A Brief History of Hemp Cultivation and CBD Use

by Nick Marshall

There’s only a fine line between the history of hemp and history itself. After all, this is a plant with an estimated 25,000 practical uses. As a textile alone, it is woven into the fabric of civilization. Hemp supplied the materials that grew empires, right down to providing the paper on which the Declaration of Independence was written. The great paradox of hemp, however, is that within the United State’s lifetime its cultivation has managed to be both mandatory and illegal. If, like many, you are discovering CBD for the first time, be aware that this humble plant comes with quite a back story…

A Short History of Hemp—the Early Years

If there was ever a time when hemp was superfluous to human civilization, we have very little record of it. As far back as 8,000 BCE, societies were cultivating hemp in Mesopotamia. Subsequently, hemp prospered in Imperial China, where it was crucial to the development of paper before it reached Europe, as early as 1,200 BCE. The first uses of hemp were consistent with those in modern industry–for textiles, cordage and oils. The medicinal properties of cannabinoids (CBD) extracted from the plant also made their presence known early on. We have evidence of hemp products used to treat inflammation, anxiety and pain since ancient times.

How Hemp Helped Discover the World

Given that hemp would come to be vilified in America in the 1930s, it’s ironic to remember that it was essential to the success of, first, the Native Americans, then settlers, then the newly independent republic. Hemp made the settlement of North America possible. In fact, such was the importance of hemp for producing sails and rope that England’s Henry VIII commanded every landowner to grow a crop. French planters grew hemp in Canada, while the 1632 Virginia Assembly also mandated cultivation. By the turn of the 20th century, a staggering 80% of textiles were made of hemp. The notion that there could be any downside to hemp was unthinkable. It took some imagination to sow the seeds of doubt...

The Decline of Hemp Cultivation

Two factors caused a rapid decline in hemp cultivation. The first one was hemp’s own natural hardiness. It was a tough, fibrous and labor-intensive plant to harvest and process, typically by hand. With the arrival of the mechanical cotton gin, cotton took over as the favored crop for textiles. Then, in the 1930s, manufacturers of new petroleum-based synthetic textiles lobbied the US Government to tax and regulate hemp production to the point of extinction. The government obliged, passing the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act that outlawed hemp cultivation altogether.

The Hemp Renaissance

Some clever but cynical marketing on behalf of hemp’s competitors wrongly characterized hemp as synonymous with marijuana. It is not. While hemp and marijuana are varieties of the same plant, industrial hemp has none of the psychoactive properties of marijuana. A turning point in hemp and CBD came with the lifting of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s authority in 2004 to regulate hemp as marijuana. Independence was declared. In 2014, the Farm Bill finally allowed approved research facilities to grow hemp legally. When the bill became law in 2018, it restored hemp to its earlier status as a sustainable, beneficial and harmless crop, and the boom in CBD products began.

The Amazing Rise of Hemp-derived CBD

Whereas the bud and leaves of the marijuana plant contain varying concentrations of psychoactive THC, industrial hemp contains only trace levels, or none at all. Under statute, Congress defines hemp as having no more than 0.3% THC by dry weight. Our products contain zero THC. Like marijuana, however, hemp can be packed with well-being-boosting cannabinoids (CBD), which can be taken as an oil, gel or powder to address a variety of ailments. As a medically prescribed solution, the FDA has approved CBD-containing Epidiolex as a treatment for epilepsy. CBD sales are expected to hit $16 billion in the United States by 2025, as more people discover CBD as an alternative to prescription painkillers, sleeping pills or skin treatments.

Currently, the hemp and CBD landscape is defined by fast-changing regulation outpaced by growing demand. Within the industry, however, the focus is on cultivating high-resin hemp and improving the efficiency of CBD extraction. Although quality still varies enormously across CBD vendors, the future belongs to those selling pharmaceutical grade, cannabinoid-rich oils using natural ingredients.

Nick Marshall is a UK-based, independent journalist and copywriter helping global food, travel, lifestyle and technology brands tell their story.