January 11, 2021

A Look At Hemp & CBD Use Throughout History

Sure, hemp and CBD are hot topics today. But did you know that both hemp and CBD have a long legacy? They’ve been being cultivated and used for millennia by many different cultures around the world.

Hemp 101

Hemp’s an extraordinary plant! You may be surprised to learn all about its evolution, cultivation, industrial uses and more. You just may walk away from this post with some newfound respect for this mighty herb.

What Is Hemp?

Hemp (along with marijuana) is a plant of the Cannabis sativa L. species. You may also hear hemp called industrial hemp; this is generally to highlight its many applications. (We’ll get back to that in a moment!)

You probably have a good idea what this iconic and much talked-about plant looks like. In case you wouldn’t be able to pick it out of a lineup, let us paint a picture for you. This green herb has long stalks, distinctive leaves, and small greenish-yellow flowers. Hemp is often taller and rather slender compared to marijuana, which tends to be stout and bushy.

Another great thing about hemp is how accommodating and robust it is. Hemp’s found on every continent except Antarctica. It has been able to adapt to a variety of environments, though it does best in temperate climates with reasonable environmental moisture. Like bamboo, hemp grows insanely fast so it’s a highly renewable crop.

Hemp’s Backstory

Hemp, Global Crop

Hemp is an ancient crop. The first traces of hemp were discovered in western Asia (in what’s now Iran and Iraq). There, archaeologists found fragments of hemp fabric that’re about 10,000 years old.

From this region, agricultural cultivation of hemp spread deeper into Asia. There are records of hemp being used in China as far back as 2800 BC. And Russia has grown hemp for hundreds of years as well.

Hemp made its way to Mediterranean countries the early Middle Ages and the rest of Europe by the end of the 15th century. As trade and exploration from Europe expanded during the 1400s, hemp found its way to South America. According to some sources, it didn’t take much longer for it to start being planted in North America. (Other sources believe hemp was already here, though.).


Hemp & The Law

We don’t want to bore you with the loooong ins and outs of hemp’s legal profile. So here are the highlights:

  1. Hemp production was a major economic and political force in the US and Canada until sometime around the 1930s.
  2. Cotton production started overtaking hemp around the turn of the eighteenth century. This is largely due to the invention of the cotton gin, which made harvesting cotton easier.
  3. In the 1930s, the petroleum and synthetic textiles industries began taking off and had the backing of powerful people.
  4. The US government, pressured by petroleum and synthetic textile lobbies, passed heavy taxes on hemp and then banned its production in 1937 (Marijuana Tax Act). Canada followed suit and outlawed hemp production in 1938.
  5. There was a bit of a reprieve during World War II with the Hemp for Victory program. Hemp production was allowed because the textiles were used in certain military supplies. Post-war, hemp production was essentially shut down again.
  6. In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act formally made all cannabis illegal. This was partly in response to growing social and public health concerns around the recreational use of marijuana.
  7. Loosening of US hemp laws started with the 2014 Farm Bill, which allowed state and universities to grow hemp for research. The 2018 Farm Bill went a step further and federally legalized hemp containing .3% or less THC.

Hemp, The Unsung Hard Worker

Hemp is incredibly versatile. In its long lifetime, people have found countless ways to use it. There’s historical evidence of hemp being used for everything from foodstuffs, herbal remedies, textiles and biofuels. And because humankind has such great ingenuity, we’ve figured out how to use almost every part of the plant.

Hemp As Fiber & Fuel

Experts and historians believe hemp’s one of the oldest crops grown specifically for its fibers. These fibers can be processed into raw materials for other goods.

Here are just some of the items fabricated from hemp:

  • Cloth for clothing, bags and other accessories
  • Industrial textiles like canvas (for sails and artists’ canvases)
  • Paper and fiberboard
  • Rope and cording
  • Building and decorating materials like insulation and carpet
  • Automotive supplies like brake pads
  • Ecoplastics
  • Biochemicals such as fuel, solvents and pesticides

Hemp As Food & Self-Care

Hemp’s an age-old food source and ingredient in other foods and personal care products. It also has a long history of medicinal use (various gastrointestinal, skin and inflammatory conditions), though there’s no scientific proof backing these remedies.

Check out some of the culinary and self-care applications of hemp:

  • Seeds and oil, eaten as-is or converted or added to other foods (like flour or non-dairy beverage)
  • Animal feed
  • Beer production
  • Dietary supplement
  • Cosmetics
  • Soaps and cleansers

Hemp As A CBD Source

CBD is another derivative of hemp. While CBD oil can be produced from other varieties of the Cannabis plant, hemp is a terrific source. The amount of CBD is higher in hemp than other varietals.

All sorts of products incorporate hemp-based CBD:

CBD Usage

That’s a pretty good segue for diving into the CBD’s origin story.

What Is CBD?

CBD stands for cannabidiol. It’s one of many compounds, called cannabinoids, found in cannabis plants. If you’d like to learn more about the properties of CBD, check out this post.

CBD — A Brief Timeline

Because CBD is a compound naturally occurring in hemp, it’s been used throughout the ages. However, purposely going after the CBD component in hemp and leveraging it for wellness benefits is definitely a modern thing.

American organic chemist Roger Adams “discovered” CBD in 1940. Through his research, he was able to distinguish CBD from other cannabinoids. In 1942, Adams received a patent for his process of isolating CBD. Subsequently, scientists have also created synthetic CBD.

Pharmacologic research on CBD as a medicinal substance began in the mid-1940s. Several important breakthroughs were made in the 1960s and 1980s. Results from this research led to therapeutic uses, including medications for treating conditions such as epilepsy.

Demand for CBD-containing products has ramped up since the US Farm Bills legalized low-THC hemp. (A 2019 Gallup poll asserts that 14% of Americans claim to use CBD products.) And now there’s a whole world of CBD products available, aimed at helping people with a wide range of mental and physical health issues.

Bottom Line

Hemp has been around for millennia and is found in almost every corner of the globe. As a robust and versatile plant — with many industrial, culinary and medicinal uses — it’ll likely be around for a long time to come.

This isn’t to say hemp has had an easy time of it in the US. It went from being a highly encouraged crop to being banned to being somewhat relegalized within the last century(ish). This rocky road stemmed from powerful economic, political and social forces.

CBD, derived from hemp, has been studied since the 1940s. Ongoing research continues to find potential therapeutic benefits. With CBD’s more recent legality restored, a plethora of infused products are hitting the markets. They aim to help consumers manage a variety of mental and physical health conditions.


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