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Hemp: The Movie of Our Lives

Written By: A. Coffin

It’s a story that has all of the elements of a major motion picture – sweeping historical scenes, celebrity good guys, celebrity bad guys, incredible plot changes, pride, prejudice, and money – lots of it. It could be viewed as a movie of our lives with hemp.

This is the story of hemp, and where it could take us is any one's guess, but in a nation needing new cottage industries, this story just might have a happy ending.

The Main Character

Before we roll the opening credits, let’s explain a bit about our main character, hemp. Hemp is the name given to strains of Cannabis sativa, with low tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Typically, cannabis with less than 0.3% is described as hemp. Without THC, Cannabis has no psychoactive products. It cannot make you high. It has been found on every continent in this hemisphere, and it was likely used long before its actual recorded history. It’s safe to say that no one truly knows its origination point.

Flashback: Long Ago in a Land Far Away…

Greek historian Herodotus, as early as about 480 BC, reported that in Scythia, people would inhale hemp-seed smoke cannabis for rituals and pleasure. This might be considered hemp’s sister product, and she plays into our story in a major way. We’ll get back to her later.

However, this is not the earliest mention of the product, not by a long shot; it was being cultivated in China around 4000 BC. Many cultures considered it a "gift from the divine."  The Zend-Avesta, a sacred book used by people in India, dating from 600 BC, also speaks of hemp, showing how widespread its use was.

Textile expert Elizabeth Wayland Barber, in an article for, notes that Cannabis sativa, "grew and was known in the Neolithic period [10,200 BC – 2000 BC] all across the northern latitudes, from Europe (Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Romania, the Ukraine) to East Asia (Tibet and China)," but "textile use of Cannabis sativa does not surface for certain in the West, until relatively late, namely the Iron Age [1300 BC – 700 AD]."

Jews living in the second century were familiar with its cultivation; in late medieval Germany and Italy, it was used in cooked dishes. In fact, there are reports indicating that Jesus and the apostles may have used hemp oil for anointing, as part of His healing process; an idea supported by archaeological evidence.

Hemp Comes to the New World

So, hemp has been around for a long, long time. It was an original "camp follower."  It grew indigenously in manure surrounding groups of people, and became a natural item to grow by those groups of people.

Due to its many uses, when Europeans made their way to the New World, hemp came too. The Spaniards brought it to the New World, and began cultivating it in Chile during 1545.

Hemp was mainly cultivated for its fibers at this point, and many are surprised to learn that when
Christopher Columbus made his voyage, his sails and ropes were made of hemp. In 1607, in the area that is now Richmond Virginia, Gabriel Archer observed that the native Powhatans were growing it when the white men first landed.

Here’s another surprising fact: as early as 1619, the first Virginia House of Burgesses past an Act requiring all planters to sow "both English and Indian" hemp on their plantations. The Puritans were cultivating hemp in 1645. The Puritans!

Meet the Celebrities and the "Billion Dollar Crop"

Hemp’s history in the United States, from before it was the United States, includes some of the biggest names around. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both grew hemp, according to their farm diaries. During Jefferson’s tenure as Governor of Virginia, hemp was used as legal tender when actual money was in short supply.

A bit later, Henry Ford was convinced that hemp and its industrial uses could save the American farmer from the Depression. In 1941, after a decade of research and experimentation, he debuted a plastic car, which was made from hemp-based plastic. We can see photographs of Mr. Ford taking an axe to the car to prove its durability. This was one of many ideas he had for using hemp in the automotive industry.

To that end, there is a now-famous issue of Popular Mechanics, from 1938, touting the farmers’ next "Billion Dollar Crop."  It shows the new technology of the time for hemp, a decorticator, which will lessen the labor for the crop. One of the major points to this article is that many products are imported from other countries, such as flax, paper, linens, rope, and several others. With hemp’s short growing season, and its ability to be grown in all states, what could possibly stand in its way?  These could now be grown here at home by the American farmer and manufactured locally. That money could stay here in the United States. For a nation suffering from the Depression, it seemed a really good idea.

Be sure to catch Part II, "Hemp: The Plot Thickens, aka "What the Hell Happened?"
Part III, "Hemp: The Hero in the Spotlight."

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