NEW YORK (MainStreet) — The marijuana legalization movement of late has amped up its momentum, and the hemp provision in the recently-passed Farm Bill allows colleges, universities and state agriculture agencies to grow and experiment on industrial hemp with impunity in states that have legalized the crop. Some think this advent could be a major boon for the medicinal cannabis market.

But few realize that hemp has been an integral part of the American economy since the colonial days. Myths, unconfirmed, abound:

  • The sails and rigging of the Mayflower were made from hemp.
  • The first American flags were sown from hemp cloth.
  • The first currency of the American's was printed on hemp.

Those are all debatable, but, according to Ernest L. Abel, author of Marihuana, The First Twelve Thousand Years (McGraw-Hill, 1982), the significance of hemp to colonial America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries should not be underestimated.

"It was a very important cash crop after tobacco and lumber," he said. "England made it contingent upon colonists...they had to grow hemp to send back to England for the ship building industry."

Indeed, by decree of King James I in 1619, The Virginia Company made every colonist grow 100 hemp plants for export. Hemp was such an essential crop that farmers could be fined for not growing it—even jailed during periods of shortage in the mid 1760s. And yes, even the Puritans began growing hemp by 1645.

Even before President Barack Obama admitted his approval of legalized marijuana and his past use of the drug, and before President Bill Clinton famously stated that he did not inhale, cannabis has played a major role among the country's earliest leadership.

Eric Steenstra, executive director of the Hemp Industries Association noted that George Washington at Mt. Vernon and Thomas Jefferson at Monticello grew the crop. Washington even imported special seeds from Asia.

"Washington and Jefferson both promoted the importance of farming hemp and its many uses," he said. "Clearly hemp was an important crop and grown widely. In Virginia there was a law during the 1600s that required its growth and you could also pay your taxes with hemp fiber."

Hemp was part and parcel of the U.S. foundational period.

That's not to say the founding father's sat around taking hits.

"There is no indication that the founding fathers smoked industrial hemp. If they did, they would have only had a headache," Steenstra said. "Medicinal varieties of cannabis were called 'Indian hemp' in that day, and they understood the difference between the two. "

But according to Harvey Wasserman, author of the self-published, tongue-in-cheek but historically substantive tome Passions of the Potsmoking Patriots (2008), the founding fathers may have used hemp to smoke medicinally. "I've never seen hard evidence—letters, diary notes, etc.—to confirm that they smoked it," Wasserman said. "I find it hard to believe they didn't know about it, given how much hemp they raised. Washington did talk at one point about separating males from females, which today indicates growing it for smoking."

Indeed, in his farm journal of August 7, 1765, Washington does note that he "began to separate the male from the female hemp... rather too late." As a savvy agronomist, Washington could only have been seeking a crop with stronger "medicinal" qualities.

Whether used recreationally or not, hemp cannabis has had a long history of economic significance for the U.S., not the least of which being the huge implications for the growth of major American companies. The original Levi's Jeans are said to have been made with hemp, and Henry Ford built a hemp-ethanol-fueled car, whose body was made from hemp-based plastic.

The USDA even produced a film called Hemp For Victory to encourage U,S. farmers to grow hemp to support the World War II effort: they grew a million acres of hemp as a result of that initiative.

But there were increased restrictions and labeling of cannabis as a poison (the Poison Act of 1907) that began in many states from the beginning of the twentieth century onward, and outright prohibitions began in the 1920s. Come the mid-1930s cannabis was regulated as a drug in every state, including 35 states that adopted the Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act.

To boot, the crop fell victim to the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, after William Randolph Hearst and his newspapers published muckracking pieces portraying cannabis as egregious for society. Many saw this as a way for Hearst and other tycoons like Andrew Mellon and the Du Pont family to shut down hemp from becoming a cheap substitute for wood pulp in the newspaper industry (Hearst had major timber holdings). Mellon, the Secretary of the Treasury and the wealthiest American, was majorly invested in nylon, the new synthetic fiber from Du Pont, and feared encroachment from hemp.

Despite efforts since to abolish state laws that banned possession and sale of cannabis, cannabis is a Schedule I drug according to the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

But though cannabis had been stubbed out, hemp has risen again with the marijuana cause.

After the 2013 legalization of marijuana in Colorado, farmers harvested several acres of hemp there—the first U.S.-grown hemp in half a century. Because of its relation to marijuana, hemp is considered a controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act. Some states—North Dakota, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Oregon, California, Montana, West Virginia and Vermont— had made hemp cultivation legal but feared retribution from the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Legislation came to a head earlier this month.

"The inclusion of the hemp amendment in the Farm Bill is a very significant development," Steenstra said. "We are excited that research can begin and look forward to commercial production in the near future. "

Hemp is extremely low in all cannabinoids including THC and CBD. Typically most varieties have less than 1% CBD, and though Steenstra is loath to associate industrial hemp with the movement for recreational and pharmaceutical uses of cannabis, he does concede some shared momentum.

"The main synergy is the fact that movements to legalize marijuana and movements to legalize hemp farming have both lead to a process where policy makers are reviewing and reforming our policies on cannabis which lumped hemp in with drug types of cannabis," Steenstra said.

The U.S. imported $11.5 million worth of legal hemp products in 2011, up from $1.4 million in 2000. With growing demand and versatile use in textiles, manufacturing and pharmaceuticals, the crop could be an economic asset.

But given the foundational history in the U.S. and precedent elsewhere, experts have expected the return to pot.

"It's inevitable that marijuana would be legalized eventually in the U.S.," said Abel, the author of the history of marijuana book. "It had been outlawed in so many countries and never made to stick. The United States is acting upon this, and you see what's happening in Colorado in Washington and now Alaska, you see things are changing."

As for the continued economic boons of marijuana in the U.S., we may see an initial boost.

"It's going to be at the beginning, a terrific tax provider," Abel said. "If you legalize, people are going to grow it on their own, you don't have to go buy it. You can go to the store and get pretty potent marijuana. Once people catch on to the fact that they can grow it, why buy it when you can raise it yourself."

And then we're back where we started—with the Puritans and the Founding Fathers.

--Written by Ross Kenneth Urken for MainStreet

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