Hemp, also known as industrial hemp, for the wide range of industrial products possible to derive from the plant, has a chequered history in the US. The earliest reference to hemp production in the US dates back to 1616.
Jamestown in Virginia was the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. Hemp was grown here to use for clothing, ropes, and sails. In the early 1700s, colonial laws required American farmers to grow hemp for compliance. Jamestown made farming of Indian hemp seeds compulsory by law in 1619.
Massachusetts and Connecticut enacted mandatory hemp cultivation laws in 1631 and 1632 respectively. The first versions of the American Declaration of Independence got drafted on hemp paper. There is historical evidence that President George Washington grew hemp, and so did Thomas Jefferson, the third US President.
Jefferson was a hemp farmer on his Monticello plantation before he became the US President. He has several writings on good practices in hemp farming. He also invented a tool for more efficient hemp harvesting Jefferson is believed to have said, “Hemp is of the first necessity to the wealth and protection of the country.”
Lincoln used hemp seed oil as fuel for the lamps at his home since 1840, years before he became the sixteenth US President. A United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) publication in 1916 states that hemp produces four times more paper than trees.
How the Story Changed
There is nothing surprising in the early history of hemp production in the US. What happened afterward is far more difficult to explain. In 1937, the US enacted the Marihuana Tax Act which imposed a special tax on all forms of cannabis production, including hemp.
Incidentally, hemp and marijuana or drug cannabis both belong to the plant species Cannabis Sativa. However, hemp is not a narcotic because of the low presence of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in the plant. This is the psychotropic substance with a 7.5 to 10 percent or higher presence in narcotic cannabis.
THC concentration in hemp is limited to 0.3 percent or less, so that hemp cannot give anyone a high. This critical distinction got overlooked in the 1937 law, which strongly discouraged the cultivation of hemp. Yet, in 1942, the US government lifted the ban under its “Hemp for Victory” program.
America needed hemp to produce ropes and sales for its warships and for the US Military’s clothing. When the US joined the Second World War, Japan effectively blocked all naval supply routes of hemp to the US. Hence the “Hemp for Victory” program, encouraging US farmers to grow hemp as a mark of patriotism.
However, the prohibitory orders got restored after the war. The last commercial production of hemp in the US was in 1957 in Wisconsin. The final nail on the coffin came with policies that evolved on the basis of the 1970 Controlled Substances Act.
They marked hemp as a Schedule I drug and imposed stringent regulations on hemp cultivation along with prohibitory orders on the cultivation of its narcotic cousin.
Exceptions and Progress
Even with the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act well in place, Henry Ford experimented with a car built with hemp fiber in 1942. The Rens Hemp Company of Wisconsin had permission from the US Drug Enforcement Agency (USDEA) to grow hemp for fibers till 1958.
When neighboring Canada and some EU countries started decriminalizing low-THC hemp production in the late 1980s and 1990s, advocacy initiatives for hemp legalization gathered momentum in the US also. The nonprofit Hemp Industries Association (HIA) founded in 1994 emerged as the lead advocacy platform.
In 1998, importing dietary hemp seeds and hemp seed oil started in the US. In October 2001, the USDEA issued an interpretive rule prohibiting hemp seeds, hemp seed oil, food items and personal care items using either or both of these, containing any amount of THC at all.
The HIA with several other appellants won a stay order against the rule in March 2002. After prolonged litigation, the Ninth Circuit Court ruled unanimously in support of the import and sale of hemp seeds, hemp seed oil, and food items and personal care products using any of these.
Judge Betty Fletcher pointed out in the judgment that the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 differentiates between marijuana and industrial hemp and leaves the latter outside its purview. A fact obliterated by subsequent policies came to the fore nearly a quarter of a century after the law got enacted!
The DEA did not appeal against the judgment. However, it took more than a decade for hemp production to become fully legal across the US. In 2007, two North Dakota farmers got permission to grow hemp. In 2014, President Barack Obama signed the Farm Bill to legalize pilot research programs on hemp.
Finally, in 2018, President Donald Trump signed the Farm Bill 2018, which became law through the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018. Hemp cultivation got decriminalized across the US nearly a century after the first attack on it in 1937.
Hemp Production in the US: Post Farm Bill 2018
Following the Farm Bill 2018, 34 of the 50 states in the US licensed hemp cultivation till September 2019 according to a Forbes report. As a result, 511,442 acres of land across the US got licensed for cultivating industrial hemp.
This is a 455 percent increase from the previous year, with only 78,176 acres of land used for hemp production in 2018. State grower’s licenses got issued to 16,877 farmers. Hemp processing licenses issued in 2019 were 483 percent higher than in 2018.
Experts say that current hemp cultivars available in Canada would be suitable for many parts of the US. FINOLA, the most popular cultivar in Canada, is a dioecious, auto-flowering hemp variety. However, there is still a need to evolve cultivars suitable for the soil type and climate of certain parts of the US.
Several genetics and breeding companies are in the process of entering into partnerships with universities to apply scientific techniques towards improving hemp production.
Factors Influencing Hemp Production in the US
Farmers can choose from three varieties of hemp: hemp for hemp fibers, hemp for hemp seeds and hemp seed oil, and high cannabinoid hemp for CBD oil production. However, the choice cannot be guided purely by profit motives. Different hemp varieties need varying soil types and climate conditions.
Demands also vary in different marketplaces, as do regulatory conditions in specific states. Farmers need to keep all of these factors when choosing the type of hemp to cultivate. Variations also exist in the cultivation and harvesting processes of different varieties of hemp.
It is possible to grow hemp both from feminized seeds and from plant cuttings or clones. Seeds lengthen the harvesting time, but the yield is more robust for outdoor cultivation. Using clones is more suitable for indoor farming. It also lessens the harvesting time.
The good news is that nearly all varieties of hemp are easy and fast to grow. Required know-how is also available from several US universities that have been conducting research on hemp since 2014.
By Way of a Conclusion
According to a report submitted in June 2018 to the US Congress by the Congressional Research Service, US imported hemp fibers and seeds worth US$ 67.3 million in 2017. The growth in the domestic production of hemp will likely reduce import needs considerably.