Sativa leaf wrapped around globe

In The Beginning…

​Cannabis has played a major role as a fiber and grain crop for humans through much of our history. Native to Central Asia (Simmonds, 1976; Polio, 2016; Fike, 2016), this historic plant has potential value as a modern cash crop because of its environmental, medicinal, and economic benefits. Hemp’s first harvest, probably by the Chinese, dates back 8500 years ago (Schultes, 1970). A member of the Family Cannabaceae, hemp likely originated as a species in higher precipitation regions of Central Asia (Small, 2015), but humanity’s long interaction with the Cannabis genus and the species’ ability to adapt to a variety of edaphic and climatic conditions have led to its near-global spread (Johnson, 1999).

Hemp Usage

​​Well before the development of agriculture, nomadic peoples likely encountered hemp along rivers where it grew in Central Asia (Small, 2015). Hemp’s broad adaptability to varied environments and very different selection pressures (i.e., for fibers or for psychotropic compounds) led to marked regional differences in form and plant chemistry.  Human exposure to and interaction with Cannabis for much of our history – and selection for these disparate outputs – also led to the development of markedly different attitudes towards the plant. Many of the negative views of the species in more recent times have been related to the potential adverse effects associated with the use of the psychotropic strains. Historically, however, the plant largely was viewed favorably given its high-quality fibers.

​​Industrial hemp’s fiber properties have been the basis for its successful spread and use as an agronomic crop. Bast fibers likely have been the most utilized component of the plant historically. The species’ bast fibers were likely an early primary source for string for nets and bows and used to make other valuable textile products (Whitford, 1941). Around 1500 BCE, hemp made its arrival to Western Europe from Central Asia (Husbands, 1909). The crop spread throughout the continent and became a vital resource for European maritime countries, which utilized hemp fibers for rope, cordage, and canvas (the word being derived from Cannabis; Douglas-Harper Online Etymology Dictionary, 2019) for their navies. Hemp was a source of power, helping change Europe’s national, political, cultural, and economic destiny, and it was in this context that the crop was taken to the New World.

​​The Spanish government was very encouraged to produce hemp for fiber in the Americas since production in Spain was limited by the country’s hotter drier climate (Clarke and Merlin, 2013). Hemp was imported to South America and cultivation started in what is now Chile. The crop has been grown there for 400 years, largely for local use (Clarke and Merlin, 2013).

​​In North America, hemp was an important fiber crop from colonial times until the early 20th century (Small and Marcus, 2002). English colonists often were mandated to grow the crop to ensure supplies for the Royal Navy. In the late 1630s, laws in Connecticut, Virginia, and Massachusetts required each family to plant one teaspoon’s worth of hemp seed in their yard (Deitch, 2003). Those who did not obey were subject to jail as punishment (Herdon, 1963).

Hemp As Textile Fiber

​​Hemp served as the world’s most universal textile fiber until the invention of the cotton (Gossypium hirsutism) gin in the American South in the 18th century. Hemp continued to be grown in or imported to the U.S. through the 19th century but was used primarily for low-value string and twine – often to bundle up bales of cotton – in addition to its use for rope, rigging, and sails. Movement of ships from sail to steam power reduced demand for hemp, and the fiber also faced competition from other fiber sources (jute and sisal) (Fortenberry and Bennet, 2004).

​​In the 20th century, concerns about marijuana (the psychotropic strain of cannabis) and potential drug use and abuse led to constraints on industrial hemp production. Passage of the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937 put all forms of cannabis under the regulatory control by the Department of Treasury, and effectively constrained production (USDA, 2000). Government restrictions were eased during World War II, and producers were encouraged to become registered and licensed to grow hemp for the U.S. military (Robinson, 1996), but these prior restrictions were resumed following the war. In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act designated all forms of cannabis as Schedule I drugs (USDA, 2000).

​In the 1990s, hemp was legalized in Canada and Western Europe, sparking a resurgence of interest in the U.S. by those wanting to develop an American hemp industry (Fike, 2016). In 2014, the U.S. Farm Bill signed by President Barack Obama, legalized research with industrial hemp. The bill allowed state-sanctioned pilot programs to assess the different characteristics and develop management strategies for the crop. According to the National State Conference of Legislatures (, at least 39 states in the U.S. currently are engaged in cannabis related research.

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