Laws of the Land: A Legal History of Hemp in America

For centuries, mankind has been using hemp as a source of fiber, oil, food, building material, and medicinal purposes. Though it has been outlawed in the past, hemp has recently been gaining in popularity again. This is thanks to the many benefits that hemp has to offer — and the revival of cannabis legalization and acceptance.

In this article, we’ll explore the legal history of hemp in the US, from its prohibition to its renewed legalization. By the end of this post — you’re sure to have a new appreciation for what industrial hemp has endured over the years!

Patrick H. Moore, CEO of Ecolution Hemp highlights The Emperor Wears No Clothes by Jack Herrer, "The Emperor of Hemp," and gives a brief overview of hemp and its potential.

Hemp’s Historical Role in Society

Hemp has a long and storied place in the annals of US and world history. It’s been used since ancient times for a variety of reasons, including making clothing, constructing homes, and even producing oil.

Despite the tumult of on-again, off-again legality — which we’ll get into momentarily — hemp continues to play an important agricultural role in the United States. The resurgence of this important sustainable crop is seeing new and beneficial applications — industrial, culinary, medicinal, and beyond — in virtually every sector from food to self-care to textiles to construction.

And it shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon!

So, how did we arrive at this juncture in hemp’s still-evolving legal and functional legacy?

Is Hemp Legal in the US Today?

Before jumping back in time, let’s just go ahead and address the cannabis elephant in the room, shall we?

Federal Hemp Legislation

The 2014 and 2018 Farm Bills deemed hemp as a federally-legal plant in the US today. It can be cultivated, researched, transformed into goods, and transported across state lines. You can even mail it via the USPS and — in Uncle Sam’s eyes — it’s fine to travel domestically with hemp.

To be clear, we’re talking about the agricultural commodity industrial hemp — aka hemp that has less than 0.3% THC by weight. We’re talking about the plant itself, not the items that can be made from it (like CBD oil products). And many of these provisions are for commercial (i.e., large-scale) use cases, not personal use scenarios.

However, derivatives and byproducts of hemp biomass are also federally-legal as long as they don’t exceed the mandated THC threshold. This means you won’t get arrested for wearing hemp clothes or stocking up on nutritious hemp hearts (yum!).

What about CBD’s Legal Status?

CBD is a more complicated legal story.

While the 2018 Farm Bill allows for the cultivation and manufacturing of hemp, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t approved CBD as an ingredient in dietary supplements or as a food additive. This means that, despite being wildly popular, CBD products still require a new regulatory pathway that explicitly articulates what’s permissible under the law.

The FDA and Congress are ever so slowly working all the nits and gnats of this out. New regulations are ahead — so it’s important that you familiarize yourself if you wish to partake of this mighty cannabinoid in its many forms.

Hemp Laws at the State Level

The particulars of growing, processing, marketing, and buying it also vary from state to state, though. With a few exceptions, it’s legal for commercial production and selling of industrial hemp in most parts of the US. Individual rights to grow hemp at home tend to follow along the guidelines set for personal growing of marijuana plants.(1)

A History of Hemp Prohibition

Now that we’ve satisfied your immediate concern about current hemp legalization, we can journey back in time to when a legal cloud of smoke started drifting over cannabis.

Early regulations were likely linked to marijuana strains of cannabis that came with psychoactive effects from the THC content. Nonetheless, hemp was often caught up in the dragnet. (Historical records often lack a distinction between cannabis, marijuana, and hemp….)

Despite having been used in medicinal, recreational, spiritual, and commerce capacities for eons, cannabis began facing legal woes in the 1300s.(2) This is when the first prohibitions and restrictions on it rolled out.

In the fifteenth century, Pope Innocent VIII (1432-1492) used drug policy to marginalize and discriminate against people using marijuana. He declared that cannabis was a “tool of the devil.” One of the reasons he did that was because it helped relieve the pain of childbirth in women — and we all know they have that pain because of Adam and Eve’s original sin!(3)

Bans and restrictions continued rolling out around the world through the 1700s and 1800s.(4) It wasn’t until well into the 1900s that cannabis’s legal tides started turning — though the seas were a choppy mess of prohibition and permissibility to be sure.

Legal History of Cannabis in the Modern Era

Hemp has had its own heydays and trials in the US as well.

The Glory Days of US Hemp

Hemp farming in America has its roots all the way back to Jamestown.(5) People were actually ordered to plant this crop. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were among the more notable hemp farmers.

By the early 1900s, hemp was a mega-crop. Farming and industrial advances made it easier to grow, harvest, and process than other previously-staple crops, like cotton.

A Long Hibernation of Hemp’s Halcyon Existence

But, that was to change. While other countries started lifting restrictions — and even adding certain preparations of cannabis to their national pharmacopeias — around 1935, America was pedaling in the opposite direction.

In the 1930s, a vicious “reefer madness” propaganda campaign creating hysteria over marijuana crept up afresh. This ultimately led to the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, which made marijuana illegal in the US. This legislation didn’t distinguish hemp from marijuana. So, by outlawing marijuana — hemp and its byproducts were prohibited, too.

All hemp farming ceased after the Marihuana Tax Act was enacted. This was a devastating blow to many in the commercial and agriculture industries who made their livings off of hemp.

Harry Anslinger & the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act

It’s worth taking a moment to call out one notable (some say infamous) person in the history of hemp in the US: Harry Anslinger. Described as both a “racist hate-monger” and a dedicated lifelong civil servant — you can bet he was a colorful character with a controversial imprint on domestic and international drug policies.(6,7)

Regardless of what you think about the man or the ban, it’s frequently deemed that Anslinger pushed the Marihuana Tax Act for the wrong reasons.(8)

Anslinger wasn’t all that concerned by cannabis in his early career. Then he became the inaugural commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (the predecessor to the Drug Enforcement Administration) in 1930 — and his position on cannabis flipped.

With Prohibition starting to collapse, he was passionate about nipping narcotics in the bud. He was on a mission to start a war on drugs (and hemp). Cocaine and heroin had been made illegal years before — but that wasn’t sufficient in Anslinger’s opinion.

Anti-cannabis propaganda and sensationalized stories — possibly fueled by the cotton and paper industries, which were threatened by hemp’s industrial applications, and racism — led Anslinger into dubbing marijuana “evil weed.”(9) He asserted that marijuana was a Pandora’s box — opening it spurred ills like murder, sex crimes, and bouts of psychosis. Reefer madness, if you will.

Anslinger also linked cannabis to Blacks and Latinos. He promoted the grossly racist idea that these folks were the primary consumers and that using marijuana made them forget their place in society.

Though there wasn’t any hard proof of any of this, Anslinger was persuasive. Public sentiment started aligning with Anslinger and after testifying before Congress on the matter, the Marihuana Tax Act was passed.

The War on Drugs Era

The Marihuana Tax Act wasn’t the last effort to quash cannabis. In the 1970s, the Nixon Administration launched its “War on Drugs” campaign. This was followed in the 1980s by the Reagan administration’s D.A.R.E. initiative that preached “Just Say No.”

New Beginnings for Industrial Hemp

There has been movement on the legal dial. Both at the state and national level, hemp is seeing a new day in the sunshine!

At the State Level

In more recent years, many states have started to ease their stances on cannabis. Access to both hemp and marijuana has expanded. Several states began decriminalizing marijuana possession, launching medical cannabis programs, etc. In fact, most states have some form of medical and/or recreational cannabis use allowance on the books. This appears to be a trend that will continue. 

At the Federal Level

Nothing much happened at the national level between 2009 (end of D.A.R.E.) and the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill. This legislation revived the ability to grow industrial hemp by authorized parties for research purposes. It was well received and the trial period went well.

Then, with the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, the floodgates were opened. This act did some key things:

  1. It made hemp with less than 0.3% THC federally legal.
  2. It distinguished [industrial] hemp from marijuana, articulating that they are divergent kinds of cannabis with different properties.
  3. It removed industrial hemp from the list of Schedule I substances under the Controlled Substances Act.

As such, hemp and its byproducts and derivatives were ripe for a renaissance — which we’re seeing all around us today!

But, It’s Not So Simple…

Cannabis regulation is complex and involves many different lawmakers, agencies, and so on. Congress — the legislative body that passed the Farm Bills — is only one part of the federal government and overall legal framework.

This leaves a lot for other federal regulators (e.g., FDA, DEA, FTC) and states to figure out. They need to establish the rules for operations, consumption, oversight, etc. — i.e., the shape of the hemp marketplace. This is why we have the inconsistent mash-up of hemp and CBD laws in the US and some locales have tighter restrictions than others.

Looking Ahead to Tomorrow’s Hemp

If hemp persists on its current trajectory, it could regain its place among the top crops grown in the country.(10)

The legal tableau for cannabis is ever-evolving. The trend is towards more rights and access, so it’s possible that we’ll see new opportunities for hemp and hemp-based products.

Keeping an eye on regulatory, commercial, and cultural developments is recommended so you don’t miss any relevant changes.

Coming Full Circle — Hemp Legalization in the US

Hemp has a long and colorful history. It’s been used since ancient times and has swayed with the ebbs and flows of society. As such, laws and cultural norms have changed along the way.

Today, hemp with no more than 0.3% THC is federally legal for certain uses with certain conditions applicable. Individual states have laws that allow for more or less hemp access and usage than what the 2014 and 2018 Farm Bills stipulate.

And, the future for hemp continues to look bright!

FAQs Buzzin’ Through the Hive

Is hemp legal?

The short answer is yes. Industrial hemp is federally legal in the US thanks to 2018 Farm Bill. However, it also falls under the purview of other federal agencies, which haven’t created a clear or consistent federal regulatory pathway. Additionally, states have their own rules and regulations on the growing and use of hemp and hemp-derived products like CBD oil.

Why was hemp made illegal in 1937?

Hemp was associated with marijuana and its “bad” effects. When marijuana was made illegal, hemp got swept up in the frenzy and also became illicit.

Can I grow hemp in my backyard?

Maybe. Typically, states that allow you to grow marijuana will also let you grow hemp. There are lots of rules and restrictions. So it’s best to check your local laws.

References

  1. (2021). Is It Illegal to Grow Hemp? [Understanding the Legalities]. WayofLeaf.
  2. Johnson, B. (2010). Addiction Medicine: Science and Practice. Springer Science & Business Media.
  3. Bearman, D. (2000). Drugs Are Not the Devil's Tools: How Discrimination and Greed Created a Dysfunctional Drug Policy and How It Can Be Fixed.
  4. (2022). Timeline of cannabis law. Wikipedia.
  5. (2022). Historical Timeline - Medical Marijuana. ProCon.org.
  6. Smith, L. (2018). How a racist hate-monger masterminded America’s War on Drugs. Medium; Timeline.
  7. (2021). A Life Of Service: Harry Jacob Anslinger - Introduction. DEA Museum.
  8. Herer, J. (2019). The Emperor Wears No Clothes: Hemp and the Marijuana Conspiracy.
  9. Adams, C. (2016). The man behind the marijuana ban for all the wrong reasons. Cbsnews.com; CBS News.
  10. (2017). Hope for Hemp: New Opportunities and Challenges for an Old Crop. USDA.
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About the Author

Maria Calabrese

Maria thrives off giving a voice to the cannabis industry's most innovative brands and community, while helping them get the exposure they deserve to unleash the full potential of cannabis as a wellness solution.

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