U.S. Hemp History

Title page from 1764’s “A Treatise on Hemp in Two Parts”. Credit hempology.org
Title page from Treatise on Hemp, 1764

Hemp is among the oldest industries on the planet, going back more than 10,000 years to the beginnings of pottery. The Columbia History of the World states that the oldest relic of human industry is a bit of hemp fabric dating back to approximately 8,000 BC.

Presidents Washington and Jefferson both grew hemp. Americans were legally bound to grow hemp during the Colonial Era and Early Republic. It was such an integral part of America that you could, for more than 150 years, pay taxes with hemp.

In 1937, Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act which effectively began the era of hemp prohibition. The tax and licensing regulations of the act made hemp cultivation difficult for American farmers. The chief promoter of the Tax Act, Harry Anslinger, began promoting anti-marijuana legislation around the world.

Then came World War II. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor shut off foreign supplies of jute fiber (called colloquially “Manila hemp”) from the Philippines. The USDA produced a film called “Hemp For Victory” to encourage U.S. farmers to grow hemp for the war effort. The U.S. government formed the War Hemp Industries Department and subsidized hemp cultivation. During the war, U.S. farmers grew about a million acres of hemp across the Midwest as part of that program.

After the war ended, the government quietly shut down all the hemp processing plants and the industry faded away again.

Cover of 1907 Modern Flax, Hemp and Jute Spinning and Twisting by Herbert R Carter
Cover of 1907 Modern Flax, Hemp and Jute Spinning and Twisting by Herbert R Carter

During the period from 1937 to the late 60s, the U.S. government understood and acknowledged that industrial hemp and marijuana were distinct varieties of the Cannabis plant. Hemp was no longer officially recognized as distinct from marijuana after the passage of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970.

The Hemp Industries Association’s seminal 2001-2003 federal court case HIA vs DEA I re-established the distinction between varieties of Cannabis at the federal level, laying the groundwork for hemp’s reintroduction with the 2014 and 2018 Farm Bills.

The U.S. government has published numerous reports and other documents on hemp dating back to the beginnings of our country.

These documents and many more are published online by U.S. hemp historian extraordinaire and Honorary Lifetime member John E. Dvorak. His “Digital Hemp History Library” is the most complete source for historical hemp documents and data anywhere.

More Hemp Historical Resources:

  • View references to industrial hemp from Aesop’s Fables by clicking here.
  • Visit Vote Hemp’s comprehensive history of modern American hemp legislation (through 2016).