As my birthday approaches in April and I share a date with one of our greatest founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, I am also reminded of another fact, in our mutual love of weed. Born nearly 250 years before me, a lot of new information, progress, failures, misinformation, and more, has been put out since Mr. Jefferson’s birth. And while he didn’t have access to the gauntlet of products we have at dispensaries today, since humans first found traces of cannabis back nearly 10,000 years ago, it is safe to say he was familiar with the product.
As cultures throughout the world have used this “sacred grass” for thousands of years, it first showed up in the American colonies with the Puritans. It was valued as a hardy fiber, uniquely adaptable, resistant to natural decay, and used in shipping lines, caulking, and sails that made up the Mayflower. In 1616, Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America grew cannabis, particularly hemp, for all sorts of uses, including construction, clothing, food, paper, and livestock products. Early settlers relied on hemp to get through those formative years, especially in the east coast sailing communities who needed strong sails and ropes to combat the harsh winters and winds. As one example, the 44-gun USS Constitution, known as Old Ironsides, and still afloat as the world’s oldest commissioned naval vessel today, required more than 120,000 pounds of hemp to construct it alone. Demand for the plant was so high that by the 1700’s there were laws in place requiring American farmers to grow it and they were even allowed to pay taxes with it. Which leads us to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s estate, and other founding fathers who knew the benefits of cannabis and grew it in great quantities themselves.
While it is safe to say that Thomas Jefferson knew how valuable cannabis was as a crop, one may assume he was not puffing on the porch like we do today. That is because the weed referenced in Jefferson’s and George Washington’s journals was hemp cultivated for industrial purposes. It was grown to make rope, clothing, paper and contained such low THC levels that it would not have been used for hallucinogenic purposes. But as production and development of hemp grew throughout the 19th century, politics interfered with the booming industry, and the demand for sails and rigging fell while the steamships made of iron eventually took over the seas. Yet it was really in the 20th century and modern politics that delivered the greatest blow to the hemp industry. And it was the 1930’s smear campaign of Harry J. Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and William Randolph Hearst, whose yellow journalism (e.g. Reefer Madness) helped pass the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937 that changed everything.The arguments that led to the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act were not at all based on scientific evidence, but rather on racial stereotypes and fear. After all, just a year later in 1938, Popular Mechanics wrote an article how hemp could potentially be used in 25,000 different products. Unfortunately, hemp was lumped in for the first time as a narcotic and since the regulation of licensing hemp production was turned over to the Department of Revenue, farmers’ incentive to grow the crop were dramatically reduced. It is also no wonder that around this time William Hearst saw the threat hemp had to his newspaper empire being such a better alternative to wood. Finally, plastic and synthetic fibers’ emergence during the 1950’s together with an increase in cheaper imports from overseas all had a negative effect on the production of hemp. And yet, despite it all, hemp and cannabis has made a comeback in the 21st century! With the passage of two Farm Bills in 2014 and 2018, the Department of Agriculture and universities are back to studying this miraculous plant. Also, hemp has been removed from the Controlled Substances Act allowing farmers to commercially grow it once more. Hemp was one of the earliest crops cultivated by humans and we are witnessing a resurgence in American lives. As more people discover its benefits and interest grows, especially evident in CBD oil’s popularity, which most of the hemp grown is used for today, we are simply getting back to our roots… Thomas Jefferson would be proud.
Ryan Fitzgerald, originally from Milwaukee, WI, is a student of history, a lover of music, competitive games, and a cannabis enthusiast. He writes about cannabis history, culture and current events.