The History of Cannabis Sativa in the U.S.

Hemp farming USA

To understand the history of hemp in the United States is to understand the history of the Cannabis Sativa plant as a species. Little was understood of the scientific difference between the two varieties of Cannabis Sativa: hemp and cannabis or “marijuana”. Because of this, and in spite of their different applications, chemistry, and, appearance, hemp and cannabis were branded with the same iron and demonized as intoxicating, violence-inducing drugs.

Consequently, hemp suffered the same fate as cannabis and became outlawed after relentless anti-pot propaganda and campaigning in the mid-20th Century by certain political figureheads, which we shall come to learn more about during this article.

First and foremost, it’s important to understand that humankind has used hemp for a staggering variety of applications for as many as 10,000 years. Evidence in the archeological record shows that various civilizations all over the world cultivated and used hemp for its fiber, soft, cellulose-rich inner core, and oil-rich seeds. Today, the more than 25,000 industrial uses, range from weaving clothing, bags, rope, carpet, and canvas to making insulating materials, paper, animal bedding, biodegradable plastic, oil, ink, paint, garden mulch, and more.

Important note: Because hemp contains less than 0.3% delta-9 tetrahydrocannabidiol or THC, the chemical compound that has a psychoactive effect, this plant is not farmed for the medicinal, therapeutic or “high” effects that its sister varietal, cannabis or marijuana, is.

Yet, in spite of its usefulness, the era of prohibition cast a dark shadow over the agriculture of hemp, leading ultimately to the demise of a very lucrative industry.

In this article, we’ll provide a sweeping account of the history of hemp in the United States, from its regulation in the early 20th Century and prohibition alongside cannabis in the 1970s, to the industry’s resuscitation with the 2013 and 2018 Farm Bills.

Let’s start our story at the end of the 19th Century, when shifting attitudes towards the Cannabis Sativa plant – and its two varieties, cannabis and hemp – began to muddy the legislative waters surrounding this remarkably useful and versatile plant. For a recap of the first two installments of this series on hemp, click on the links below:

Early Restrictions on Cannabis Sativa

As early as the 1860s, restrictions on cannabis as a drug started appearing in local laws in New York, followed by several other states in the 1910s and 20s. This was likely because the plant, when ingested, produced similar effects to alcohol and was seen as an intoxicant. Since there was little to no scientific research to support its medicinal properties and applications, the solution was to restrict and regulate the sale of cannabis, which the federal Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 did.

Harry Anslinger

Harry Jacob Anslinger (May 20, 1892 – November 14, 1975), first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Fair use.

Then came Harry Jacob Anslinger, a United States government official that served as the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger, a vocal supporter of prohibition and the criminalization of drugs, played a pivotal role in the prohibition of the Cannabis Sativa plant, the definition of which encompassed both cannabis and hemp.

Initially, however, prior to the end of alcohol prohibition in 1933, Anslinger had little interest in cannabis restriction or prohibition. In fact, he was quite clear in his opinion that cannabis was not a problem and did not harm people. When asked if cannabis drives people to violence, as its opponents claimed, he replied: “there is no more absurd fallacy.”

But he changed his mind and it wasn’t due to objective evidence that the plant was harmful. With alcohol prohibition having come to an end in 1933, it became apparent to Anslinger that his department – the Department of Prohibition – and therefore his job was obsolete. Anslinger needed a new target to justify his employment and so he set his sights on cannabis, ultimately due to self-interest.

A New Era of Prohibition

From 1934 onwards, Anslinger began campaigning for a new prohibition, this time of Cannabis Sativa and his tactics were dubious to say the least. Using mass media in the form of radio, newspaper, and other major forums, Harry Anslinger rallied against cannabis in a way that was entirely subjective, scientifically inaccurate, racially-fuelled, and sensationalized:

“By the tons it is coming into this country — the deadly, dreadful poison that racks and tears not only the body, but the very heart and soul of every human being who once becomes a slave to it in any of its cruel and devastating forms…. Marihuana is a short cut to the insane asylum. Smoke marihuana cigarettes for a month and what was once your brain will be nothing but a storehouse of horrid specters. Hasheesh makes a murderer who kills for the love of killing out of the mildest mannered man who ever laughed at the idea that any habit could ever get him….”

“Reefer Madness” is a 1936 American propaganda film. Image by Motion Picture Ventures – direct link, Public Domain.

Anslinger amassed questionable anecdotes of cannabis causing violence and crime, and totally ignored any evidence to the contrary, even medical and scientific. He ignored a discussion forwarded to him by the American Medical Association, in which 29 of 30 pharmacists and drug industry representatives objected to his attempts to call for cannabis prohibition. One healthcare professional called his proposal “absolute rot”, saying that it was entirely unnecessary and that he had never known of the plant’s misuse.

The Anti-Cannabis Movement Becomes Racist

Anslinger’s anti-cannabis articles also often contained shocking racial themes that were gravely unconstitutional. In one documented incident, Anslinger testified before Congress, saying:

“Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind. Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage.”

In another statement, Anslinger said: “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men…the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.”

A word on marijuana…

Prior to 1910, the word “marijuana” didn’t exist in American culture. Instead, “cannabis” was used, most often in reference to medicines and remedies for common household ailments. Anslinger’s ruthless campaign insisted on referring to cannabis as “marijuana”, the Latin American Spanish term for the plant, which encouraged a foreign identity and an association with immigrants, particularly from Mexico. It’s because of these original nefarious intentions that the term marijuana, when used in reference to medicinal or recreational cannabis, is becoming increasingly politically incorrect.

Hemp Follows Suit

Through the mass peddling of entirely biased, sensationalized information and the fabrication of false reports of violence and crime, Anslinger’s bigoted campaigning succeeding in establishing a stigma around the Cannabis Sativa plant. This contributed momentum to a larger movement by the government to scare the public and outlaw all recreational drugs, not for public safety but for political gain, as we’ll see in a moment.

The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937

Hemp was a major cash crop in the United States prior to the 1900s. But changing attitudes towards the Cannabis Sativa plant and the passing of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, which called for the heavy taxation of all hemp sales, initiated the major decline of the once profitable industry. Some also say that the Marijuana Tax Act was a strategy to eliminate competition for the emerging nylon and plastic industries.

World War II Reinvigorates Hemp Agriculture

Hemp agriculture license
United States “Marihuana” production permit. During World War II farmers were encouraged to grow hemp for cordage, to replace Manila hemp previously obtained from Japanese-controlled areas. Image by U.S. Government – Public Domain.


With the enormous industry generated by World War II, the United States government realized the need for hemp as a useful industrial material and so it reversed its stance in 1942. The Department of Agriculture began to promote hemp and its benefits, applications, and superiority to its competing materials. It even released a promotional documentary called “Hemp for Victory”, which encouraged American farmers to grow hemp to support the war effort. Between 1942 and 1945 (the end of the war), this push succeeded in more than 400,000 acres of hemp being planted.

Sadly, right after the war, the U.S. government assumed its previous stance on Cannabis Sativa, and the hemp industry once again continued its collapse, forcing innumerous farmers to declare bankruptcy.

The obvious question here is why hemp suffered under the same stigma as cannabis. To reiterate the answer, it’s because little distinction was made between Cannabis Sativa plants used for industrial purposes and those used for medicinal or recreational purposes. Since both hemp and cannabis (or marijuana) are Cannabis Sativa plants, both became illegal substances with the plant’s prohibition in 1970….

The Drug War of 1970

In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act, which officially set up America’s drug scheduling system. Cannabis Sativa joined the ranks of heroin and LSD as a Schedule 1 drug with a high potential for abuse and no accepted medicinal use, something known then and now to be totally untrue. And yet, cannabis still suffers its Schedule 1 designation. Hemp suffered the same fate at the time and became outlawed. Interestingly, the Controlled Substances Act totally ignored alcohol and tobacco, substances that have a known potential for abuse and addiction.

The pieces just don’t add up. How can you ban a plant that has proven medical benefits and no documented history of causing deaths, while blithely ignoring alcohol and tobacco? If public safety were truly the heart and soul of Nixon’s “War on Drugs”, how did alcohol and tobacco escape scheduling?

The answer is provided by a chilling testimony by top Nixon aide, John Ehrlichman:

“You want to know what this was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

The 2013 and 2018 Farm Bill

More than 40 years after the Controlled Substances Act was passed, the United States government finally sought to distinguish between cannabis, which is predominantly grown for its medicinal and recreational uses, and hemp, which is farmed for its innumerable industrial applications.

On February 7, 2014, President Obama signed the Farm Bill of 2013 into law, which contained much relaxed laws regarding hemp agriculture. In fact, Section 7606 of the act, Legitimacy of Industrial Hemp Research, defined industrial hemp as distinct from cannabis and authorized institutions of higher education or state department’s of agriculture in states that legalized hemp cultivation to regulate and conduct research and pilot programs.

Renewed every five years, the latest iteration of the farm bill (2018) includes the progressive Hemp Farming Act, which calls for the federal legalization of hemp as a cash crop. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky) submitted the Act, saying that farmers from his home state of Kentucky are greatly interested in becoming involved in this lucrative industry and that the revenue generated could help offset the sting of declining tobacco demand.

“I know there are farming communities all over the country who are interested in this,” said McConnell in his address to the Senate Agriculture Committee. “Mine are particularly interested in it, and the reason for that is — as all of you know — our number 1 cash crop used to be something that’s really not good for you: tobacco. And that has declined significantly, as it should, given the public health concerns.”

Re-establishing Local Hemp Agriculture

Hemp farm
Hemp farm. Image by Barbetorte – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.


The Hemp Farming Act of 2018 seeks to amend the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 to allow for the American States to regulate hemp production according to their own agendas and policies. The inescapable truth is that hemp is an enormous untapped market, particularly in the United States where the plant is imported, rather than grown locally due to outdated federal legislature.

“It’s time to figure it out and see where this market will take us,” McConnell said. “I think it’s an important new development in American agriculture. There’s plenty of hemp around; it’s just coming from other countries. Why in the world wouldn’t we want a lot of it to come from here?”

For as long as 10,000 years, hemp has been used as a valuable industrial resource. While the past 100 years of that history may have seen this extraordinary plant dragged through controversy, the last few years have shown immense promise for reform. To date, forty U.S. states have defined industrial hemp as distinct from cannabis and have removed barriers to its production. These states will be able to take immediate advantage of the hemp research and pilot program provision of Section 7606 of the Farm Bill.

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