Industrial Hemp: An American Saga

[one_half]Cultivating Hemp (Cannabis Sativa L.) has provided the people of the earth a sustainable source of fiber for thousands of years. The oldest known human artifact is a piece of hemp fabric from ancient Mesopotamia dating back to around 8,000 BC. The products manufactured from the hemp plant are so numerous that they cannot all be named in a single article. Throughout the centuries people used hemp for making paper, clothing, sails, ropes, fuels, [/one_half][one_half_last][box]This article by Kyle L. Ladenburger is republished here from Issue 6 of Garden Culture Magazine. It originally appeared under the title, Industrial Hemp: The Rise, Fall & Resurrection of an American Industry.[/box][/one_half_last]medicines, and even plastics – just to name a few. However, this incredibly useful crop became inaccessible, and steeped in controversy.

Industrial hemp is a close relative of the modern marijuana plant so well-known for the psychoactive effects caused by ingesting it, along with THC, its cannabinoid compound. However, industrial hemp has almost no THC, usually much less than 1% by weight. It’s used mainly for its fiber. Despite differing greatly in this aspect from marijuana, legislation and public opinion have lumped the two together to the extent that its outlawed the growing of industrial hemp in the USA for almost a century.


Hemp arrived in America during the 1600s aboard the Mayflower ship carrying the Puritans escaping religious persecution in Europe for a better life in the “new world”.

Hemp Harvest on Back of 1913 US $10 Bill

Hemp’s importance in the US put it on the back of the 1913 $10 bill. (Dolar Onuse)

It was an invaluable commodity for ships of the era due to its sheer strength, and natural resistance to decay. Ropes, canvas, sails, netting, maps, log book pages, and even the flags the ships sailed under were all manufactured from hemp fiber. Not only was the Mayflower equipped with hemp products, it carried hemp seeds to supply the colonists with a renewable source of strong fiber. In fact, most ships in Great Britain’s fleet were commonly stocked with a store of hemp seeds. They distributed them throughout the colonies of the
empire, and colonial citizens were often compelled by law to grow, and process the plant for industrial use. Colonial America was no exception.

In the 17th century, citizens of Virginia, Massachusetts, and Connecticut colonies could actually go to jail for not growing hemp on their farms. This easily grown fiber source was so immensely important that for nearly 200 years – Americans could actually pay their taxes with it. Many of the United States founding fathers, including George Washington, grew hemp on their own land, and encouraged others to follow suit. Thomas Jefferson penned the first drafts of both the Declaration of Independence, and the U.S. Constitution on hemp fiber paper.

The undeniable importance of hemp in early American history is hard to understate, and its prominence unmatched as an industrial fiber until 1865.


Following the Civil War, the world saw the rise of the steamboat, making hemp sails and other similar ship accessories nearly obsolete. Around the same time other domestic materials (such as cotton and tree fiber) began to replace hemp in products like clothing and paper.

Michigan, Illinois and Kentucky continued to grow industrial hemp until the late 1800s. Demand continued to drop. By the 1900s, Kentucky was the only state to continue an active production of the crop until the start of World War I, when an increase in production occurred due to demand. During this same time period advancements in the production and use of petroleum products led to their extended use as both fuels and oils. This further diminished use of the hemp plant, which was and still is, an adequate material for products ranging from biofuels to plastics. Though domestic production of hemp was declining, there was still a need for hemp, and its products. But most of the hemp fiber was imported, which remained the norm for the next hundred years.


Though the hemp industry was in noticeable decline, certain industry moguls still saw the plant as a plausible threat to their profits. Most notable of the bunch was the Dupont Chemical Company, and William Randolph Hearst – owner of Hearst Paper Manufacturing, a division of Kimberly-Clark, and a growing empire of newspapers across the country.

Industrial Hemp: More Value than Most Resources

Over 50,000 different uses! Click image to enlarge. (Daily Health Post)

In the early 1900s, DuPont was manufacturing pesticides, the use of herbicides and fertilizers was extensive in cotton growing. In comparison to industrial hemp, cotton requires much more water and fertilization per acre, and yields less usable fiber. And cotton fiber is inferior to hemp fiber in many ways. DuPont also held patents for the processing of oil and coal into plastics, a process that Henry Ford helped prove the hemp plant was highly capable of.

If hemp were to see another big surge in demand, it surely would not have been positive for DuPont’s bottom line. Hearst also understood the threat that popularized hemp production could have on his paper industry. His business manufactured paper from tree fiber, and he understood that hemp grew far faster, and could be manufactured cheaper than the product he was producing. In order for Hearst’s company to thrive he knew he must become the main producer of paper in the USA. And with industrial hemp looming as a possible alternative… He had to do something to monopolize the market. But there was only so much these two companies could do to prevent another rise in hemp production.

As the adage goes, we get by with a little help from our friends – especially if those friends are powerful. Enter into the scenario, Mr. Andrew Mellon, the Secretary of Treasury under President Herbert Hoover. Andrew Mellon was the owner of Mellon Bank, the financial backer of both DuPont and Hearst. As a man who undoubtedly understood the woes of his constituents, and with these expressed concerns, he then created the Bureau of Narcotics. He chooses none other than his niece’s husband, Harry Anslinger, to head the department. Anslinger was a key figure in the alcohol prohibition campaign, and was unemployed due to the end of prohibition. Anslinger was the final piece of the puzzle, and the man they needed to help bring an end to industrial hemp production in the US, but doing so would take a bit of finesse.

Enter into the equation the Mexican Revolution of 1910, which created an influx of Mexican immigrants into the United States. The immigrants brought along with them their tradition of smoking the flowers from the cannabis plant. As is true with other moments in history, the immigrants were not favorably welcomed, and Harry Anslinger began using their cannabis use as a way to demonize their population. He effectively created a smear campaign equating Mexican  immigrant recreational cannabis use as a cause of the violent crimes, and socially deviant behaviors committed by this “racially inferior” class of people.

Feeding off the overwhelming popularity of racism, Anslinger consistently spread, through articles in William Randolph Hearst’s own newspaper publications, slanderous unsubstantiated rumors that the use of cannabis by Mexican immigrants was leading to rapes and murders throughout the country. He even started using the Mexican slang for cannabis, marijuana, when referring to the problem. Not once did he ever make a plausible effort to substantiate between marijuana and industrial hemp.

The smear campaign continued through the 1930s when the Great Depression caused immigrant resentment to grow, and solidified the hatred or fear of marijuana within the minds of the people, and the way they viewed society. In 1937, congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act leading to extreme regulation of industrial hemp, and eventually the modern prohibition of the cannabis plant in the US.


In 1942, the Japanese war campaign in the Pacific led to invading the Philippines, which consequently cut off the Manila hemp fiber supply destined for the US. Understanding how important hemp fiber was to their own war efforts, the US government decided to distribute 400,000 pounds of hemp cannabis seeds to farmers from Wisconsin through Kentucky. The effort was given the marketing slogan “Hemp for Victory,” and the USDA even produced a film and pamphlets outlining the importance and need for industrial hemp production. (See bit.ly/hemp-video.)

The government viewed industrial hemp such a major key factor to the war effort that it even waived military service duty for the farmers and their sons. When the war ended, so did the production of hemp. The government ordered all remaining crops be destroyed. The remnants of these victory farms can still be seen on the edges of the fields they once populated where the plant is casually referred to as ditch weed, with most of the population not even knowing the history of how the plant got there in the first place.

The final nail in the coffin of industrial hemp came in 1970 with the passing of the Controlled Substance Act, which classified all types of cannabis – marijuana and industrial hemp included, as Schedule 1 drugs, making them illegal to grow or possess, and levying heavy consequences for those caught doing so. At this point, industrial hemp production was officially a thing of the past.


As the environmental effects of the over-consumption of products made from limited resources, such as those made from petroleum fossil fuels, and the widespread damage of deforestation for paper production are becoming ever more apparent – most people in the US and worldwide are looking for a reliable resource that is easy to grow and renewable. Without surprise, hemp is definitely one option that is getting some serious attention, and the government isn’t trying to stop it this time.

In 2014, the Federal Farm Bill included a provision allowing for industrial hemp cultivation by state universities and state departments of agriculture for research under an agricultural pilot program, or if the state has already passed a law allowing the for the industrial production of hemp. Currently, 21 states in the US have enacted state laws approving hemp cultivation for industrial or research purposes.

These laws are all built around three major points:

  1. The laws strictly define hemp as different from marijuana.
  2. Regulated use by industry. Growers need a state license and registration.
  3. Hemp is now excluded from the states’ Controlled Substance list.

On the federal level, steps being taken to differentiate between cannabis the drug, and cannabis the industrial-use plant are backed by leaders of both main political parties. Experts believe that this will inevitably lead to the unrestricted cultivation of industrial hemp in the United States.

Top image courtesy of Hempstead Project Heart.

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Kyle L. Ladenburger is a freelance garden writer who has worked in the gardening/hydroponics industry for over a decade. As an avid indoor and outdoor gardener, he is well versed in nearly all types of growing methods with an overall focus on sustainability and maintaining healthy soils. He holds a strong conviction that growing one’s own food is a powerful way to change our lives and our world for the better.