The History of Hemp in the United States

On Dec. 20, U.S. President Donald Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill into law. In addition to measures that provide aid to American farmers, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 also legalizes hemp in all 50 states for the first time in decades.

The Farm Bill categorizes hemp as an agricultural commodity instead of a controlled substance. The legislation makes clear distinctions between hemp and marijuana. According to the Farm Bill, hemp cannot contain more than 0.3 percent of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the element most commonly associated with cannabis’ psychoactive effects.

This legislation signals a serious shift in attitudes around cannabis in the United States. It allows for the transfer of hemp-derived products across state lines for commercial or other purposes and it eliminates restrictions on the sale, transport, or possession of these products. However, some restrictions remain and unlike other plants like tomatoes or peppers, individuals are still prohibited from growing the plant in their backyard.

Still, the legislation is just the latest in a series of actions that have loosened restrictions on the cannabis plant. For context, here’s a look at the history of hemp in the country.


Founding U.S. President George Washington was a hemp advocate and reportedly grew the crop as well. In the 1700s the plant was a cash crop that was used to make rope and other fibers. Washington also reportedly imported hemp plants from Asia.

However, Washington wasn’t the only president to support the industry. Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, and Franklin Pierce were also known hemp farmers.

In the nation’s early days, hemp was a key economic driver. It has been cited for helping bolster the economy of the state of Kentucky, which was the country’s leading producer of hemp in the 19th and 20th centuries. Additionally, while slave plantations of the South were known for cotton, many plantations also focused on hemp production.

Legal Status

Despite its role in the early days of the United States, the 20th century saw several restrictions put on hemp production. For decades, it was illegal to grow in the United States. The crop was originally grouped in with marijuana under the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which imposed an occupational excise tax on certain marijuana dealers, including hemp fiber producers. While the law did not outlaw hemp growing, many believe it was designed to limit the industry.

Then in 1970, the federal government passed the Illegal Substances Act which officially outlawed hemp. The legislation declared all cannabis varieties as Schedule I controlled substances alongside substances like heroin, LSD, and ecstasy. Under the law, industrial hemp production was still technically legal, but growers were required to obtain a permit from the Drug Enforcement Administration.The law also banned hemp imports.

As a result of the 1970 law, the hemp industry in the United States was basically completely eliminated. According to a 2013 article in The Japan Times, large scale growing became untenable. “[T]he high taxes the federal government imposed on growing hemp in the late 1930s and again in the early ’50s, and then the DEA’s interpretation of the 1970 law — made producing hemp nearly impossible. Since the DEA only grants permits in rare instances and demands costly, elaborate security precautions, large-scale hemp growing in the United States is not viable,” the article states.

21st Century Hemp Laws and Programs

In 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama signed the Agricultural Act of 2014 into law. The 2014 Farm Bill, allows universities and state departments of agriculture who meet specific criteria to cultivate industrial hemp for limited purposes. Applicants are required to use hemp for purposes of research conducted under an agricultural pilot program or other agricultural or academic research. Additionally, entities were granted the power to cultivate hemp as long as state law where it is being grown and research is being conducted allows it. Under the law, grow sites must be certified by and registered with the state.

Around the same time as the federal legislation was passed, several states passed their own legislation to allow for hemp growth and cultivation. In 2014, Colorado created a grant research program for state universities to research and develop strains that are best suited for industrial applications. Additionally, in 2017 Colorado legislators directed the commissioner of agriculture to create a group to study the feasibility of using hemp products in animal feed. In 2015, North Carolina legislators established a commission to develop the rules and licensing structure necessary to expand cultivation and research in the state. Additionally, following the 2014 federal Farm Bill, Kentucky created a research program to study the environmental impact of hemp and its potential use as an energy source.

The United States of 2019 looks vastly different from decades past in terms of the country’s attitudes toward cannabis. As the federal government continues to recognize the benefits of the cannabis plant and its various forms, U.S. citizens could see further positive developments. Right now, thousands have access to medical marijuana in the states where it has been legalized, and CBD-based products are providing much needed relief to others.

What other changes are in store for the cannabis industry? Let us know what you think in the comments below!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.