Hemp is a variety of the Cannabis sativa L species, and a member of the Cannabaceae plant family. Cannabaceae has been a source of fiber, food, oil, and medicine since as far back as historians can find. While one variety (marijuana) is cultivated for its vast phytochemicals, the other variety (hemp) is grown for its fiber, seed, and oil derivatives.
As distinct from marijuana, the hemp variety is bred for its seed and fiber production rather than for its phytochemical makeup. It is known as one of the most efficient plants due to its ability to utilize sunlight and photosynthesize at a rapid rate. The Cannabis sativa L plant produces many different phytochemicals, most notably cannabinoids and terpenes. Scientists and researchers have found approximately 61 different cannabinoids, with THC and CBD as the most well-known. Each variety’s chemotype, or THC to CBD ratio, is determined at an early age and will remain stable throughout the life of the plant.
Historians have traced the origin of hemp back to Central Asia and Siberia, where it was fist found growing wild in fields, and just as today, we can find it growing on the side of the roads in Kentucky. Agriculture, which is the cultivation of plants and livestock, was instrumental in the development of human civilization, and hemp has been cited as one of, if not the first plants cultivated by man. Its derivatives have been used to supplement many basic products, and its resistance to mold, rot and mildew made it attractive to American colonizers, far before cotton.
Hemp was brought to North American by Virginia’s first settlers, as a crop aboard their ships, and as a material for their ropes and sails. Early American settlers actually grew hemp for Great Britain, all the way up until the American Revolution. And as the colonizers migrated southeast, to Missouri, Illinois, and Kentucky, so did their hemp. Kentucky would remain the Nation’s leading producer of hemp throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and its support there would be key to expansion into other states.
Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, hemp production in the United States varied between 20 – 30 million pounds, until the end of World War II when it fell to just over 4 million pounds. It was nearly forgotten until Federal Research was re-authorized in the 1960’s, and its re-emergence in health care products and fashion in the late 1980’s. The mid-1990’s saw the rebirth of hemp through its use in home furnishings and fashion and apparel, with its use by brands such as Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani, and as early as 1984, by Ralph Lauren and Adidas. Today, the United States still produces most of its cotton, rayon, and other synthetic fibers, but is mostly dependent upon foreign sources of its supply of hemp.
India, China, Germany, Hungary, Poland, England, Holland, and France all continued to produce hemp despite its prohibition in areas like North America. Today, China remains the world’s leading producer of hemp seed oil. Throughout these countries, this “specialty oil” is used primarily for cosmetics, personal use products and nutritional supplements, and its function as a “specialty paper” is used in cigarette and filter papers, nonwovens, art papers, currency, and tea bags.
Though, just as its national expansion did not really begin until the 21st century, so too the growth surrounding its technology was stunted. Until just recently, virtually all stages of hemp cultivation and processing were done by hand.
Because the history of hemp has been laced with prohibition and illegality, any research or advancements in its cultivation, harvesting, uses, and benefits has been greatly stifled, especially when compared with other agricultural crops such as wheat and corn. Until just recently, virtually all stages of hemp cultivation and processing were done by hand. However, its natural resistance to environmental factors and pesticide-free cultivation has enabled environmentalists to continue fighting for its use.