‘May 12–13: Sowed hemp at Muddy hole by swamp.
August 7: began to separate the male from the
female—rather too late.’
George Washington, diary 1765
Poor old hemp. The tragedy is that such a potentially useful plant to
humanity was sidelined by the clash of two events: an important
technological breakthrough which came at a dramatic turning point in the
efforts of a minor figure in American history to gain political advantage
by vilifying it. As Robert Deitch wrote in Hemp—American History
Revisited, man has ‘exploited [the cannabis plant] in virtually every way
for thousands of years’. As fuel, fibre, paper and food, Deitch writes, it
could ‘solve a number of environmental and economic problems we face
today’. But because one of its uses involves pleasure, it has been
sidelined by history.
Cannabis is a genus of flowering dioecious plants (meaning that an
individual plant is either male or female), the two most important of
which are Cannabis indica and C. sativa. It is an annual flowering plant
with distinctive serrated leaves that many a teenage gardener will
Cannabis is another of those plants whose origins are unclear. Both
Central Asia and Persia have been advanced, although some experts
maintain that it began life in north and north-eastern China and southeastern
Siberia, where it is the only fibre plant of any importance. Pieces
of hemp cloth were found on the inside of a jar in Gansui in north-eastern
China belonging to a Neolithic culture (2150–1780 BC). In Chinese,
hemp is known as ta-ma, great fibre. It eventually clothed the Chinese
people from head to foot, although the Chinese knew of its other
properties from the first century BC, and, much later, the Taoists used
cannabis as a hallucinogen with other ingredients in incense burners.
The plant grows wild in the hills and mountains of northern India, Asia,
Africa and even parts of Europe. In the fifth century BC, Herodotus wrote
that it grew in Thracia (Scythia) [MODERN DAY?], where it was thrown
on red-hot rocks and the fumes inhaled.
As an intoxicant, cannabis has been most widely used in India and the
Middle East. The Indian ancient text the Artharva-Veda mentions
cannabis as a herb that will ‘release us from anxiety’ and to the present
day, cannabis is used by Hindu devotees in India as a part of religious
ritual, and is the drug of choice in Egypt and North Africa.
But cannabis has many other useful applications. In the second century
AD, the Chinese surgeon Hua To developed an anaesthetic using
cannabis and wine, which he called ma yo, to perform painless
surgery.By the late tenth century, Venice had become the first European
country to industrialise hemp for the production of fine cloth for
garments, sails and rope. By the middle of the fourteenth century, Britain
was a major producer of hemp, and the rise of the British navy depended
to some extent on the their production of hemp cloth for sails and ropes.
In 1533, Henry VIII issued a law requiring British farmers to grow hemp;
indeed, there were penalties for not growing it. The colonisation of India
and America was seen as an opportunities to grow even more hemp; in
fact the British first went to India in order to plant hemp.
Hemp had a real advantage over cotton as a fibre: its strands were longer
and stronger. But in 1793, with the invention of the cotton gin by Eli
Whitney, cotton suddenly became much cheaper to process than hemp.
Cheap American cotton killed Britain’s hemp industry, and devastated
India’s economy. The switch to cotton began, and cotton has reigned ever
But the final death knell for hemp sounded in America in 1937. For seven
years, Harry J Anslinger, the director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics,
had demonised marijuana as the ‘killer weed’, a campaign that
culminated in the production of the cult classic film Reefer Madness.
Finally, after resisting his efforts for those seven years, US Treasury
passed the Marijuana Tax Act and President Roosevelt signed it, neither
knowing they were killing the hemp industry.
Before the Tax Act, hemp seeds and oil were used as lubricants and in
paints and varnishes – after the Act, they were replaced by
petrochemicals. And in that same year, 1937, Mechanical Engineering
magazine proclaimed hemp as a miracle crop, pronouncing it the
strongest of the vegetable fibres, giving the greatest production per acre,
requiring less attention and not only not needing the use of herbicides, but
acting as a herbicide itself. It is a crop, the magazine told its readers, that
leaves the soil in splendid condition. In the same year, Popular
Mechanics hailed hemp as ‘the billion dollar crop’, yielding three to six
tonnes an acre, and told its readers that paper could be produced from
hemp fibre without using sulphuric acid or dioxins, because the plant
could be broken down simply with caustic soda. Hemp paper could be
used everywhere that paper is used today, with much less cost to the
The reason for this praise being heaped upon hemp at the time was,
ironically, the beginning of the widespread use of a method for cleaning
hemp, the decorticator, which made it as cheap to produce as cotton.
The industrial use of hemp is slowly making a comeback. In 1995,
Canada began allowing the growing of hemp under license. For this kind
of hemp, plants grow to about 9 metres (30 feet) high, at which point
there is hardly any of the psychoactive component of cannabis
(tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC) present, and a maximum of fibre and
cellulose. We can only hope that there is a return to sanity in society’s
attitude to this plant, surely one of the most useful on the planet.
As for its psychotropic powers, let us end this story of cannabis with a
quotation from Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire:
‘Christianity and capitalism are both probably right to detest a plant
like cannabis. Both faiths bid us to set our sights on the future; both
reject the pleasures of the moment and the senses in favour of the
expectation of a fulfilment yet to come—whether by earning
salvation or by getting and spending. More even than most plant
drugs, cannabis, by immersing us in the present and offering
something like fulfilment here and now, short-circuits the
metaphysics of desire on which Christianity and capitalism (and so
much else in our civilization) depend.’