Skip to main content

Understanding the long history of hemp and its criminalization in America is important, as it is the story of a plant that was criminalized by the U.S. government at the behest of oligarchic titans of industry, in an effort to protect their respective business empires from being overtaken by hemp.

Hemp is a specific variety of cannabis plant grown for the industrial and commercial uses of its fiber, which contain almost no THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis that alters an individual’s mental state upon ingestion. In fact, hemp was grown for hundreds of years—even by some of the “Founding Fathers”—mainly for the multi-use fiber in its stalk.

Industrial hemp has the potential to replace many of the currently used fossil fuel-based products as it can be used in a reported 25,000 products—perhaps explaining why a substance that has no psychoactive value is treated as a controlled substance by the U.S. federal government; classified as a Schedule 1 drug.

As a report, entitled "Hemp as an Agricultural Commodity" by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) notes, “hemp is also from the same species of plant, Cannabis sativa, as marijuana. As a result, production in the United States is restricted due to hemp’s association with marijuana, and the U.S. market is largely dependent on imports…

The CRS report specifies:

"Under current U.S. drug policy, all cannabis varieties—including industrial hemp—are considered Schedule I controlled substances under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA),1 and DEA continues to control and regulate hemp production."

How and why was hemp outlawed?

It is important to understand why this plant became illegal in the United States since the use, possession, and sale of cannabis are the most common reasons for an individual to be incarcerated in a U.S. jail or prison.

Prior to 1937, hemp was legally grown in the U.S. but the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act—while not technically criminalizing hemp—taxed hemp in such a way as to make it unlawful to possess or grow. The legislation was worded in such a way that anyone wanting to grow hemp had to possess a Marijuana Tax Stamp. But in order to receive a stamp an individual was required to be in possession of cannabis—which was illegal if not in possession of a stamp. This self-incriminating requirement made it so if someone attempted to register while in possession of cannabis, they were arrested. For those that did not have cannabis in their possession when registering, they were simply denied a tax stamp.

Although the law contained an unconstitutional self-incriminating requirement in violation of the Fifth Amendment, it was not until 32 years later, in 1969, that the Marijuana Tax Act was declared unconstitutional.

It is important to understand that the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act was not due to a social need, but clearly derived from the societal power-elite and their political cronies operating in unison to protect timber, petrochemical, pharmaceutical, tobacco, and news tycoons, as they feared industrial hemp would come to dominate their industries.

Additionally, hemp was generally grown by poor, working-class farmers, thus corporate mass media and the political establishment made no profit from the industry. Many experts believe that if hemp was legalized in the U.S. it would become the number one cash crop in the country.

In the 1930s, machines including the Hemp Dresser and the Decorticator vastly improved the efficiency of harvest and manufacturing processes that strip hemp fiber making them more affordable and practical for common people to use, thus posing a threat to the oligarchs of industry as a number of their companies were reliant on less sustainable, non-recyclable resources. A Popular Mechanics magazine article published in February 1938 projected that domestically grown hemp could be worth $1 billion.

Jack Herer wrote in his book, The Emperor Wears No Clothes:

In 1916, USDA Bulletin No. 404 reported that one acre of cannabis hemp, in annual rotation over a 20-year period, would produce as much pulp for paper as 4.1 acres of trees being cut down over the same 20-year period. This process would use only 1/7 to 1/4 as much polluting sulfur-based acid chemicals to break down the glue-like lignin that binds the fibers of the pulp, or even none at all using soda ash. All this lignin must be broken down to make pulp. Hemp pulp is only 4-10% lignin, while trees are 18-30% lignin. The problem of dioxin contamination of rivers is avoided in the hemp paper making process, which does not need to use chlorine bleach (as the wood pulp papermaking process requires), but instead substitutes safer hydrogen peroxide in the bleaching process.

Thus, hemp provides four times as much pulp with at least four to seven times less pollution. As we have seen, this hemp pulp-paper potential depended on the invention and the engineering of new machines for stripping the hemp by modern technology. This would also lower demand for lumber and reduce the cost of housing, while at the same time helping re-oxygenate the planet.

As an example: If the new (1916) hemp pulp paper process were in use legally today, it would soon replace about 70 percent of all wood pulp paper; including computer printout paper, corrugated boxes, and paper bags. If hemp had not been made illegal, 80% of DuPont’s business would never have materialized and the great majority of the pollution which has poisoned our Northwestern and Southeastern rivers would not have occurred.”

Scroll to Continue

Recommended for You

Had hemp remained legal, DuPont would have been directly challenged as hemp can be used to create biodegradable plastics without the use of pollutants or chemicals, thus causing DuPont to become one of the great supporters of criminalizing hemp.

Another titan of industry that sought to criminalize hemp was publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, who founded the Hearst Corporation in 1887. Hearst’s publication empire, which had a major influence on public opinion, was used to run propaganda and “yellow journalism” to shape public perceptions, as his papers reportedly had over 20 million readers.

Publishers like Hearst and Pulitzer had a vested interest in propagandizing the public in an effort to criminalize cannabis for their own personal financial motives, as a move toward hemp would have required the newspaper industry to shift operations from using tree pulp to hemp pulp for use in their publications. The publishers engaged in distributing outright lies that claimed cannabis caused “mass murder and insanity.”

The Marijuana Tax Act, passed in 1937, made no differentiation between highly psychoactive cannabis and varieties with virtually no psychoactive components used for their fibers. With the tax act in place, already profitable industries were protected from competition from hemp. Additionally, it gave the government the power to target and incarcerate immigrants and African Americans who smoked cannabis.

For a brief period, after the United States entered World War II in 1941, the nation’s hemp cultivation efforts were brought back to life with the release of the film “" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Hemp for Victory,” to encourage American farmers to grow as much hemp as possible for the war effort. Following the end of the war, domestic production of hemp once again disappeared.

After the Marijuana Tax Act was declared unconstitutional in 1969, the U.S. government passed the Controlled Substances Act, a statute that regulates all cannabis, including industrial hemp. The definition of marijuana, included in the CSA, excluded certain parts of hemp—sterilized hemp seed, hemp fiber, and hemp seed oil—from regulation.

A federal court case in 2004 ruled that the DEA did not have authority to regulate the excluded hemp parts under the CSA. The passage of the 2014 Farm Bill included Section 7606, which allowed states to implement laws allowing state departments of agriculture and universities to grow hemp for research or pilot programs.

Last month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) introduced the Hemp Farming Act of 2018, which seeks to remove hemp from the federal government’s controlled substances list and to legalize it as an agriculture commodity. The bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rand Paul (R-KY). Congressman James Comer (R-KY) is set to introduce a companion hemp legalization bill in the U.S. House of Representatives.

press release from Senator McConnell claimed that the bill seeks to:

“The Hemp Farming Act of 2018 will help Kentucky enhance its position as the leading state on hemp production. It builds upon the success we have seen through the hemp pilot programs by allowing states to be the primary regulators of hemp if the U.S. Department of Agriculture approves their implementation plan. This legislation also will remove the federal barriers in place that have stifled the industry, which will help expand the domestic production of hemp. It will also give hemp researchers the chance to apply for competitive federal grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture—allowing them to continue their impressive work with the support of federal research dollars.”

Senator Wyden, a co-sponsor of the bill, wrote in a statement, “It is far past time for Congress to pass this commonsense, bipartisan legislation to end the outrageous anti-hemp, anti-farmer and anti-jobs stigma that’s been codified into law and is holding back growth in American agriculture jobs and our economy at large. Hemp products are made in this country, sold in this country and consumed in this country. Senator McConnell, our colleagues and I are going to keep pushing to make sure that if Americans can buy hemp products at the local supermarket, American farmers can grow hemp in this country.”

The Hemp Farming Act of 2018 was placed on a fast-track through the U.S. Senate on Monday, allowing it to skip the typical committee hurdles that newly-announced bills ordinarily face. A spokesperson for Senator McConnell told The Hill that the majority leader has yet to announce when the bill will be taken up for a vote.