The Global History of Hemp as Told by Bluebird Botanicals
As a CBD company that owes our entire business to the power of hemp, we feel it’s important to fully understand where hemp has been, where it is now, and where it's going. Let’s start by taking a deep dive into the rich, global history of hemp...beginning 10,000 years ago.
Origins of hemp - 8,000 B.C.E. to 0
Hemp is one of the oldest known human agricultural crops. Archaeologists found a hemp cloth from Mesopotamia that dates back to at least 8,000 B.C.E. The plant was used extensively by the earliest human civilizations for a variety of purposes, primarily for food, clothing, rope, paper, and ceremonial practices.
China was one of the first civilizations to begin cultivating hemp and innovating uses for daily life. In fact, China was known as “the Land of Mulberry and Hemp.” The Chinese found a wide variety of uses for hemp - most notably, they developed one of the earliest forms of paper using the plant. They also used it to make clothes, shoes, and rope.
Related Article: 5 Ancient Uses of Hemp
Cannabis also played a crucial role in early religions. Ancient Hindus named the cannabis plant “bhang” and mentioned it frequently in sacred religious texts, including a group of texts called The Vedas. It was even dubbed “Sacred Grass” in the Atharva Veda and named one of the five sacred plants of India. To this day, cannabis is still used ritually as an offering to Shiva.
Around 700 B.C.E. in the hemp history timeline, the Zoroastrian manuscript Zendavesta referred to bhang as the “good narcotic.” It was also used for ceremonial purposes by the Scythians - many tribes would leave hemp seeds as offerings in royal tombs, and archaeologists discovered a burial site for a Scythian couple with urns and leather pouches containing hemp leaves and seeds.
Hemp history timeline:
- 8,000 B.C.E. - Hemp is used for cloth in Mesopotamia.
- 6,000 B.C.E. - Hemp is cultivated in China in the Neolithic era as a source of food, rope, shoes, and clothing.
- 3,000 B.C.E. - The ancient Assyrians begin using cannabis in some religious ceremonies. They call it “qunubu,” a likely origin of the Latin word “cannabis.”
- 2,737 B.C.E. - Cannabis is first used as medicine by Chinese Emperor Shen Neng.
- 2,000 B.C.E. - Hemp spreads from China to Korea, Japan, and India.
- 1,200 - 1,000 B.C.E. - Compilers of the Atharva Veda, a formative Hindu text chronicling important rituals for daily living, anoint cannabis the “Sacred Grass,” one of the five holy plants of ancient India.
- 200 B.C.E. - The Greeks begin using hemp for rope.
- 150 B.C.E. - The Chinese produce the world’s first paper completely from hemp.
The great hemp dispersion: 0 to 1500 A.D.
By the turn of the millennium, hemp had begun spreading from Asia into Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Many civilizations began to develop technology to process hemp and make it into paper and shipping materials. It became essential to the construction of ships by the end of the 15th century.
One of the greatest seafaring civilizations cultivated cannabis extensively. Archaeological excavations in South Norway revealed that the Vikings produced hemp from 650 A.D. to 800 A.D. They may have used it for its psychoactive elements, but it’s most likely that they used it to develop ropes and textiles for everyday use and for shipbuilding.
Hemp’s efficacy in shipbuilding was equally matched by its use as paper. In fact, the Buddhist religious text “The Diamond Sutra,” which is the earliest complete dated book in human history, was originally printed on hemp paper in 868.
When papermaking eventually reached Renaissance Europe around 1400, cities like Florence forbid the export of hemp rags because of their importance for the production of paper. Most of the famous books of the European Renaissance period, including Gutenberg’s Bible, were all written on hemp paper.
Hemp history timeline:
- 100 - Imported hemp rope appears in England.
- 570 - The French queen Arnegunde is buried in hemp clothing.
- 850 - Vikings use hemp oil and seeds and spread it to Iceland.
- 868 - Buddhist manuscript The Diamond Sutra, the “earliest complete survival of a dated printed book,” is printed on fine paper made from mulberry and hemp.
- 900 - Arabs begin to make hemp paper, and use spreads through Arabia.
- 1000 - Hemp is used for rope and cordage in southern Russian, Greece, Spain, and British Isles.
- 1100 - 1230 - Cannabis is introduced to Egypt, Africa, and Iraq.
- 1455 - Gutenberg’s Bible is printed on hemp paper.
- 1492 - Christopher Columbus sails to the Americas with the Pinta, the Niña, and the Santa Maria, whose sails and ropes are all rigged entirely from hemp fibers.
Hemp in the Old World and the New World: 1500 - 1900
Hemp’s usefulness and proven track record in shipbuilding contributed heavily to its expansion from the Old World into the New World. After Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas, British manufacturers began racing to grow more hemp to provide materials for the British Naval Fleet. Shipbuilders used hemp fiber and oil to create rigging, pendants, pennants, sails, and oakum. Additionally, hemp paper was used for maps, logs, and Bibles for sailors. It was so popular and versatile that King Henry VIII passed an act requiring all British landowners to sow at least ¼ acre of hemp for industrial use or otherwise pay a fine.
Meanwhile, hemp was taking off in the Americas as well. Early American colonists were required by law to sow hemp, and Kentucky became the first U.S. state to begin growing hemp in 1776. That same eventful year, Thomas Jefferson drafted the United States Declaration of Independence on hemp paper. Even George Washington cultivated hemp at his Mount Vernon farm for industrial use. It became such an integral part of American society that it was eventually sanctioned as legal tender.
At this time in hemp history, about 80% of clothing was also made from the plant. It wasn’t until after the invention of the mechanical cotton gin that cotton began to replace hemp as the main textile of choice. The cotton gin made it substantially easier to process cotton, eliminating one of the reasons it hadn’t been used as prolifically as hemp. Yet, even after its invention, hemp still reigned over cotton in terms of the ease of producing it into fabric.
However, towards the end of the 19th century, many countries began to ban the import and consumption of hemp and cannabis. During his conquest of Egypt, Napolean Bonaparte noticed that much of the Egyptian lower class was habitually using hashish (the resin from the cannabis plant) for recreational purposes. When he and his troops returned home to France, his soldiers also began using hashish habitually, which led Napolean to institute a complete ban of cannabis in France in 1798. Despite this, hash clubs began to grow in popularity. These clubs, where intellectuals and creatives gathered to consume hash in a social setting, boasted historical figures such as Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Eugene Delacroix and Charles Baudelaire among their members.
Brazil later followed suit after seeing the amount of recreational cannabis use among its slaves. Cannabis was banned from Brazil in 1830 and many other smaller countries like British Mauritius, Singapore, Egypt, and Morocco soon followed suit.
Hemp history timeline:
- 1535 - King Henry VIII of England passes an act compelling all British landowners to sow ¼ of an acre of hemp or be fined.
- 1545 - Spaniards bring industrial hemp to the Western Hemisphere and began cultivating it in Chile.
- 1600 - England begins to import hemp from Russia.
- 1607 - “Hempe” is among the crops Gabriel Archer observes being cultivated by the natives at the main Powhatan village where Richmond, Virginia is now situated.
- 1619 - The First Virginia House of Burgesses passes an Act requiring all planters in Virginia to grow hemp on their plantations.
- 1776 - Kentucky begins growing hemp.
- 1776 - Thomas Jefferson drafts the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper.
- 1798 - Napolean Bonaparte bans the use of hashish in France.
- 1800s - Hemp is sanctioned as a form of legal tender in the U.S.
- 1800s - Cannabis is introduced to Brazil. Slaves there are already familiar with cannabis and begin to use it recreationally.
- 1830 - As a result of recreational use by slaves, the Municipal Council of Rio de Janeiro prohibits bringing cannabis into the city and punishes its use by any slave. This prompts prohibition in many other countries such as British Mauritius, Singapore, Egypt, and Morocco through the end of the 19th century.
- 1850 - Cannabis is added to The U.S. Pharmacopoeia.
- 1850-1915 - Cannabis is widely used throughout the U.S. for medicinal purposes, and is available to purchase from most pharmacy stores.
The age of hemp prohibition: 20th century
By the turn of the century, Americans used hemp extensively for both industrial and medicinal purposes. The crop was heralded for both its agricultural and economic value, and hemp farms continued to flourish for the first several decades. Then, beginning in the late 1920s, the plant came under attack from several angles. On one angle, Mexican immigration into the U.S. had begun to swell during the Mexican Revolution in the 1920s. Although cannabis was already widely available and commonly used for medicinal purposes, the U.S. government began to demonize the plant as an attempt to instill fear of Mexican immigrants in the public and quell immigration.
Related Article: How Has Cannabis Been Impacted by Racism?
The government was likely influenced by powerful lobbying groups as well. In the 1930s, DuPont and other massive companies began manufacturing synthetic textiles. These companies were threatened by the prevalence of hemp, which likely contributed to the rise of propaganda trying to take down the plant. These efforts were successful: in the mid 1930s, the U.S. began to impose restrictive taxes and regulations on hemp production and use. This culminated with the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which made all forms of cannabis, including industrial hemp, federally illegal for those that did not pay heavy taxes.
Related Article: Conversations About Cannabis: How Did it Become Illegal?
However, hemp did have a brief resurgence thanks to World War II. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 and invaded the Philippines, the U.S. was cut off from its main supply of imported hemp. It had been relying on hemp for the production of war materials, including canvas, uniforms, and rope. So, both the U.S. and Canada opened up hemp production again and even created a short propaganda film called “Hemp for Victory” to encourage farmers to sow hemp.
This resurgence was short lived. In the decades following the end of the war, hemp production began to dwindle. The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was an international treaty intended to prohibit the production and supply of drugs like cannabis, opium, and cocaine. Then came the mighty blow - in 1970, the U.S. passed the Controlled Substances Act, and just like that, all forms of cannabis became classified as a Schedule I drug and became federally illegal.
This coincided with the birth of the “War on Drugs” - a term that was coined after a press conference in which President Nixon declared drug abuse to be “public enemy number one.”
The War on Drugs marked the beginning of a decades-long government crackdown on all forms of psychoactive drugs. The government’s actions were further solidified by the United Nations’ Convention on Psychotropic Substances in 1971 and the United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances in 1988.
Hemp history timeline:
- 1906 - U.S. passes the Pure Food and Drug Act, imposing the first restrictions on the labeling and selling of cannabis, alcohol, and opiates.
- 1910 - 1923 - Cannabis is outlawed in Jamaica, South Africa, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Canada.
- 1915 - Recreational use California prohibits cannabis for nonmedical use. It is soon followed by Texas, Louisiana, and New York.
- 1916 - The U.S. Department of Agriculture creates paper from hemp pulp and publishes findings that show hemp produces four times more paper per acre than trees.
- 1937 - An issue of Popular Mechanics declares hemp is on the verge of becoming the “billion-dollar crop.”
- 1937 - U.S. passes the Marihuana Tax Act and prohibits the production of all forms of cannabis, including hemp, for those that do not pay heavy taxes.
- 1938 - Follow American lead, Canada prohibits the production of hemp.
- 1942 - Japan invades the Philippines, cutting the U.S. from their major source of imported hemp. To meet the demand for war production, U.S. and Canadian governments lift restrictions on growing hemp.
- 1942 - The U.S. government produces the film Hemp for Victory to encourage farmers to grow hemp to help create materials for World War II.
- 1960s - Cannabis enters the middle-class cultural mainstream as its usage grows dramatically, particularly among young people and college students.
- 1961 - Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs - international treaty to prohibit production and supply of specific drugs including opioids and cannabis.
- 1970 - President Nixon signs the Controlled Substances Act into law, effectively making all forms of cannabis, including hemp, illegal.
- 1970s - The War on Drugs begins. This term is coined after a press conference given by President Nixon declaring drug abuse to be “public enemy number one.”
- 1998 - The U.S. begins to import food-grade hemp seed and oil.
Return of the plant - 21st century
The new millennium brought about a new era and renaissance for hemp. It began in 2004 when the Hemp Industries Association successfully defeated the Drug Enforcement Agency in a court case that permanently allowed the use of hemp foods and body care products in the U.S. At this time, the U.S. relied solely on imported hemp from foreign European countries and China. Then came a major breakthrough for hemp, with new research showing the medicinal powers of hemp and CBD. This research was broadcasted by Dr. Sanjay Gupta on a segment on CNN’s 60 Minutes in 2013.
Following Dr. Gupta’s segment, a few companies came to market with CBD. Bluebird Botanicals was one of them. Bluebird, which was founded as Gaia Botanicals in 2012, launched its first line of hemp-derived CBD products in 2013 and immediately gained a strong internet presence and customer base. Soon after, President Obama signed the 2014 Farm Bill into law. This legalized the production and distribution of hemp through state-run agricultural programs, as long as the hemp and any of its products contained less than 0.3% THC by dry weight. This opened up hemp production drastically - yet hemp companies still remained restricted in their business practices by regulations and conflicting statements from states and government agencies like the DEA.
Founder and CEO of Bluebird Botanicals, Brandon Beatty, has been a lifelong hemp advocate, and as the push for hemp re-legalization began to escalate, he stepped up to help lead the fight towards re-legalization. Through his involvement with the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, Beatty helped draft up the language that was used in the final 2018 Farm Bill. This language explicitly removed hemp and its derivatives from the Controlled Substances Act. After a long process of approval from the House and Senate, the Farm Bill was finally passed in December of 2018, making hemp federally legal again for the first time in over 40 years.
Now, hemp is returning to its former glory. CBD is becoming widely used for its ability to promote homeostasis in the body. Consumers are starting to see hemp show up in common household products again like clothing, paper, building materials, and even fuel. The fight isn’t quite over yet, as hemp companies and advocates are still combating decades of misinformation and stereotypes about the cannabis industry and working towards sound legislation passed in all 50 states. However, the return of the plant looks more promising than ever.
Hemp history timeline:
- 2004 - Ninth Circuit Court decision in Hemp Industries Association vs DEA permanently protects sales of hemp foods and body care products in the U.S.
- 2007 - The first hemp licenses in over 50 years are granted to two North Dakota farmers.
- 2012 - Brandon J. Beatty founds Gaia Botanicals as an herbal supplement company.
- 2013 - Dr. Sanjay Gupta reveals the healing properties of hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) on CNN’s popular news segment “60 Minutes.”
- 2013 - Gaia Botanicals begins selling its first line of CBD products.
- 2014 - Gaia Botanicals becomes Bluebird Botanicals.
- 2014 - President Obama signs the 2014 Farm Bill, allowing for the production of hemp through state-run agricultural programs.
- 2015 - The Industrial Hemp Farming Act is introduced in the House and Senate to remove all federal restrictions on industrial hemp and legalize its cultivation.
- 2018 - Market research firm The Brightfield Group projects the CBD industry to reach $22 billion by 2022.
- 2018 - The 2018 Farm Bill passes with the language of Hemp Farming Act of 2018 included. This removes hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, making it federally legal for the first time in over 40 years.
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