After decades of successful activism and educational efforts, hemp will be legal to grow in the US once again due to the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, championed by Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell. A rare bright spot in the rancorous world of partisan politics, hemp as a legal crop was approved by a vote of 86 to 11, making it possible for farmers in the US to supply a burgeoning marketplace for hemp as an industrial crop used in textiles, paper, building materials, bio-plastics, health food, CBD supplements and much more.
Our country has had a long and illustrious history with hemp, which was a vital tool in the American Revolution. Essential for producing hempen ropes and canvas sails for ships, farmers in the colonies were required to cultivate hemp by law, with the Virginia Assembly proclaiming that “that every planter as soone as he may, provide seede of flaxe and hempe and sowe the same,” a recommendation adopted by Massachusetts and Connecticut as well.
Much of the hemp grown in the US was exported to Great Britain, and depriving the crown of this important resource proved advantageous to the revolutionaries, who used hemp to supply their own armies and navies. Founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both cultivated the crop on their lands, with early drafts of the Declaration of Independence written on hemp paper. Even the original flag sewn by Betsy Ross was created from hemp fiber, so it’s a plant that has deep ties with the identity of our nation.
Throughout the 19th century, hemp continued to be utilized widely, with technological innovations such as the Decorticator machine speeding up production. In 1841, Congress passed a law requiring the US Navy to source all of its hemp from American farmers, and the good times kept rolling into the 20th century, when Popular Mechanics published an article in 1938 projecting that the domestic hemp market would be worth a billion dollars. Unfortunately, all of that progress came screeching to a halt due to the impact of The Marihuana Tax Act passed the previous year.
As we all now know, the disastrous War on Drugs follows, and one of its many negative consequences was the destruction of the US hemp industry, paving the way for deforestation as trees were harvested for paper and building materials while synthetic fibers and other polluting technologies replaced the original eco-friendly fiber.
Dedicated activism from Jack Herer and others placed hemp back on the agenda through the 1980s and 90s, as citizens and lawmakers were re-educated about the benefits of this multipurpose plant, undoing many years of brainwashing about the relationship between hemp and cannabis. Jack Herer even went through archives in order to unearth “Hemp for Victory,” a film produced to encourage farmers to grow hemp to help the Allies win World War 2. Slowly but surely, the market for hemp as a nutritional supplement, body care product, and textile for clothing began to grow, with manufacturers sourcing their raw materials from Canada, China and elsewhere.
Fortunately, now we can look forward to future where hemp can be used again, with possible applications to fight climate change. Using hemp as a building material sequesters carbon, with Professor Pete Walker, Director of the BRE Centre for Innovative Construction Materials, saying “Hemp grows really quickly; it only takes the area the size of a rugby pitch to grow enough hemp in three months to build a typical three-bedroom house.”
An Australian company recently announced plans to combine hemp with 3D printing technology to create homes in the Netherlands, and exciting new projects such as this show amazing promise in meeting the challenges that lie ahead.
Finally, citizens of the US will be able to access domestically-produced hemp as a source for CBD supplements, since the Farm Bill defines hemp as a ‘whole plant’ that includes all extracts and derivatives produced from it. Celebrate this victory by getting more hemp into your life, using its seeds for food and medicine, its fibers for paper, clothing and shelter, and feel good about working towards a more sustainable future for all Americans.