Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Hemp - From Favored Flora to Fake News and Fabricated Hate

A modern-day recreation of the colonial ship The Mayflower
The Mayflower
Hemp arrived on this continent with the first ships to troll its shores. When Columbus and his crew set sail in 1492, it was in ships fitted with sails and ropes made from hemp. If you are one of the many people that believe the Vikings got here first, there is evidence that they also used hemp for cloth and cordage. The plant was introduced into Mexico by Pedro Cuadrado, a Spanish Conquistador shortly after the conquest in the early 1500s. He brought the seeds to begin a business venture that was relatively short-lived, but more on that later.

Hemp is considered to be one of the oldest domesticated crop in the world. There is evidence that it has been used since 8,000 BCE. By the time the pilgrims arrived on their hemp-outfitted Mayflower in 1620 (see a fun video here), the plant was an unquestioned and important staple in their world. From the beginning of the colonies, the English decreed that the colonists grow hemp. The reason was simple: the British Navy was busy empire-building and there was a constant need for rigging and sails, a need that they were having a hard time keeping up with. The colonists never quite managed to supply the hoped-for hemp bounty, however, as they soon found that they needed all they could grow. They not only made cloth and ropes, they extracted the oil from seeds and burned it in lamps and bartered with all parts of the plant.

Black and white etching of early American colonists harvesting hemp
Early colonists harvesting hemp

Meanwhile, in Jamestown, Virginia, colonists had been struggling to survive since 1607. By 1619, they felt established enough to set down some laws. Included in these was the mandate that all settlers grow hemp, “For hemp also, both English and Indian, and for English flax and aniseeds, we do require and enjoin all householders of this colony, that have any of those seeds, to make trial thereof the next season.” This was America’s first, but by no means last, cannabis-related legislation.

Modern black and white drawing of Betsy Ross
Betsy Ross
Throughout most of the next 300 years, hemp maintained its position as a widely-used and valuable commodity. It was legal tender in the colonies of Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland and, for more than 150 years, taxes could be paid in hemp. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and John Adams all grew industrial hemp. It is believed that Betsy Ross made the first U.S. flag with hemp cloth and scholars know that Benjamin Franklin used hemp string when he did his famous lightning experiment.

Hemp was held in high esteem in our country until the beginning of the 20th century, when a whispering campaign was begun against it. To explain, let’s go back to Pedro Cuadrado: his hemp seeds had created a lucrative business growing industrial hemp, but by 1550 the Spanish government restricted his endeavor. Apparently, the native people of the region had discovered a more eye-opening use for it than making rope and this disturbed the authorities (a theme that continues to plague the hemp plant). Despite the restrictions, cannabis from the hemp plant maintained its following in Mexico. When refugees began arriving as a result of the Mexican Revolution (1910-20), they brought their herb with them and introduced it into the American zeitgeist.

Black and white photo of a grim-faced William Randolph Hearst with his arms crossed in front of him
William Randolph Hearst
With the onset of the Great Depression and its massive job losses, resentment towards Mexican migrant workers grew in many areas. They were seen as taking jobs that American workers badly needed (sound familiar?). This is when the incredibly rich and powerful William Randolph Hearst entered the picture. He was unabashed in his disdain for Mexicans, once saying, “I really don’t see what is to prevent us from owning all Mexico and running it to suit ourselves.” Hearst used his papers to stoke the anti-Mexican fervor and to connect it to hemp by portraying them as drug-crazed from cannabis. Despite being a complete racist, his motivation for targeting hemp was probably to protect his timber holdings and eliminate hemp paper, which he was successful at doing.

The final nail in the hemp coffin was the appointment of Harry Anslinger in 1930 as the nation’s first Drug Czar. By most accounts, he was as reprehensible a racist as Hearst and a rabid evangelical to boot. He was all in on Prohibition and, when that was repealed he turned his to attention to other stimulants. His rhetoric was all about the dangers of minorities on drugs and it played well into the Depression narrative. Unfortunately, Anslinger stayed in the U.S. Treasury Department Bureau of Narcotics into the 1960’s and was able to firmly nail down anti-cannabis/hemp laws.

The pendulum is definitely swinging back in hemp’s favor these days. In time, the criminalization of this useful plant will undoubtedly be seen as what it was: fear-mongering in order to satisfy special interests. If we could only get rid of all the sensationalized reporting and fabricated hate we would all be better off.

Submitted by Pam

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