ANJA Presents: History, Hemp, and American Independence
Jul 4, 2022
Written by Ashley Robins
Role: Marketing and Policy Lead
Happy American Independence Day!
The history of cannabis isn’t widely taught in United States history class, so allow us to nerd out and share how this wonderful plant has been celebrated since the inception of this beautiful country.
Our story began in 1606- when King James I of England granted the Virginia Company a royal charter to establish Jamestown, Virginia. Things moved quickly, and by May 14, 1607, Jamestown became the first official English settlement in North America. Life was harsh for early settlers, and this reflected back in the Virginia Company’s profit margins. In November of 1616 the Virginia Company attempts to issue dividends to its investors, but profits were so small that it distributes land in Virginia instead. by 1619, England needed financial help from the colony. As a result, the Virginia Company passed legislation that required Jamestown’s land owners to grow and export 100 hemp plants to help their motherland. The production of hemp was critical for the production of rope, sails, and clothing. (For reference, cannabis flower is the mixture of dried, shredded flowers and leaves that comes from the hemp plant.)
The production of hemp continued well into the later colonial eras. By this point, hemp was considered so valuable that it was allowed to be exchanged as legal tender in settlements in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland. Both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington grew hemp. There is some evidence that consumption may have occurred: In his diary, Washington lamented that he "Began to seperate the Male from the Female hemp at Do.&—rather too late." Meaning that his hemp plant would not yield the desired cannabis flower. For reference, separating male and female hemp plants is evidence that he was cultivating it for the purpose producing cannabis flower, which could have been used for consumption. On another occasion, George Washington noted in his diary about the sowing of hemp seeds each day until mid-April and recounted that he grew 27 bushels of the crop that year. Assuming that the average cannabis plant yields approximately 500 grams and that all of the plants were cultivated for consumption purposes, this would mean that Washington potentially yielded as much as 30 pounds of cannabis flower! Of course, the records do not reflect if this yield differentiated between hemp produced solely for fibers or hemp produced for consumable flower–but we at ANJA like to use our imagination.
Beginning in the 1750s, Benjamin Franklin and his wife collected flax and hemp rags, invested in setting up paper mills that were fueled by hemp, and eventually ran a thriving wholesale paper business. This is how the Pennsylvania Gazette was founded; which quickly became the most widely read newspaper in the colonies. In fact, it was the 1765 Stamp Act placed on all business and law papers and printed materials that largely contributed to Franklin’s dedication to the American Revolution. Apart from Franklin’s Hemp Mill, he would later play a central role in the great crises that led to the Declaration of Independence. In 1765 the Stamp Act placed a tax on all business and law papers and printed materials in the American colonies. This, along with additional taxes on tobacco cultivation, was a major catalyst for the founding father’s to pursue freedom from “Taxation without Representation.”
At its peak in 1850, there were 8327 US hemp plantations that produced 40,000 tons of hemp; half in Kentucky, the rest in Tennessee, Missouri, and Mississippi. At the time, hemp was the third-largest farm commodity behind only cotton and tobacco in total production.
Hemp played a historical role in the Civil War (1861-1865) as well. On September 18-20, 1861, Missouri Secessionists used hemp bales to encircle the Union position at Lexington. This battle, also known as the “Battle of the Hemp Bales,” is one of the few examples of hemp being on the wrong side of history. Around this time, cannabis became a popular ingredient in many medicinal products and was sold openly in public pharmacies. Sidney George Fisher, a resident of Philadelphia, recorded this in his diary on November 3, 1863: "[Dr.] Wister here in the evening. The medicine he gave me caused me an agreeable mental excitement, which I mentioned to Bet [Fisher's wife]. The reason was that Indian hemp, or Hasheesh, was one of its ingredients. I have read of its wonderful powers over the mind & spirits, but never tried it before. It is certainly a very pleasant way of curing gout."
Unlike the marijuana that is smoked by many users today, cannabis was most often available consumed as an extract. In Henry Beasley's 1865 The Book of Prescriptions, he writes only that "The resinous extract is imported from India" and makes no mention of smoking as an option for treatment. Newspaper advertisements for cannabinoids are numerous throughout the Civil War, especially in the North, and often advertised candied extracts.
Domestic production continued to flourish until after the Civil War, when imports and other domestic materials replaced hemp. Following the Civil War, the industrial revolution brought new iron wire cables and bands, while cheaper jute began being imported from India. Many farmers gave up on hemp and turned to other crops, leaving behind the legacy of normalized domestic production with it.
By the 1910s, smokable cannabis came to the US by two routes: Mexican refugees brought it through Texas after the revolution—which is why “marijuana” replaced “cannabis”—and sailors and immigrants from the Caribbean brought it to New Orleans and the jazz community. This is a key reason that cannabis soon after became illegal.
During World War II, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was lifted briefly to allow for hemp fiber production to create rope, cordage, parachutes, and other military necessities for the US Navy. Simultaneously, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched its "Hemp for Victory" program, encouraging farmers to plant hemp by giving out seeds and granting draft deferments to those who would stay home and grow hemp. The US Department of Agriculture even produced Hemp for Victory: a black-and-white film released in 1942 that explained the uses of hemp and encouraged farmers to grow it. By 1943, a single year later, registered American farmers had harvested 375,000 acres of hemp. Interestingly enough, the US Department of Agriculture denied creating the film until 1989- when the film was recovered and donated to the Library of Congress
California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996. Today, the medical use of cannabis has been legalized in 39 states and the District of Columbia. The recreational or adult-use of cannabis is also legal in DC and 18 states. The history of hemp and cannabis runs deep throughout this country, and we are proud and privileged to be able to celebrate it today.
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