The History of Hemp In America

A hemp plant on an orange background

Throughout most of our lifetimes, we’ve known hemp as illegal and controlled, but that’s a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of hemp!

Hemp’s many useful properties have been recognized since as far back as 8000 BC, where hemp byproducts were found in food, pottery, and rope material in China. The history of hemp in America extends back even further, before recorded history, as a staple crop in Indigenous American culture.

But how did hemp go from one of the most important crops in America to illegal and taboo, then back to a legal source of popular CBD remedies? It’s confusing, but EndoCoast has created a hemp history timeline to help you figure out how hemp and CBD history got to where it is today.

A colonial wooden ship on the ocean

History of Hemp Starting in the Colonial Era

Pre-1600s: By the time Europeans arrive on the continent, Native Americans have already been cultivating hemp for perhaps hundreds, if not thousands, of years. They used hemp for thread, clothing, paper, and food products.

Early 1600s: Colonists grew hemp as both a popular export to England and as an important building and clothing material. Its strong and durable fibers were used for a wide variety of purposes, including shipbuilding and mapmaking. It became a critical crop for colonial farms -- you could even use hemp as legal tender to pay taxes!

1700s: Hemp became so important to the early New England economy that some laws mandated farmers to grow it. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp, and early drafts of the Declaration of Independence were written on hemp paper.

1830: Robert McCormick invents the “hemp-break,” a machine that breaks down hemp and flax. An important moment in the history of hemp in America, this speeds up the harvesting process and makes hemp even more popular.

1841: Congress passes a law that mandates the Navy buy hemp from farmers.

Smoke billows from some industrial factory buildings

Hemp At The Turn Of The Century

Late 1800s: The history of hemp takes an unexpected turn as steamships grow in popularity, reducing the need for hemp sailcloth and rope. Demand for hemp begins to decline and many states begin to move away from hemp production. Kentucky becomes the state with the most significant hemp industry until WWI. (Fun fact: Kentucky remains one of the best climates to grow hemp in the world.)

Early 1900s: The invention of the mechanical cotton gin makes cotton production more lucrative and productive than hemp production.

1916: The USDA publishes a study that reveals hemp produces four times more paper per acre than trees.

1917: George W. Schlichten patents a hemp processing machine that reduces labor costs by a factor of 100 while significantly increasing the fiber yield. The machine does not come into popular use, however, as Schlichten failed to find investors for his machine.

A government building where important rulings in history of hemp took place

The 1937 Marijuana Tax Act and the WWII Effort

1930s: By the 1920s, hemp produces up to 80% of textiles in America. Synthetic petroleum-based textile manufacturers saw hemp as a threat to their profits and may have influenced hemp history timeline events to come.

1936: The infamous film Reefer Madness, financed by an evangelical church group, tells a tale of teenagers committing crimes under the influence of marijuana. (Ironically, the film was so melodramatic that it later had a resurgence in the 1970s by advocates for cannabis policy reform).

1937: The history of hemp in America takes a turn for the worse. The Marijuana Tax Act makes it illegal to produce any plant in the cannabis family. It does not ban the crop outright; rather, it places heavy taxes on those who continue to produce hemp and makes the license required to produce it prohibitively expensive. Many have claimed this was part of an effort by businessmen, like the DuPont family and Andrew Mellon, to destroy the hemp industry in favor of their timber and synthetic fiber holdings. This Act effectively begins the era of cannabis prohibition that persists today.

1938: Popular Mechanics publishes an article listing 25,000 uses for hemp, calling it a “billion-dollar crop.” This was written before the Marijuana Tax Act was passed, but published shortly after. Its findings do not stop the damage already done to hemp’s public perception.

1941s: Henry Ford creates a prototype of a car fueled and manufactured using hemp, showcasing its versatility and durability.

Early 1940s: The history of hemp experiences a brief resurgence during WWII. Jute imports from the Philippines are interrupted by the Japanese invasion, and hemp products become needed for the war effort. The Marijuana Tax Act is temporarily lifted, and a “Hemp for Victory” program is pushed, encouraging American farmers to grow as much hemp as possible. Hemp production skyrockets, especially in the Midwest. However, the revival is only temporary, ending as sharply as it began when the war ended.

Hemp plants growing outside in the su

Post-WWII to the 2000s:

1957: The last commercial hemp fields in the United States is planted in Wisconsin.

1960s: Scientists manage to isolate and “discover” the cannabinoids CBD and THC, confirming that CBD is non-psychoactive.

1970: Possibly the most significant event in the hemp history timeline, the Controlled Substances Act imposes strict regulations on hemp. It classifies hemp as an illegal Schedule I drug, the highest possible ranking, meaning that it is not legally acceptable for any medicinal use. This associates marijuana with other highly addictive and dangerous drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Strict regulations are imposed on its production, excluding sterilized hemp seed, hemp fiber, and hemp seed oil.

1999: Following Canada’s legalization of hemp production, the first test plots of industrial hemp are planted in Hawaii.

The Resurgence of Hemp History in America: 2000s to the Present

2004: The court case Hemp Industries Association vs. DEA protects the sale of hemp body care and food products.

2005: The Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2005 seeks to clarify the differences between industrial hemp and marijuana in order to allow the production of sustainable, non-psychoactive hemp byproducts. It is not passed but is the precursor for similar bills that eventually lead to the 2018 Farm Bill.

2007: Two North Dakota farmers receive the first commercial hemp licenses in over 50 years.

2014: President Obama signs the Agricultural Act of 2014 (or the 2014 Farm Bill) which allows for research institutions to test hemp farming.

2018: The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (or the 2018 Farm Bill) is signed into law. This removes the hemp plant (along with its seeds and derivatives) from the Controlled Substances Act, making hemp an eligible crop under the Federal Crop Insurance Program, and allows for hemp’s transfer over state lines. This allows for the resurgence of hemp and CBD products online and in stores—a huge moment in the hemp history timeline.

EndoCoast: Your Best Choice For Pure & Potent CBD Products

At EndoCoast, we’re playing a part in the history of hemp in America by creating a product that stands far beyond the rest. Our high-quality CBD oils, pure CBD creams, and CBD-infused edibles are crafted from carefully CO2 extracted CBD and 3rd-party lab-tested to ensure purity.

We encourage you to see for yourself why CBD is changing so many lives as a natural remedy for pain relief, anxiety, inflammation, and more. Browse our shop to find a product that works for you, and learn more CBD oil facts on our extensive Learning Center page.