Somehow, marijuana is still a controversial topic in politics. Despite the public having largely come around as being in support of recreational use of the drug, certain elements of the American political system cling to the tired refrain that cannabis is a gateway drug, a claim that has failed to be supported by research, and that it’s a serious societal problem. It’s still categorized as a Schedule 1 drug, rubbing shoulders with the likes of heroin, MDMA, and bath salts. The debate is all but settled on a factual level, but will likely rage on in the political world for as long as there are people who continue to see it as a great national evil.
But, why? Where did that attitude even come from? Alcohol is arguably a far more dangerous substance, and that’s perfectly legal, if regulated. In fact, the word ‘arguably’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence, as it’s substantially more dangerous than the drug. Cannabis in all its forms has a fascinating history in America, and the journey from cornerstone of the textile market to demonized devil plant is a long one. Let’s explore some of that history.
Hemp, specifically cannabis sativa, has been used in the Americas since at least the 1500s. It was brought by Spanish colonizers as early as 1545, as you can see here. It quickly became a foundational crop due to the ease at which it can be grown and processed into strong fibers. It’s important to note that the crop that produces these fibers is the same species of plant that produces marijuana: cannabis sativa. While indulging in the mind-altering properties of the plant has happened since long before it came to the Americas, the primary use of the plant was the production of clothing and rope.
Cannabis sativa quickly established itself as a dominating force in the textile industry, and was one of the crops that helped a fledgling America get started and stay competitive. In fact, most clothing in colonial days worn by the average person incorporated hemp at least partially in its construction. George Washington famously grew hemp on his personal family farm. Things started to change when cotton became more ubiquitous in the same market, and those changes became drastic as the cotton industry began to boom.
Around the advent of the 1900’s, public attitudes began to change. An association was starting to grow between hemp and both immigrants and then-recently freed African Americans. Racism and xenophobia were stoked by politicians with ties to the cotton industry, most famously Harry Anslinger, who would come to run the precursor to the DEA.
World War I, the 1930s, and World War II
Hemp became an important crop for the war effort in World War I, where it was primarily used to create parachute straps, messenger bags, and even canvas for tents. At the time, its rivalry with cotton was reaching a fever pitch, and despite its vital role in supporting the war effort public opinion continued to decline due to misinformation campaigns and racist rhetoric that stoked the fears of a segregated public. In 1936 that fear became the inspiration for the film Reefer Madness, which cast marijuana as a dangerously lethal drug that destroys lives. The following year saw the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act. The law effectively made marijuana illegal and severely hampered the production of hemp as a whole. You can read more about the act at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marihuana_Tax_Act_of_1937, but the important thing to note is that the billion dollar hemp industry was all but killed by the law.
While production of hemp products was still technically legal, it required special permission from the United States Government, which reduced production substantially and left cotton the undisputed king of the market. This became a problem when America entered World War II, where hemp became an important crop to once more support a massive war effort. Campaigns like Hemp for Victory! encouraged farmers to increase production of hemp again. For time, it looked like the industry might recover, but another political push would begin in the following decade that would change everything.
1950s to Modern Day
Once more, politicians began to demonize any and all kinds of cannabis. The market motivations surrounding cotton were gone, replaced by the social angles instilled during those early days of politicizing the plant. Politicians like McCarthy renewed social rage and fear surrounding the plant, and the Drug Enforcement Agency doubled down on condemning and enforcing the illegality of the drug. This fever pitch through the following decades culminated in the 1980s War on Drugs. While hemp textile production still existed, its guilt by association had diminished its role in the market. It hasn’t recovered to this day.
That said, the industry is recovering. The federal ban on production without dispensation was lifted in 2018, and since then we’ve seen hemp reemerge in the market. You can visit this hemp website for just one example of how much variety cannabis has on the market in the modern era. It’s only a matter of time before even the recreational drug is made legal in the United States, and we may yet see production of the industrial crop grow. It may never reach its pre-cotton prestige, but it can’t be denied that hemp’s place in American history is far from over.