Hemp: History of a Great but Mistreated Plant

Hemp: History of a Great but Mistreated Plant

Agriculture isn’t natural. It’s a human invention that sprung up 10,000 years back, and we now have proof that Hemp farming was common practice back in 2800 BCE. What this means is that hemp is among the oldest known and grown crops of the world, and it is not a far-fetched assumption that hemp might have been the cradle of civilization. Originally from the Central Asian temperatures, this crop is fast to grow, requires less land, and has many uses. No wonder it has been an integral part of history across the globe.

What is Hemp?

Hemp is a sub-genus in the Cannabaceae family. Hemp seeds have a dark brown colour and a nutty flavour.

Speaking of hemp seed nutrition, these little herblets are rich in essential fatty acids, making them a good food for your brain. Not only can this plant be used as food, but hemp benefits also go far beyond the kitchen.

Hemp has found its usage in clothes, medicines, and more. Though in the modern age, most countries aren’t sure where they stand in the purview of hemp, in the past, most civilisations, divided by distance, were united by their reliance on hemp. With hemp’s origins tracing back to modern-day China and India, it is an exciting story of how the crop had spread all around the globe in various phases by the 18th century.

Here’s a quick look at the history of the Hemp Plant.

Phase-1: First mentions - China and India

Pots dating back to 8000 BCE have been recovered from Taiwan, which had used Hemp leaves and shreds. Hemp's recorded usage is found in the reign of Emperor Fu Hsi and Shen Nung, who also encouraged its experimentation for medicinal purposes.

Atharvaveda, a Hindu holy scripture, refers to Hemp as one of the five most sacred plants on the earth. Usage of Hemp for insomnia, digestive issues, and skin disorders were recorded for the first time in this period. Bhang ( a drink made with milk and hemp seeds) was an accepted refreshment in the 850 BCE Hindu society. Shiva, the God of Gods or Mahadev, is fond of Bhang.

This is also the first-ever time when Cannabis were recognized as pacifiers and psychological aids. 

Phase-2: Traveling to Europe

Historians believe Eurasian, particularly ancient Persian religious tribes, were responsible for bringing Hemp and Cannabis, in general, over to European land. A hemp rope dating back to 600 BCE has been found in Russia.

It is also interesting to note that before 200 BCE, hemp was limited to ropes, food, clothes, and medicine. In 100 BCE, China made the first still-remaining paper from hemp.

In 850 AD, we prove that Vikings brought the herb over to Iceland. 

Phase-3: The Americas and Africa

It is believed that hemp reached Africa by the early 15th century, with European traders making their way into the continent. Some theories hint that Hemp was already there and had been carried on by Persian traders, the same as Europe's.

As for the North and South American continent, however, the British hammered the last nail in the North American landscape. As European superpowers from the 16th century explored the world, they needed more sails. Hemp was the first contender for sail cloth, which didn’t easily break in salty and highly humid areas. Hemp became helpful for making cheap viable sails and for ropes. This was the golden era of hemp. The crop gained respect, so much so that King Henry the VIII and Queen Victoria made it mandatory for eligible English farmers to grow hemp.

These rules were forwarded to British colonies in India and North America. As enslaved Indians were bought and traded off to the West Indies during the colonial era, they got cannabis with them to the West Indies. This was an introduction to the enslaved Africans they worked alongside. Jamaica and Barbados are stereotypically still associated with “doobie”. 

The East India Company would also use cannabis to control enslaved people in Jamaica and the Caribbean. This was not necessarily Hemp. The herb does belong to a genus of the Cannabis grouping, but hemp is not to be confused with Marijuana.

At this point, we must ask…

What is the difference between hemp and cannabis? Is hemp truly a drug?

To begin with, Hemp is a part of the Cannabis genus. It does contain the infamous but valuable THC(tetrahydrocannabinol), which is responsible for the psychedelic impact of cannabis. However, the amount of THC in Hemp isn’t even strong enough to produce mild hallucinations. The amount helps treat insomnia, though. 
Cannabis Sativa and Indica, the more prominent Cannabis, contain THC in higher amounts and lead to hallucinogeni effects.

In the late 19th century, Sir Willian Brooke O’ Shaughnessy, an Irish doctor studying in India, found that cannabis helped ease nausea and inflammation. This discovery led to cannabis inclusion in western pharma.

How Old is this Confusion?

It is interesting to note that in the late 16th century, rumors' were rife in Europe that the cannabis genus has “certain” effects on the mind. William Shakespeare, too, was a fan of the herb and research indicates he found it mentally productive to use the leaves before producing his written genius.

This mix-up dates back to medieval times when middle eastern tribes would use dried hemp leaves as intoxicants. Although very weak, hemp could be grown to produce stronger THC.  
As other corners of the world did catch up with the THC train, their inclination for marijuana grew.
However, being the oldest in the group, hemp continued to get the blame. In most ancient cultures like the Chinese and Indian cultures, there aren’t separate names for Hemp and Marijuana. In Hindi, it’s Ganja and in old Chinese dialects, it’s Mai, which are both words for “Hemp” initially but have come to be used for weed as well. 

This added to the controversy. 

However, it hasn’t always been so bad. 
America’s founding fathers, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were open advocates of hemp seed oil, who grew the herb on their residential estate.

For the more significant part of history, most countries have maintained a grateful stance towards cannabis. 
However, this all changed in the early 20th century. 

Phase-4: The Fall

Though research from around the globe had started piling up, it was largely favorable to make hemp a legal crop. Doctors and researchers believed that hemp could produce 4x more paper than regular trees. However, in the early 20th century, hemp couldn’t rule out a stark comparison with marijuana. 

Mexican immigrants who had brought with them some exotic herbs were also getting infamous for “drugs”, and a quick association with marijuana was made with People of colour. Many political campaigns would target cannabis as a symbol of liberalism and “being invaded”.

It was also around this time in the 20th century that people started resorting to marijuana for leisure and intoxication. Alcohol prices were soaring after the great recession and marijuana was a good substitute. As the usage and rather drug abuse grew, the authorities were more concerned as to how this would culturally diversify the nation. 
To curb Mexican exotic herbs and to reaffirm the “values of an American society”, the radical groups pressurized the government to illegalize hemp. Though it was used and respected in the very cradle of society for centuries, the Government had carefully planned a narrative which made the plant a villain. 

So, in 1937, a Marijuana Tax Act was proposed in the US, which heavily taxed all cannabis. This led to a drop in hemp farming.
However, five years later, the US Government came out with a ‘Hemp for Victory’ documentary as WWII roared. The Government needed hemp to make soldiers’ uniforms, paper, sails, medicines, and more. Over 150,000 acres were utilised in hemp farming that year alone. Huge profits were made too, but the demand got short as the war blew over.

Bigger problems laid ahead for hemp farmers who had too much product but no takers. The prices dropped and the US authorities commensurate their previous viewpoint on hemp as a drug.

Moreover, around this time, the US government began importing from nearby countries in the Indies for whatever little requirement they had, and this hemp was organically sourced yet cheaper. This crushed the internal hemp farming scene. By the 1970s, hemp was declared an illegal substance.

Meanwhile, hemp’s use for textile and clothes declined in the European continent for similar prohibitionism. Also, with the advent of polythene, cotton, and other materials. By the 1960s, only a few European States continued using Hemp as a fibre. 

This, too, was ruled out in a single UN Convention, which termed it all “Cannabis”. This made Hemp a narcotic drug. 

Soon after, most countries around the world follow suit.

Phase-5: What Now?

Today, China and France collectively make up for 80% of hemp production. Other producers include Austria, Sweden, India, and Lithuania. Some states in the USA have legalized hemp production as of 2019. Countries like New Zealand allow for research. However, there are countries where Hemp continues to be in a complete No-zone. While most European states now permit hemp usage to some lesser or more extent, countries like Andorra and Belarus do not even allow for medicinal use of the contents.

As more and more evidence piles up in favor of Hemp and CBD products, we may not be so far from a day when hemp and its products are normalized and available for mass disposal.

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