one who could be a hero or a villain depending on circumstances, who’s always fascinating and, sometimes, essential.
Winds of Change
With the legalization of THC-free, nonpsychoactive industrial hemp in 2018, and decriminalization of medical and recreational cannabis finally catching on, the pendulum of public opinion has begun to swing yet again. We’re rediscovering the hemp plant’s tremendous potential for improving our health, our economy, and our environment. It looks like the villain is becoming the hero once again… but can she save the day this time around?
Hemp in Colonial America
If you spend any time hanging out with dedicated stoners, you’ve probably heard it at least once: “Did you know that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, like, blazed up on a regular basis? America was founded on weed!”
The version of the story that’s told around the bong isn’t accurate, but, like many legends, there’s a germ of truth to it. Jefferson and Washington didn’t smoke weed; in fact, nobody did in their time and place. Even though the plant’s psychoactive properties had been known for millennia, alcohol and tobacco were the vices of choice in the colonies, and recreational cannabis use was unheard of. Still, there’s no question that hemp was essential to the economy of early America, and the lives of its people.
Well over a hundred years before the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Assembly ordered every farmer in the colony to grow hemp. It quickly became one of the future United States’ most important crops, and was even used as currency. The reason for this? The long, tough fibers found in hemp stems, which were used to make rope and textiles.
In fact, the necessity of growing plants for long fibers may explain why nobody was smoking the stuff – you have to plant close together in a small space to grow hemp that’s tall enough to make good rope. This prevents the plants from flowering, and the flowers are where most of the psychoactive THC is concentrated.
In any event, although cash crops like tobacco provided most of the burgeoning nation’s liquid assets, hemp was much-needed at home. It became ropes and sacks and (very scratchy) garments, all essential materials for building a new country. And when the colonies began fighting for independence from the British Crown, the spanking-new American military – particularly the navy, with its bottomless appetite for sails and cordage – would have been (literally) dead in the water without hemp.
So the stoners are wrong that America was founded on weed… and they’re also right.
Changing Times, Decline and Fall
Although hemp was still cultivated through World War II – and even appeared on the ten-dollar bill as late as 1900 – it began an incremental but steady decline following the American Revolution. This was partly because other materials proved more suitable for specific needs; cotton, for instance, made much more comfortable clothing than hemp. The obsolescence of sailing ships and the rise of steam power also contributed – ocean liners don’t need the miles of strong rope that tall ships did. Later on, synthetic fibers like nylon became simpler and more profitable to produce. And hemp is easy to grow, but turning it into usable fiber was famously unpleasant and labor-intensive.
If that were the whole story, hemp might have become merely unfashionable over the years. Instead, growing and using it became a criminal offense, with countless thousands of lives destroyed over simple possession, and the traffic in illegal cannabis leading to brutal, bloody covert wars. How did this happen?
The answer comes down to another homegrown American tradition: racism.
Although members of the upper classes frequented “hash parlors” as early as the 1850s, nobody was particularly concerned until the Mexican Revolution of 1910, when immigrant laborers began to cross the border. They brought with them cannabis, subsequently known by its Mexican name, “marijuana”, and it achieved popularity as an alternative to alcohol following Prohibition. It also became associated with “undesirables” – Black and Latinx people and the “degenerate” whites who mingled with them.
Mass unemployment during the Great Depression fueled resentment and repression of Mexican immigrants, and the drug they used to relax after work.
Hysteria about race-mixing, and licentious behavior by white women who might be tempted to “pollute themselves” sexually with men of color while under the influence, was the driving wheel of early anti-cannabis propaganda.
Even though the messaging eventually became less overt, the racism ball never stopped rolling. Federal restrictions on cannabis possession accumulated over time, and were increasingly used as a tool – and an excuse – to repress and institutionalize people of color and nonconformist whites.
The multifaceted value of hemp became eclipsed by a punitive, cruel model of “justice” and the skyrocketing profitability of the prison-industrial complex.
Of course prohibition of plants that people can easily grow never really works, and it’s hard to get a genie back in her bottle.
A shadow economy soon arose, with drug cartels and illegal grow-ops controlling the highly lucrative black market for marijuana, and untold numbers of casual users and small-time street dealers had their lives summarily destroyed, sometimes over tiny quantities of cannabis. The consequences have been devastating.
But thanks to years of work by dedicated activists working for reparative justice, common sense has begun to creep back into public policy… and we’re again reconsidering the role hemp can play in America’s future.
We live in dangerous times. Climate change threatens to turn vast swathes of the earth’s surface into unfarmable, uninhabitable desert. Our oceans are choked with plastic, our water is polluted with agricultural runoff, and we’re faced with the question of how to feed, house and clothe billions of people when the resources we’ve depended on are finite, and resource allocation is decidedly imbalanced.
Hemp alone won’t save us, but as in colonial America, hemp might just give us a leg up on these complex problems.
Hemp is a remarkable plant. Thomas Jefferson expressed amazement at how efficient it is, saying its “abundantly productive and will grow forever on the same spot,” unlike other crops that deplete the soil. Hemp has all the makings of a gift to the stressed planet. Hemp:
- requires 50% less water than cotton and produces double the fiber yield
- is a valuable cover crop for promoting soil health.
- grows in a wide variety of climates and soil types
- is resistant to pests (so it doesn’t require excessive pesticides)
- can be grown close together, blocking the sun so weeds can’t get a foothold – obviating the need for weed killer.
So what can you do with a hemp plant?
Well, if you live in a legal state, you can grow it to smoke it. (Check your local statutes, of course.) Or if you’re a farmer, you can put in a crop of nonpsychoactive industrial hemp anywhere in America – THC-free and ready to be turned into all kinds of useful things. Here are just a few.
Hemp seeds produce an oil that offers a near-ideal balance of essential fatty acids. They’re also a great source of protein and vital nutrients, and they come without the anti-nutrients that typical nuts and seeds do — so you don't need to soak and sprout them. They can be turned into vegan “milk” and cheese or eaten out of hand, or powdered to enhance a smoothie… and who knows what culinary innovations await?
The green leaves themselves can be used as salad greens or juiced like wheat grass for an antioxidant boost. The flowers can also be juiced for a concentrated dose of raw, non-psychoactive cannabinoids with incredible healing potential.
Those oil-rich hemp seeds can also become biodiesel, a fuel that works like petroleum-based diesel, but is made from sustainable materials. Before industrial hemp legalization, producing hemp seeds in the necessary quantities wasn’t economically feasible – but industrial hemp is legal, and it may be possible for a small farmer to grow enough fuel to power her whole operation.
There are some concerns about whether biodiesel in general lives up to the hype. Many are related to the impact of growing crops, like corn, that have sustainability problems of their own, but hemp treads so lightly upon the earth that it may inspire a much-needed energy revolution.
Remember how deriving usable hemp fibers from hemp stems was a giant pain in the neck for colonial Americans, leading to hemp’s decline as an essential industry? We don’t have that problem anymore. Fiber extraction has become easier with the use of a machine called a decorticator, and limited chemical processing can make the resulting fabric much softer and more comfortable than colonial American underwear.
Hemp fibers can also become building materials and paper, and (if you want to have a battle on the high seas) lots and lots of rope.
Research is being done on plastics made from hemp fiber, that could potentially become an alternative to the petrochemical plastics littering our land, sea, and air.
Hemp’s therapeutic qualities are of particular interest to us here at Foria, of course.
CBD — the natural cannabinoid compound that’s at the heart of many of our products — is moving into the mainstream. As a health and wellness supplement, it has brought relief to many who thought their pain was beyond help.
CBD is anti-inflammatory and analgesic, and can help prevent seizures among many other possible applications. And Hemp is home to many other cannabinoids besides just CBD. Legalization means more and better research into uses and mechanisms of these cannabinoids, to the potential benefit of everyone seeking holistic herbal medicine that works.
And as for hemp’s feistier twin, psychoactive cannabis… well, who says medicine can’t also be fun?
Towards a Responsible Future
Since the obvious disaster of prohibition first started, the production and distribution of cannabis has been in the hands of people who operate in the shadows, with no concern for the human and environmental cost of their endeavors.
With legalization, that may change for the better, with traceability, laboratory testing, and environmental regulations on growers…
But legal or not, business is business, and big business doesn’t exactly have a perfect track record when it comes to protecting the earth and its creatures (including humans).
In order for the future of hemp to live up to its past and its potential, the industry must proceed mindfully, transparently and responsibly. This is non-negotiable.
Doing Our Part
At Foria, our commitment to good environmental stewardship and best practices in manufacturing has been a constant since the company was founded in 2012. Though hemp shows considerable promise in any number of areas, we’re headed for trouble if we don’t proceed with an eye to the lessons of the past. Irresponsible practices aren’t sustainable — even if the plant itself is.
Over the coming year, you'll be seeing big changes as we audit our farms, supply chain and packaging, moving toward a higher standard of sustainability.
Humanity can avoid making the same mistakes over again, and we can repair the damage that’s been done. We can ensure a better future that actually is better – for us and for the earth, for our country and for our freedom from want and hardship. It starts with a seed, a plot to grow on, and an ideal. The future begins now.