Women process hemp fibers in 1956. (L. Blandford, Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Red, white and hemp Americana: Five pivotal moments in U.S. history

Pot's cousin could have been as all-American as apple pie

Hemp was a botanical rock star throughout most human history. It was the world’s first domestically-cultivated plant. It literally whooshed the Age of Sail into the history books, and it showcased the paintings of Rembrandt and Van Gogh.

Hemp could have been as all-American as baseball and apple pie, were it not for the plant’s criminalization four decades ago. Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both grew hemp and wrote about it.

The first American flag was pieced together with hemp fabric. So were the first pair of Levi’s.

What was formerly legal and encouraged became illegal, but now hemp is starting to come back in the U.S. We’ve surveyed hemp’s checkered past. Here are five milestones in the history of hemp in America.

1810 — U.S. Senator (and hemp plantation owner) Henry Clay passed a bill requiring the American navy to only use American-made hemp products.

1942 — As part of a plan to expand the American hemp industry during World War II, the U.S. government released a 13-minute propaganda film, “Hemp for Victory.” The film opens with a survey of historic hemp production, citing the many vessels that crossed oceans rigged with hemp rope and sails, and the many pioneer wagons that crossed this country covered with hemp. “Indeed the very word canvas come from the Arabic word for hemp,” says the film’s narrator, Lee D. Vickers.


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1970 — Hemp became a Schedule 1 narcotic under the Controlled Substances Act, making the U.S. the only industrial nation without commercial hemp.

2001 — The Drug Enforcement Administration went so far as to ban foods that contain hemp. Affected hemp businesses sued the federal government. That lawsuit resulted in a later court ruling that the DEA did not have the authority to regulate the trace amounts of THC in hemp foods.

2012 — Colorado voters approved Amendment 64, legalizing marijuana and at the same time opening the door to a revitalized hemp industry. But issues around hemp seed sourcing, cultivation and processing persist, predominantly because hemp remains illegal in the eyes of the federal government.


Update made July 24, 2014 at 1:45 p.m.: Incorrect information about the Declaration of Independence’s ties to hemp was removed.



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