Cannabis: The big business of the 20th century

Cannabis was one of the world’s most important industrial crops for thousands of years until its prohibition began in the early 1900s.

In shipping, it was used to make sails, ropes, nets, flags, charts and maps; most of the world’s textiles and fabrics were made from the plant; hempseed oil was the most-used lighting oil in the U.S.; and cannabis was re-introduced as medicine worldwide in the mid-1800s. It became so popular that Queen Victoria used it to treat menstrual cramps.

But by late 1937, all forms of cannabis were outlawed in the United States, despite being the most efficient plant on Earth when it comes to photosynthesis.

As Jack Herer documents in “The Emperor Wears No Clothes,” it took a small but powerful group of white, wealthy businessmen to take the plant from one of America’s most celebrated crops to a total nationwide ban.

Throughout the 1600s, cannabis laws were being enacted in the colonies. But instead of outlawing the plant, the laws required farmers to grow and cultivate it. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew it, and Ben Franklin used it to start one of America’s first paper mills, greatly reducing the colonies’ dependence on England. It was legal tender in the U.S. until the early 1800s. In fact, America’s first currency was printed on hemp paper.

More than 8,300 hemp plantations, defined as 2,000 acres or more, were operating in the U.S. in 1850, according to census documents, with a huge number of smaller farms not even counted.

As one of the strongest and most durable fibers on Earth, there was great demand for the plant to make cloth, canvas, paper and rope, not to mention its importance as the basic ingredient for the most-used medicines in the country at the time.

However, the process of harvesting the crop and extracting the fiber-bearing parts from the stalk was labor-intensive, and therefore expensive. Hemp began losing ground to other, more profitable crops. A German immigrant had invented a machine called a “decorticator” in the early 1900s, designed to separate the fiber from the pulp. But a lack of financial backing left the machine widely unknown.

In 1916, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a bulletin saying that one acre of cannabis would produce 4.1 times the amount of paper-making pulp that an acre of trees would over a 20-year period. It also could produce paper with significantly less pollution than wood.

Farmers began showing a renewed interest in hemp in the 1920s and ’30s. Government officials had documented a year-over-year doubling of acreage dedicated to hemp production from 1930 to 1937, and anticipated the acreage would continue to double each year indefinitely. The renewed interest in hemp sparked a renewed interest in the decorticator, prompting Popular Mechanics magazine to dub hemp the “New Billion-Dollar Crop” in a February 1938 article.

“(Hemp) is used to produce more than 5,000 textile products, ranging from rope to fine laces, and the woody ‘hurds’ remaining after the fiber has been removed contains more than 77 percent cellulose, and can be used to produce more than 25,000 products, ranging from dynamite to Cellophane,” the article raved.

“(The paper industry) amounts to over $1 billion a year, and of that 80 percent is imported. But hemp will produce every grade of paper, and government figures estimate that 10,000 acres devoted to hemp will produce as much paper as 40,000 acres of average pulp land.”

Although published in 1938, the article was written in 1937, before cannabis was outlawed by the “Marijuana Tax Act” late that year. By the time the issue hit newsstands, cannabis in all forms, including medicinal and industrial use, was banned by the new law.

Late last month I wrote about how Harry J. Anslinger and Herman Oliphant got the Marijuana Tax Act passed with nearly no public knowledge that it was about to happen, and how the American Medical Association testimony that was strongly in favor of cannabis as medicine was completely dismissed — and even lied about on the floor of Congress — by members of the Ways and Means Committee. What would drive these men to take such drastic actions to eliminate America’s “New Billion-Dollar Crop?” Find out next week.

The third installment will explore the personal and professional motivations that drove these few men to outlaw cannabis. Doug Allen contributed to this series. Wendy Zaharko, M.D. lives in Aspen and can be reached at z@alumni.princeton.edu.