Nov 21, 2023

A Crash Course History of Hemp

Before we venture down the history of hemp path, it might help to explain the difference between hemp and cannabis.

The two come from the same plant species, which is called the “Cannabis Sativa Plant.” The main difference between hemp and cannabis (marijuana) is that legally, hemp can’t contain more than 0.3% THC content. On the other hand, marijuana, whether it comes from the Cannabis Sativa Plant or the Cannabis Indica Plant, contains much higher percentages of THC.

What is hemp? Hemp, is one of the world’s oldest cultivated crops, and it can grow practically anywhere. One might even conclude that cannabis grows like a weed. Bad puns aside, these days it seems a bit disrespectful to refer to this amazing plant as “weed.” Read on, and I think you’ll agree.

King Tut and Surgeon Hua Tao

The relationship between humans and medicinal hemp uses goes back a long way.

We’re talking millenniums. Some of the earliest verified evidence of cannabis use was at least 2,500 years ago in China and more than 3,000 years ago in Egypt. Interestingly, cannabis pollen has been found in the tomb of the famous boy pharaoh, King Tutankhamun, or “King Tut.”

Cannabis has been used as a medicine worldwide for thousands of years. Ancient testimonies recording the benefits of the herb include Egypt’s Ebers Papyrus (1550BC), Ramesseum III Papyrus (1700BC), and Berlin Papyrus (1300BC). It seems clear the ancients understood a few things regarding the medicinal properties of cannabis. Cannabis, prescribed for many ailments, is one of the 50 “fundamental herbs” of traditional Chinese medicine. Speaking of ancient medicine, the Chinese term for "anesthesia" (mázui) literally means "cannabis intoxication.” The surgeon Hua Tuo (circa 145-208AD) is credited with being the first recorded person to use cannabis as an anesthetic. He did this by crushing the plant into a fine powder, then mixing it with wine for administration prior to conducting surgery. Hold on… surgery during the years 145-208? Yikes!

Cannabis (or cañamo) was used extensively as medicine from the 8th to the 18th centuries by Medieval Arabic physicians. They relied on marijuana for healing many ailments, including diuretic (helps you pee), antiemetic (relieves upset stomach), antiepileptic (treating seizures), anti-inflammatory, pain-killing, and antipyretic properties (reducing fever).

A ship using hemp for their sales

Industrial Hemp’s crucial role in exploration and expansion across the globe.

Global expansion, exploration? Yep, throughout history, basically every part of the cannabis plant has been used by humans. Stems and stalks provided hemp fiber for paper, cords, rope, and cloth, to name just a few. During the 16th through 18th centuries, intercontinental trade was booming. Back in the day to deliver their goods, shipping fleets were dependent upon the generosity of the breeze. So, to catch the wind, ships relied on canvas sails (the word 'canvas' is derived from ‘cannabis'). In fact, second only to wood, hemp was the most used material in shipbuilding. Sailors’ clothes were often made of hemp, lamps used hemp oil, the crew ate protein-rich hemp seeds, and captains from Sir Francis Drake to Captain Morgan, kept their ship’s log on hemp paper.

To state the obvious, the appetite for hemp was great. In 16th Century Britain, King Henry VIII passed an act compelling all landowners to sow 1/4 of an acre or be fined. Ship captains were ordered to disseminate hemp seed widely to provide fiber wherever repairs might be needed in distant lands. I suppose you could refer to ship captains as the “Johnny Appleseed” of hemp.

Original bottles of Cannabis Medicine

Cannabis finds its way into Western Medicine.

Until 1841, cannabis was nonexistent in Western medicine, but all that was about to change. An Irish physician named William Brooke O’Shaughnessy happened to work for the East India Company. O’Shaughnessy’s travels took him to Bengal, where he saw the locals using cannabis. Ever curious, Bill wondered if the plant or the hemp leaves had any therapeutic properties. Turns out that cannabis worked rather well as a sedative and anticonvulsant. So, on his return from India to Europe, the good doctor brought some cannabis plants along for the ride. As a result, he’s credited with introducing cannabis to Western medicine.

O’Shaughnessy didn’t stop there. In 1842, he gave some hashish to the British pharmacist Peter Squire, who used high-proof alcohol to make a tincture. Peter patented the tincture as a pain reliever and called it (take a wild guess) … “Squire’s Extract.”

Around this same time, opium had become a problem and doctors were eager to find a painkiller to replace it. Squire’s extract fit the bill. It quickly caught on across England and was sold throughout Europe. It wasn’t long before pharmacists began making their own preparations. Even well-known companies like Eli Lilly, Parke-Davis, and Bayer were producing tinctures that contained cannabis. Tinctures were considered safe and effective for conditions of nausea, delirium, epilepsy, migraine, and painful spasms.

There was no stigma attached to using cannabis medicinally. In Victorian England, a famous doctor at the time, Sir John Russel is rumored to have prescribed Queen Victoria cannabis tincture as a painkiller for menstrual cramps.

Medical use of cannabis spread across the pond to the United States. In 1850 cannabis was even listed as a medicine in the United States Pharmacopoeia! — A collection of drug information published annually. Doctors would routinely recommend cannabis as a medicine for pain, insomnia, and depression. Throughout much of the 1800s, cannabis tinctures were sold in pharmacies and became a staple in home medicine cabinets across the country. Available without a prescription, tinctures were inexpensive and came to be regarded as something of a “cure-all.” However, these medicinal tinctures had a potency problem. Because of the limited technology at the time, along with the considerable variability of the plants, formulations varied widely from batch to batch. It’s not surprising that individual responses varied just as widely.

The Betsy Ross Flag

Cannabis and the Colonists.

Hemp crops were instrumental in helping our forefathers succeed in colonizing America. Colonial cannabis provided the resources to make clothes, towels, paper, and other products. The original settlers were not only encouraged, but at times in our history required, to cultivate hemp. In 1682, farmers were allowed to pay off debt with hemp, and in 1735, Massachusetts residents were allowed to pay their taxes in hemp.

We’ve all heard the tall tales recounting times when George Washington, James Madison, and James Monroe toking on a little reefer. Chill as that may sound, there’s no solid historical record for these claims of the Founding Fathers blazing one together. What we do know for sure is that both The history of hemp in America does include Washington and Jefferson growing hemp along with many of their fellow Americans. John Adams believed that hemp fibers was a critical component for the health of a young nation. As president, he wrote newspaper columns that advocated farming hemp for its many practical uses.

The Declaration of Independence was written on paper made from hemp. Betsy Ross’s first flag of the United States? Made from hemp. And America’s oldest Navy ship, the U.S.S. Constitution, otherwise known as “Old Ironsides”? Hemp baby, more than 120,000 pounds of hemp fiber was used to rig the 44-gun three-masted warship.

I wonder what the Founding Fathers would think of the state of cannabis today. I’d speculate that they’d be scratching their heads at the thought of valuable agricultural plants being banned.

Federal Bureau Of Narcotics Badge

Why did cannabis fall from grace?

Why was marijuana made illegal? Think of it as a perfect storm. On the medical front, because of its variability in strength, cannabis tinctures were soon replaced. The new kid on the block was called aspirin. This little pill was predictable and consistent, aspirin promised to be the painkiller of the future. On the industrial side of things, hemp production was also on the decline, paper mills were forgoing hemp and started using wood pulp. The great canvas sails that propelled majestic wooden ships for centuries were being replaced by steam.

Then, around the time Prohibition ended, a guy by the name of Harry J. Anslinger (say that five times fast) was appointed Director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN). In the interest of keeping his new job at the Bureau, Harry needed to find a new target. He decided to rid America of all drugs, and cannabis made the hit list.

In 1937, Congress enacted the Marihuana Tax Act. This effectively made it impossible to possess cannabis for recreational use. It’s important to note: The American Medical Association testified that cannabis was not the dangerous narcotic that Anslinger and the media was making it out to be. But only one voice was present from the AMA to defend the findings (Dr. William Woodward). As a result, cannabis lost, and the bill passed easily. The Marihuana Tax Act regulated the importation, cultivation, possession, and the distribution of marijuana. Violations resulted in a fine of up to $2000 — that was a lot of money in the days of the depression. In addition, one also stood a good chance of receiving a 5-year all-inclusive stay at the state pen. In theory, the tax act was intended to stop only the use of the plant as a recreational drug. In practice, though, industrial hemp got tangled up in anti-marijuana legislation and red tape. In other words, this made commercial hemp production in the U.S. a real pain in the ass.

Devil's Harvest and Reefer Madness books

“Marijuana” is originally from a Mexican slang term for cannabis and was demonized— associating it with madness and mayhem.

Hollywood jumped on board the propaganda train releasing films like Reefer Madness (1936), Marihuana: Assassin of Youth (1935), and Marihuana: The Devil’s Weed (1936). Hilarious when viewed today, they were designed to instill fear and gain public support to get anti-marijuana laws passed. A tidal wave of hysteria swept through the nation and, at the same time, washed away scientific research and medical testing of cannabis.

During the history of hemp prohibition, we all know cannabis never really went away. It just kept a lower profile. Marijuana continued its association with the arts. It was particularly popular among jazz musicians, especially in the big-city bordellos where early jazz took root. Musicians prized it. Whereas alcohol dulled and incapacitated, cannabis seemed to enable them to hear and play music in more imaginative ways. The Beatles, The Stones, Eric Clapton, Bob Marly… with no weed? Come on.

A report to the President.

In 1975, the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse (also known as the Shafer Commission) published “White Paper on Drug Abuse: A Report to the President.” The report concluded cannabis was a “low-priority drug,” that it was not addictive, and it did not lead to the consumption of harder narcotics. It recommended that cannabis be considered the least priority of drug enforcement officials. This information went ignored by then President Nixon.

And then what happened? being typed on a typewriter

And now for the plot twist.

It’s the early 90’s (rock and roll’s swan song decade by the way, but I digress). Anyhow, research on the medical use of cannabis was still limited. Research efforts were largely directed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which was subsidizing studies to look for the damaging effects of THC and cannabis.

Ironically, instead of proving that cannabis was indeed the devil’s own weed, research directed by NIDA ended up leading to some of the most exciting discoveries made about the human brain— discoveries that became known among researchers and scientists as “the Decade of the Brain.” During the 90’s there were more advances in neuroscience than in all previous years combined! This included a major discovery of the endocannabinoid system (ECS). It was rightfully named after the plant that led to its discovery. ESC is likely to have started developing in life on Earth some 600 million years ago. This system is present in fish, reptiles, earthworms, amphibians, birds, and mammals (yes, that includes us). ECS serves a basic yet very crucial function in animal physiology: maintaining homeostasis — pretty fascinating stuff to say the least.

Other experiments would establish that cannabinoid receptors CB1, CB2 modulate pain, inflammation, appetite, gastrointestinal motility, and sleep cycles, along with the ebb and flow of immune cells, hormones, and other mood-altering neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and glutamate.

At the time of this writing, researchers have conducted nearly 200 clinical trials related to CBD, examining its effectiveness to treat PTSD, cancer, schizophrenia, cognitive impairment, ADHD, Parkinson's disease, and other conditions. Among growing incarceration rates paired with the exciting new research into the medical uses of cannabis, people began to question the wisdom 
of cannabis laws and why is marijuana illegal in the first place.

The movement to legalize has accelerated since 1996, when California became the first state to legalize medical cannabis. In 2012, Washington and Colorado were the first states to approve legal recreational use. On January 1, 2014, the first Colorado Cannabis shops opened. The dominos started to fall in favor of cannabis as more and more states started legalizing both medical and recreational use.

This is around the time that CBD enters the scene, and this is a good time to wrap up the history lesson. We’ll look at the incredible explosion of CBD and the promising future of medical cannabis in another post.