The History of Hemp

Hemp is one of the greatest, most important substances of our nation

-Thomas Jefferson


10K Years Ago
10K Years Ago

Hemp in the Ancient World

Hemp has been around for a very long time, and it’s use dates back to 10,000 years ago in China, and according to archaeological evidence and ancient texts, hemp was one of the very first agricultural crops cultivated in Central Asia (1). In China and other parts of Asia and the Middle East, hemp fiber was used to make clothing, ropes, cordage, fish nets, and paper, and it continued to be the main source of clothing until about 1200 when it was replaced by the newer, and cheaper crop cotton (2). The classic poetry book of Shih Ching, dating from the 11th-7th Centuries BC, describes the use of hemp seed and fiber in Peking (now Beijing), and hemp soon became the primary source of paper in Ancient China from about 100 AD (3). Through trade routes, Hemp spread across Eurasia to the far corners of modern-day Europe. The expansion of the Moorish empire during the 8th Century first brought hemp to modern- day Spain, and by the year 1000, hemp production spread to southern Russia, Greece, and even north to the British Isles (4).

Middle Ages
Middle Ages

Hemp in Europe

During the Middle Ages, hemp was an essential crop, and supplied much of the Europe’s need for food, paper and fiber. During the Renaissance and the Age of Exploration, sailing ships became highly dependent upon canvas (actually derived from the word cannabis), hemp rope and oakum (tarred hemp) due to those items being three times stronger than cotton and resistant to salt water. Hemp soon became essential all over Europe for the production of rope and canvas, and incidentally, records from the voyage of Christopher Columbus reveal that the sails and ropes on his three ships (the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria) were made entirely of hemp. Later on in 1533, King Henry VIII commanded that all English farmers grow hemp for the Royal Navy, or face fines. Up until the 1920’s, 80% of clothing in Europe was made from hemp (5).

17th Century
17th Century

Hemp in North America and the United States

Hemp was brought to colonial North America, and was even grown in 17 th Century Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the New World. Early American farmers grew and continued to use hemp for the production of canvas and ropes for ships, lamp fuel, and clothing. During the 1600’s, the Virginia Assembly officially recognized hemp’s essential value to the colonies, and the Assembly mandated that every farmer grow hemp. It was also allowed to be exchanged as legal tender in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania (6). By the end of the century, farmers all across the colonies were legally required to grow hemp as a staple crop, and early settlers constructed their own wooden presses for processing hemp oil seeds for cooking. The production of industrial hemp continued until before the Civil War, when it was replaced by cotton and the invention of the cotton gin. Up until that time, hemp production was popular, but labor-intensive and processed by hand. With the invention of the cotton gin at the end of the 18 th Century, the new machinery made it easier to process cotton. Unfortunately, hemp could not compete with this new technology, as more and more farmers switched to cotton farming (4). However, in the late nineteenth century, marijuana became a popular ingredient in many medicinal products and was sold openly in public pharmacies (6).

Up until the 1930’s hemp farming continued, as the demand for rope and other hemp products was still present, however, it’s production soon came under fire from companies like DuPont who patented and produced synthetic fibers, plastics and cellophane. Some sources suggest that DuPont led a smear campaign against hemp farming, demonizing it in the media as an attempt to crush it’s competition with DuPont’s new products. The purpose of the campaign was to gain public support for anti-marijuana laws, and on April 14, 1937, the Prohibitive Marijuana Tax Law passed the House Ways and Means Committee. This bill outlawed the production and use of all varieties of hemp, and it is interesting to note that the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Robert Doughton, was a DuPont supporter (7).


Hemp and World War II

Things changed for the hemp industry when the US entered World War II. After the Japanese invaded the Philippines in 1942, the US was cut off from their major source of hemp and other fiber materials. So in 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act was passed, allowing farmers to cultivate and process hemp for the war effort, specifically for the US Navy. In 1942, the USDA released a film called “Hemp for Victory,” where it sought to encourage farmers to grow hemp for the troops by showing the history of hemp, and how to grow and process hemp into rope, cordage, cloth and other products (8). However, after the war, hemp production reverted to it’s illegal status in the US.


Hemp in the US Today

After World War II through the 1960s, the US government realized that industrial hemp and marijuana were distinct varieties of the cannabis plant, but they were still lumped together. A slight boon for industrial hemp came in 1970, with the passage of the Controlled Substances Act. The Act stated that all cannabis varieties, including hemp, were Schedule I controlled substances along with heroin, LSD, and peyote. However, the Act did not make industrialized hemp production illegal, but legislation did require farmers to obtain DEA permits (12). Several years later in 2004, the 9 th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the DEA did not have the authority to regulate industrial hemp. That was good news for those companies who imported hemp and produced hemp products (9). It wasn’t until 2014, with the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill that the tide turned for the hemp industry. Section 7606 of the Bill stated that states were allowed to pass laws allowing the state’s department of agriculture and universities to grow hemp for research purposes. Then, four years later, the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill really opened the door again for hemp in the US. This act totally overhauled the laws surrounding hemp and hemp products, and it made it legal for US farmers to grow, process and sell hemp, and also legalized hemp nationally for any use, including CBD oil (10). With the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, the US hemp crop tripled in the 24 states that actively grow hemp, and that figure is expected to grow even more in the future. In 2018, the total number of acres dedicated to hemp cultivation was estimated at 78,176 acres, up from 25,713 acres in 2017 (11).


Hemp in Minnesota

In Minnesota, the number of registered hemp farmers increased from 65 in 2018 to 562 in 2019, and according to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, one year’s hemp crop could be worth $28,000 to $90,000 per acre (13). Also, this year, the state of Minnesota has submitted a plan to the USDA to regulate hemp in the 2020 growing season, this plan states that anyone can plant hemp this spring, but farmers will need to file a report with the USDA that includes details about cultivation methods, seeding rate, crop yields, and fertilizer and pesticide use. Under this plan, farmers must also allow state inspectors to make sure that the industrial hemp THC content is within the 0.3% range (14). Although these hoops may create headaches for farmers and producers, there is no question that the hemp industry presents a booming business for Minnesota farmers, and many hope that the states can minimize the USDA red-tape in the coming years.


1. Abel, E.L. (1980). Marijuana, The First Twelve Thousand Years. New York: Plenum Press.

2. Li, Hui-Lin. 1974. An Archaeological and Historical Account of Cannabis in Chine. New York: Botanical Garden Press. In Economic Botany, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Oct. – Dec., 1974), pp. 437-448.

3. Yu, Youtai 1987. Agricultural history over seven thousand years in China: In Sylvan Wittwer et. al. (eds.) Feeding a Billion: Frontiers of Chinese Agriculture: 19-33.

4. Gunnells, Sam. 2020. The History of Hemp: From Ancient Origins to an American Industry, .

5. The Thistle. Volume 13, Number 2: Sept/Oct 2000. The People’s History, .


7. US Patent 6630507. The US Government’s Cannabis Patent.

8. Hemp for Victory. .

9. Kim Nunley. 2019. The History of Hemp in America, .

10. Amy Abernethy, MD, PhD. 2019. Hemp Production and the 2018 Farm Bill,

11. Cowee, Maggie, and Nichols, Kristin. 2019. Chart: America’s hemp acres hit almost 80,000 in 2018; Montana new leader among states, .

12. Purdue University: Hemp Project. 2019. .

13. Shaw, Bob. 2019. Hemp, and Hope, Sprouts in Minnesota Fields,

14. Minnesota Department of Agriculture.