Cannabis in American History – Part 1: Cannabis Sativa

 Cannabis Sativa

  • European fiber hemp was a common staple crop, native to central Asia and used since ancient times for fiber and seed. Hemp was one of three primary plant fibers along with cotton and linen (from flax) used in colonial America. Among these fibers, hemp’s were the longest and strongest leading to its use in industrial applications like making ropes and nets.
  • Christopher Columbus
  • Cannabis comes to the Americas with Christopher Columbus, his ships were rigged with hemp like all others of the era.
  • Columbus would promptly take slaves upon arrival in the Caribbean in 1492, these events launched European colonialism, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and 500 years of white supremacy. Hemp would play a role in this drama, providing raw materials for every ship on the sea and itself becoming a slave crop in the New World.
  • Cannabis hemp seeds were dropped in the New World by the earliest explorers, seeds were common on the ships because it had many uses, as food, as oil for paints and lubricants, and crops provided fibers for clothing and to patch sails.
  • Hemp was a strategic commodity due to its use in shipbuilding. Ropes, rigging, and oakum (used to fill gaps between wooden boards) were made exclusively from cannabis sativa. A large sailing ship could use 100 tons of hemp when fully outfitted. Every nationa’s navy in the colonial era required robust supplies of hemp.
  • England mandated the production of hemp in the 1630’s in American colonies such as Jamestown in VA, and Plymouth in MA. Colonists could use hemp to pay taxes.
  • The vast majority of hemp consumed in England and America was imported, primarily from Russia.  America was never self-sufficient in hemp production throughout its history.
  • Hemp thrived in colonial America, the plant grew robustly and quickly escaped to become a feral weed. Hemp grows as well in North America as it does anywhere in the world.
  • The challenge for hemp commercial hemp production is that hemp harvesting and processing is difficult and time-consuming, and these high labor costs generally discouraged American farmers from growing much beyond their local needs for homespun fabric. High-quality water-retted hemp was almost entirely imported from various production regions in Europe.
  • George Washington grew hemp at Mount Vernon plantation, wrote about it extensively in his journals.
  • Thomas Jefferson also grew hemp at Monticello plantation and wrote that the difficult labor caused complaints from his slaves. Jefferson personally invented an improved hemp break that received one of the first U.S. patents ever issued.
  • Thomas Paine, Alexander Hamilton, and many other leaders of the Revolution wrote about the need for hemp and the opportunity that existed to produce hemp in America. “Hemp thrives to the point of rankness”.
  • USS Constitution – archetypal warship of the era, used 60 tons of hemp rigging.
  • WAR OF 1812
  • During his wars with England, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte of France attempted to shut down trade across Europe to weaken his opponents and create an empire. England was the leading naval power of the day, while the USA was growing in naval strength, both countries were heavily eliant on maritime trade, and needed raw materials to build ships. Russia was the world’s leading supplier of maritime grade hemp, linen, iron, and timber, all the raw materials needed for shipbuilding. The Russian Czar originally was allied with Napoleon, but England was a traditional trading partner and best customer and Russia did not want to stop trading with them. Russia’s wealth was completely dependent on exports. During the war the USA attempted to benefit from being neutral and trading directly with Russia, American ships sailing through the Baltic Sea to St. Petersburg for the first time. Future president John Q. Adams was ambassador to Russia during these years and closely monitored the hemp trade. Ultimately, the Russian Czar broke with Napoleon who responded by invading Russia where he was defeated leading to the end of his reign.
  • Russia produced the highest quality hemp in the world, not because their crops were superior (same quality as America), but because they were able to employ extensive serf labor and the most time-consuming production methods. Serfs were bonded labor, in lifelong service to landowners, they were not free to leave or choose their own fates, though they were not as badly treated as American slaves. Russian hemp production could take two years from harvest to final sale. Russians also used water retting methods that were frowned upon in America because of their bad impacts on the water.
  • Except from: “America, Russia, Hemp, and Napoleon” by Alfred Crosby Jr., 1965

Crosby’s work is worthy of an extended quote, he provides the colonial era perspective on Kentucky and Russian hemp and describes the production processes needed to turn raw hemp into rope.

Our dependence on Russia did not stem from an inability to raise hemp in the United States. Hemp could be grown practically anywhere in America, and the strands of American hemp were potentially as strong and durable as Russian. But when Congress asked the Secretary of the Navy in 1824 why our navy did not use more American hemp, the Secretary answered bluntly that “cables and cordage manufactured from it… are inferior in color, strength, and durability to those manufactured from imported hemp, and consequently are not as safe or proper for its use in the navy.”

Experiments on board the “U.S. Constellation” in the 1820’s proved that, at best, American hemp was perhaps as good as Russian for rigging, but similar experiments with two cables (or hawsers) made of American hemp aboard the “U.S. North Carolina” showed that common opinion was correct, that American hemp exposed to water did quickly lose a frightening proportion of its strength. When first brought on board, these cables were as strong or stronger than equivalent Russian cables. And after eighteen months the two cables looked sound, “but, on laying the rope and drawing the yarns,” it was found, after trying twenty yarns of each separately, “that the yarns would not withstand on average a pull of over eighteen pounds apiece, although, when new, the yarns of either would have suspended at least 125 pounds.”

American hemp was of poor quality because of the way it was processed. In hemp the valuable fibers are bound to each other and to the woody core of the stalk by a viscous gum, which must be dissolved before the fibers can be removed. In Kentucky, where most of American hemp was raised, and nearly everywhere else in the United States, this gum was removed by dew-retting. In Russia hemp was water-retted (as, incidentally, it was in Connecticut, where, unfortunately, only insignificant amounts were raised).

In dew-retting the hemp stalks, as soon as they are harvested, are spread on the ground thinly and left there three or four weeks, untended except for the occasional turning, exposed to all the vagaries of the weather. This does evaporate and leach away the objectionable gum, but it also weakens the hemp fibers and leaves them in a state that prevents effective impregnation of yards made from them with tar. Ineffectively water-proofed rope is of little use and dangerously untrustworthy for maritime use. Dew-retting also leaves the staple rough, which slows its manufacture into rope. To these negative qualities was added the slovenly and unsorted state in which the Kentucky farmers sent their hemp to market.

Protectionists put a tariff on imported hemp in 1789 and, later, led by that Kentucky hemp farmer, Henry Clay, raised it as high as sixty dollars a ton, but seafarers were not persuaded to settle for American hemp. … In answering the congressional inquiry mentioned above about American hemp, the Navy Department quoted “a gentleman of experience” as saying, “I would not use cordage made from Kentucky yarn or hemp, even if I could procure it at one half the price of cordage made from Russia.”

In Russia the harvested hemp was treated with great deference. Even in drying immediately after harvesting the stalks were not permitted to lie on the ground but were hung on racks. After two days, unless the weather was warm enough to dry the stalks with no artificial help, the stalks were placed in a kiln. In either case, after three days the stalks were placed to ret or steep in a stream or pond, with weighted frames on top to insure that they would stay completely immersed. The cleaner the water, the brighter and silkier would be the hemp.

After sufficient retting – about three weeks in warm water and five weeks or more in cold – the hemp was taken out and dried for no less than two weeks, followed by twenty-four hours in the kiln, or for as long as a whole winter, depending on the kind of finished product desired. Then the stalks were broken down on a hand mill, the husk beaten off, and the remainder drawn through a wooden comb to unravel the fibers. The hemp was then stored in sheds, ready to be sorted.

The Russian processing of hemp was so slow and meticulous that much of it didn’t reach the Russian ports to await West European customers until two years after it was sown. Russia’s two great resources were cheap labor and patience.

Why did not the Kentuckians try to compete with the Russians? Water-retting was certainly not too intricate a technique, and the difference between the price of American dew-retted and Russian water-retted hemp must have been provocative. Of course, water-retting in ponds and streams killed all the fish and any livestock that might drink there. And the steep water did stink like rotten eggs, which was considered unhealthy for slaves and twice as bad for whites. But the main explanation is probably that there just wasn’t any demand for American water-retted hemp. Most American hemp went for rope to bind cotton bales. Since dew-retted hemp was good enough for this, Southern planters would certainly pay no more for water-retted. As for producing water-retted hemp for the maritime market, sailors preferred Russian hemp to any and all American hemp, a centuries-old habit which would have taken unprofitably long to break.

If Russia’s hemp could perhaps be called the sinews of America’s ships, then Russia’s linen sails, which caught and held the energy of the wind, were their indispensable and untiring muscles. The colonial history of flax in America and its manufacture into sailcloth (duck) is similar to that of hemp.

Crosby, Alfred W. Jr.,  America, Russia, Hemp, and Napoleon, the Ohio State University Press, 1965, p.19-22

  • US hemp production was centered in Kentucky where it was a slave crop.
  • “Kentuckians sometimes referred to hemp as a “nigger crop,” owing to a belief that no one understood its eccentricities as well or was as expert in handling it as the Negro. A Lexingtonian stated in 1836 that it was almost impossible to hire workmen to break a crop of hemp because the work was “very dirty, and so laborious that scarcely any white man will work at it,” and he continued by saying that the task was done entirely by slave labor.”   — A History of the Hemp Industry in Kentucky (Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1951)
  • US hemp industry collapses at the end of the Civil War when the slaves are freed and southern plantation economies destroyed. Commercial hemp production in America very limited after that, much of which was for seed.
  • “from 1880 to 1933 the hemp grown in the United States had declined from 15,000 to 1,200 acres, and that the price of line hemp had dropped from $12.50 per pound in 1914 to $9.00 per pound in 1933.” REPORT OF SURVEY COMMERCIALIZED HEMP (1934-35 CROP) in the STATE OF MINNESOTA October, 1938 TREASURY DEPARTMENT BUREAU OF NARCOTICS
  • From 1900-1940 the USDA grew hemp at their experiment farm on the grounds of Arlington Cemetery in VA, near Washington DC. The farm was removed to make room for construction of the Pentagon.
  • Lyster Dewey was the USDA hemp expert who kept diaries and photographs of his hemp crops. Dewey authored the USDA monograph on hemp that was the official government reference document.
  • “Hemp, cultivated for three different products—fiber from  the bast, oil from the seeds, and resinous drugs from the flowers and leaves—has developed into three rather distinct types or groups of forms. The extreme, or more typical, forms of each group have been described as different species, but the presence of intergrading forms and the fact that the types do not remain distinct when cultivated under new conditions make it impossible to regard them as valid species.” – USDA – Hemp – Yearbook of Agriculture 1913
  • By 1913, all forms of cannabis are described as a single species grown for different purposes in different parts of the world. Descriptions of hemp grown in Italy, Russia and Kentucky combined with growth in India for drugs. Also describes experiments with Indica at Arlington farm.
  • In the 1930’s an industrial movement called Chemurgy called for the production of the raw materials of industry to be made from the farms. Henry Ford and other industrialists were champions. Ford had his car “grown from the soil” that utilized hemp fibers in the soy-plastic panels and ran on ethanol.
  • The decorticator was a new farm machine that promised to be able to process hemp efficiently and remove the high labor costs that had traditionally undermined the hemp industry. Popular Mechanics magazine calls hemp “The New Billion Dollar Crop” in 1938.
  • FBN document details story of multiple failed hemp decorticator operations in the 1930s.
  • Harry J. Anslinger becomes Director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1931 and seeks prohibition of all types of cannabis. He runs a propaganda campaign equating cannabis sativa with “Marihuana”, the devil weed from Mexico, and proclaims it is growing wild all over the country. Intentionally confusing the public about the true identity of cannabis.
  • Marihuana Tax Act signed by FDR in 1937 at height of New Deal, institutes $100 per ounce tax on cannabis sativa, including fiber hemp normally sold by the ton.
  • Anslinger promptly enlists WPA workers and police officers to tear up stands of wild hemp all over the country. It is a New Deal make-work project for cops.
  • Anslinger wrote in his memoir of tearing up 60 miles of wild hemp growing along both banks of the Potomac River near Washington D.C. This patch of wild hemp would have included the USDA Arlington Experiment Farm and George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation.
  • FBN agents do extensive research at hemp farms, informing farmers that they are growing narcotics which is news to them. FBN agents use Alkaline and Acid Beam tests that provide false positive results that hemp has “narcotic principle”.  – Report of the Marihuana Investigation – Summer of 1937 – UNITED STATES TREASURY DEPARTMENT WASHINGTON BUREAU OF NARCOTICS
  • “Due to publicity given to the existence of the stacks of old 1934 and 1935 hemp on the farms, they have become a source of supply for the traffickers in marihuana.”
  • FBN buys out farmers crops and farmers voluntarily shut down with the last farm crop in the 1950s.
  • During WWII, the US Govt attempts to revive the US hemp industry by offering subsidies to farmers. Hemp supplies are needed for the war effort, many imports had been cut off because of the conflicts.  
  • The program is shut down after the war, not having succeeded in raising significant supplies.
  • Prohibition takes firm hold during the Cold War and the US government no longer encourages the growth of cannabis sativa, a reversal of nearly 350 years of official policy.