Artist's depiction of Washington & Jefferson in a hemp field. Both men grew hemp on their plantations.
November 23, 2012 - My, how times have changed. In the 1760's, you could be jailed in this country for not growing hemp! Cannabis was so highly prized that King George III made growing hemp mandatory. Tensions that arose from England's demand for raw hemp fibers from the New World were partially responsible for events that led to the American Revolutionary.
During the 1600's, England grew their Royal Fleet threefold as a defense against the superiority of surrounding nations. France's economy was twice that of England and their population was three times larger making the smaller country vulnerable to attack. After years of war, England deemed building a superior Navy a matter of National Security.
England's demand for hemp rope grew exponentially to supply their mushrooming fleet. It took several tons of rope to outfit each new ship plus acres of canvas to make the sails. Additionally, the rigging on older ships had to be replaced every couple of years from contact with the elements. Purchasing raw hemp from Russia involved long months of travel around Cape Horn and was very expensive. The Crown was looking to lower the cost of importing hemp and the vast open lands in the Colonies seemed like the perfect solution.
The first proclamation to grow hemp came in 1611 when the Crown ordered every colonist in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York to grow this vital plant. Ironically, tobacco was a more profitable crop at the time so colonists preferred to grow it over hemp. Soon the shortage of hemp was so severe that every farmer was ordered to cultivate a minimum of 100 plants. To increase supply, the Governor was empowered to offer two pounds of tobacco for each pound of hemp fibers they produced.
By 1682, hemp was legal tender in Virginia for up to one-fourth of a farmer's debts including his taxes. Maryland passed a similar act in 1683 and Pennsylvania adopted the provision in 1706. Even with these inducements, very little hemp made its way to England. Demand for the product far exceeded the available supply and Yankee merchants bought any hemp that made its way to market.
When ship building was established in Salem in 1629, demand for hemp rope and rigging only increased the scarcity of raw materials.
Raw hemp fiber
The first factory for making hemp rope, called a ropewalk, was established in 1635. Soon other ropewalks sprouted up along the Eastern seaboard. By the time of the American Revolution in 1776, Boston alone had fourteen ropewalks; but no matter how much hemp was produced, supply could not keep up with demand.
A number of expert spinners and weavers immigrated from Ireland to the colonies in 1718 and brought their skills with them. They shared their knowledge, teaching women how to weave and spin professional-quality cloth that was highly valued. Spinning bees became such a craze that American textile production increased significantly, reducing the need to import pricier items from across the sea.
This didn't sit well with the Mother Country. Colonies were expected to supply England with raw materials and to buy finished goods in return. Merchants began complaining that the colonies were not buying enough British-made goods.
Parliament responded by imposing tariffs and taxes on the items most needed in the New World. Colonists viewed tariffs on goods as a justifiable way to regulate commerce so the fees were tolerated even if they were unpopular, but a tipping point was reached with the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765.
A popular way to protest against the Stamp Act in Colonial America.
The Stamp Act imposed a tax on every document written on or anything made from paper. The revenues from the Stamp Act were used to pay for British troops stationed in the Colonies after the Seven Year War with France. This was largely viewed as a taxation without representation by the Colonists who were subjects of the Crown, but did not have a member in Parliament. The reaction in the New World was strong and sometimes violent: Businessmen refused to buy products made in England and colonists agreed to only wear domestically produced clothing.
Tensions between the England and the colonies continued to escalate over trade and taxes that eventually erupted into the Revolutionary War ten years later. The war caused the price of hemp to soar. Before the outbreak of hostilities, hemp was selling for between 27 and 35 shillings per hundredweight. By 1780, the price had climbed to 300 shillings.
Hemp Farming in America
Our Founding Fathers, Including Washington and Jefferson grew hemp on their plantations. The Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution are written on hemp paper. Jefferson wrote, "Hemp is of the first necessity to the wealth and the protection of this country."
Robert "King" Carter was a prominent Virginia landowner and an early ancestor of President Jimmy Carter (who later enacted the Compassionate Use Act allowing patients to receive medical marijuana from the federal government). King Carter owned 300,000 acres of prime farmland that he dedicated to the cultivation of hemp.
Hemp farms were common in America
A US Census of 1850 records 8,327 hemp plantations with a minimum of 2,000 acres each, but just fifteen years later, the Civil War rang the death knoll for hemp production in America which continued until the outbreak of WWI. The North purchased most of the hemp grown in the Southern states to supply their textile mills. After the war broke out, Northern merchants were able to import hemp; but with the loss of their primary market, Southern farmers stopped cultivating hemp and production never fully recovered after the war ended. Hemp was replaced with less expensive materials.
Medical Cannabis Comes to Europe and America
As industrial use for hemp declined, a new market developed. Medical uses for cannabis were almost unknown in Western Europe and the Americas due to the suppression of information from "heathen" cultures by the Catholic church. Medicinal Cannabis wasn't introduced to the West until 1839 by a 30-year old British physician, W. B. O'Shaugnessy, who had observed doctors in the Indian province of Bengal treating all manner of illnesses with concoctions made from hemp extracts. (Bengal means Bhang Land, which literally translates to Cannabis Land.)
O'Shaugnessy wrote a 40-page booklet extolling the benefits of cannabis for various medical conditions which swept Europe by storm. Cannabis become the Wonder Drug of Western and American physicians and was widely used by women, men, and children. One patient O'Saugnessy treated was a 40-day old baby suffering from debilitating convulsions who "leapt from near death to the enjoyment of robust health" in a few days. Cannabis was even available in over-the-counter candies.
One company, Gunjah Wallah, made a highly popular maple sugar hashish candy for over forty years that was advertised in the Sears Roebuck catalog as a "totally harmless, delicious, fun candy."
By the turn of the century, cannabis had been used in this country for 60 years.
Doctors did not consider cannabis to be habit forming nor did they find it promoted anti-social behavior. Cannabis was not demonized until it became "marijuana" the dreaded scourge enjoyed by Mexican laborers who fled to this county following the Revolution in 1910.
Next week we will examine how every drug prohibition has its roots in racism aided by yellow journalists who promoted "Reefer Madness" hysteria for their own financial gain.
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