Every time my partner, our whiny pooch and I travel to and fro the Midwest, I’m always taken by the same thoughts and feelings. Never growing tired of the flat plains that give you eye-fulls of eggshell blue skies, cotton candy clouds and roadside feral cannabis. Even though my beautifully confused state is often seen as nothing more than corn fields and hate crimes, I love this land that pays homage the once booming industry of hemp!
What a lot of Americans don’t know — me included, until like two weeks ago — is that hemp was a super important crop since it was introduced to the colonies in 1606, through the 1950s. Since hemp could be used to make rope, cloth, sails and the pressed oil could be used in soaps and paint varnishes, colonist farmers were obligated by law to grow this lucrative plant. After about, like, 170 years of being a colony, baby USA was growing tired of taxation without representation. By the year 1774 the colonies had a surplus of hemp, which gave them something of high value to trade for muskets and other wartime goods with the French. So baby USA was like, “bag secured.” One year later on April 17, 1775 the “shot heard round the world” popped off the Revolutionary War. Only a year after the first battle, and our classic-slave-owning-forefathers officially adopted the Declaration of Independence. PSA it’s totally a myth that it was written on hemp paper, they almost got me.
Just as hemp has been a way to overthrow oppressors, it’s also been used as a reason to oppress. It was only 13 years after the colonies’ first introduction to hemp that the first enslaved Africans were brought to Jamestown, Virginia. If cotton is King of the slave crops, hemp is the Queen. Just before the Revolutionary War broke out, Kentucky was becoming populated with settlers from Virginia, bringing with them hemp seeds and enslaved West Africans. It soon made Kentucky the largest producer of hemp and one of the states with the largest slave populations. Like cotton and tobacco, hemp was a back breaking crop that paid well and continued to fuel the greedy demand for free labor. Kentucky became set as the nation’s leader in hemp for a hundred years until the demand fell during the Civil War in 1861. After the South fell to never rise again, Kentucky became the only state with a relevant hemp industry. That, of course, relied on scamming newly freed black people with sharecropping.
As more and more black people escaped the oppressive reigns of sharecropping agreements, the hemp industry continued to struggle to industrialize. Politics soon became an even larger issue with the plastic, nylon and paper industries lobbying for stricter cannabis restrictions — being that hemp was their only competition. By the time the hemp industry found a way to cut the cost of harvesting it was too late, the United States had entered its war against drugs. This effort was lead by Harry Ainslinger, a man worried about keeping his job after the end of prohibition — and William Randolph Hearst, a publishing and timber mogul who lost 800,000 acres of timberland in the Mexican Revolution. Both men were also openly racist and getting backed by the Dupont chemical company, which sold rayon and invented nylon.
“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.” — William Randolph Hearst
Even though big business and the failure of prohibition were pushing for the demise of hemp around the late 30s, anti-marijuana sentiment had already been planted throughout the nation. It was during the Mexican Revolution that the United States had its first introduction to smokeable cannabis, brought by Mexican farmers that were fleeing conflict. The herb quickly spread from Latino communities to Black communities, inspiring a whole generation of jazz musicians, who created the soundtrack to the Roaring Twenties. Instead of drinking alcohol, marijuana became a form of self-medication to the many black and brown folks who lived in extremely poor and oppressive situations. Louis Armstrong talked about this exact feeling in his biography:
“It makes you feel good, man. It relaxes you, makes you forget all the bad things that happen to a Negro. It makes you feel wanted, and when you are with another tea smoker it makes you feel a special sense of kinship.”
It wasn’t long after Mexican immigrants settled in southwestern states and brought cannabis to grow and smoke, that the US government started making deliberate moves to push out hemp. Ainslinger and Hearst took advantage of the epidemic that was yellow journalism and quickly starting publishing fact-less stories with flashy headlines, which always depicted a moral white America being torn apart by colored folk high on reefer— deceptively cultivating fear and unrest among the public. Before Ainslinger and Hearst, hemp was commonly called cannabis. By changing the name to the Mexican word “marihuana,” they were able to create distance and demonize the plant. The simple act of renaming a plant that was being commonly used in many pharmaceuticals, by large pharmaceutical companies we know today — completely morphed cannabis into an unfamiliar “colored peoples’ drug.”
This racist propaganda pushed Congress to pass the Marijuana Stamp Act of 1937, written by Harry Ainslinger. Making the nation’s first federal anti-marijuana measure, which virtually made it impossible to possess or sell cannabis due to crazy expensive taxes attached. Even doctors and physicians were forced to pay taxes for every cannabis related prescription. As farmers and phyiscians distanced themselves from marijuana and high fees, the market didn’t follow — spawning a black market. Soon the first marijuana related arrest is made on Moses Baca, a Mexican-American with priors for domestic abuse and the perfect poster child for anti-marijuana legislation.
It’s only two years after the Stamp Act is introduced that the United States finds itself in World War II. Desperate for replenishable supplies, the US Goverment backtracks it’s stance and creates a pro-hemp documentary, “Hemp for Victory.” Farmers across Midwest and Southern states start investing in hemp for the war effort, effectively plating 400,000 acres between the years of 1942–1945.
But just as quickly as this green patriotic movement spread on the wings of World War II, it disappeared once fighting stopped. Many of the farmers who banked on hemp, were left with useless harvesting plants and cancelled contracts. I can’t help but to think of soy bean farmers across America, who are now stuck in a trade war between two ham-fisted dictators. But I digress, as the hemp industry took it’s last breath in 1958, the timber, nylon and plastic industry happily stepped into their monopolies. Crazily enough, after the war, the United States government scrubbed it’s records and archives of their Hemp for Victory film. It wasn’t until 1989, when Jack Herer and a handful of other cannabis activists were given a VHS copy of the propaganda film that it was rediscovered — and even after that the government refused to release the film for a whole year.
Since 1914 the United States Department of Agriculture has acknowledged that hemp had started to grow wildly throughout the midwest. But it wasn’t until marijuana was listed under the Controlled Substance Act in 1970 that it became a problem. By 1979 the DEA created the federally funded Domestic Cannabis Eradication/ Suppression Program. A big problem with this program is that a large portion of their eradication statistics comes from pulling ditch-weed. The grandchildren of the hemp that was planted 30 years before, able to lay dormant for up to 10 years and produce hundreds of seeds per plant. A standing tribute to the hundreds of years of cannabis history in the United States.
Hemp has such a rich, deep history in the United States — some of it interesting other parts extremely distressing. But it’s still our history. Soon the House and Senate will meet to discuss the future of hemp in the States. If both parties agree to add hemp legalization to the 2018 Farm Bill, the 80 year ban will finally be lifted allowing for a once thriving industry to flourish again.