A brief history of hemp
It’s a humbling fact: Cannabis has been a vital part of human civilization for much, much longer than it has been illegal.
Nearly 30,000 years ago—that’s the first recorded cultivation of the plant hemp, a variety of cannabis harvested and typically spun into fibre. It’s one of the first and oldest agricultural crops in all of human history.
From ancient China and classical Greece to the Middle Ages and 20th-century America, hemp carries more cultural, economical and spiritual weight than most of us realize. Thanks to the plant, entire cultures have thrived, sailed oceans, discovered new countries and arguably, won wars.
Read on to learn the intriguing origins, significance and benefits of hemp.
How is hemp different from marijuana, anyway?
Hemp and marijuana are actually both varieties of the plant known as Cannabis sativa. The major difference between the two is that hemp is low in mild-altering cannabinoids, such as THC (tetrahydrocannabinol).
Where exactly do people use hemp?
The short answer: everywhere. Like many agricultural crops, you can spin, grind and liquify hemp into a multitude of forms.
Food & health products
Whether you eat, wash or moisturize with hemp, you’ll benefit from the plant’s rich nutrients, such as essential fatty acids, youthful vitamins and regenerative amino acids.
- Raw hearts for yogurt and oatmeal
- Oil for salad dressing and sauces
- Protein powder for smoothies
- Breakfast cereals
- Shampoos and conditioners
- Soaps and body washes
- Lotions, balms and masks
- Makeup and cosmetics
Construction & textiles
Highly sustainable and cost-effective, hemp is easier to grow than most crops that fuel our society. Historically, cultures understood its cultural and economic power, but in modern times, we’re only now starting to reap the benefits of the natural resource.
- Rope and cordage
- Canvas (the word “canvas” comes from the word “cannabis”)
- Clothes (the first Levi’s jeans were made of denim hemp)
- Building insulation
- Automobile plastics
Big milestones in hemp history
Ancient peoples create the first-known hemp rope. In 1997, archaeologists discovered the artifact in what was then known as Czechoslovakia.
Where modern-day Taiwan now stands, humans first cultivate hemp in Asia.
3,000 to 5,000 BCE
Yangshao, the oldest known Chinese Neolithic culture, becomes a hemp-driven economy. Communities harvest the plant for its high-protein seeds, durable fibre and healthy oils.
Christopher Columbus first arrives in North America, with ship sails and ropes made of hemp.
During World War II, the U.S. government launches the “Hemp for Victory” program to encourage the cultivation of the plant for marine rigging, engine lubrication, parachute webbing and army uniforms.
Under the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act, Canada bans all forms of cannabis cultivation.
The University of Manitoba’s Hemp Awareness committee begins to research the plant, with licenses from the Canadian government.
Canada legalizes the commercial cultivation and production of industrial hemp.
Why was hemp criminalized in Canada?
Historians haven’t been able to fully trace the reason, but more than likely, Canada outlawed all forms of cannabis after the federal government became involved in international talks about controlling the plant.
Because of the growing stigma surrounding marijuana, hemp became painted with the same discriminatory brush. Now, after decades of protesting, cultural movements and scientific research, our country has begun to acknowledge the health and economic benefits of hemp.
To fully understand where we as Canadians are going, we need to understand where we’ve been. By unpacking and learning the history and significance of cannabis, our country can move forward in an educated, healthy way.
So, while hemp has been legal in Canada for 20 years, marijuana is only now garnering widespread acceptance and legalization. But, that’s an entirely new topic for another day. Keep checking our blog and social media as we continue to explore the fascinating history and culture surrounding cannabis.