When you think of hemp, does your brain conjure up imagery of beatniks, hippies, or hipsters? You might not be wrong, but hemp’s history in the United States is way more deeply rooted than that. Before it became known as a popular wellness supplement, it was used in the U.S.—and throughout cultures around the world—across all aspects of life. Bear Reel, plant breeder and Head of Cultivation Research & Development for CBD market leader Charlotte’s Web, sat down to shed some light on the history of hemp, the misunderstood plant within the cannabis family that Charlotte’s Web cultivates for its full-spectrum hemp extract.
“Historically, often in clandestine operations, people over time selected cannabis plants that would get them intoxicated,” Reel says. “They would save seeds from those plants, and over time they bred those plants together to be even more intoxicating.” That’s why today’s recreational or medicinal marijuana plants have such high levels of THC—that’s the compound found in cannabis plants that can produce a psychotropic effect.
“On the other side, we have people who have bred hemp for many years, that does not get you intoxicated at all,” says Reel. While hemp and psychoactive marijuana are both plants in the cannabis family, they are separate species. Today, Charlotte’s Web is known for its range of products using a full-spectrum hemp extract, which features higher levels of CBD—a non-intoxicating compound—as well as other compounds naturally found in hemp, like terpenes and flavonoids. These compounds work together to help support management from everyday stresses*, a sense of calm*, and healthy sleep cycles* in people who use them. But a series of political decisions made it nearly impossible to produce consumer-facing hemp-based products legally for almost a century.
Charlotte's Web CBD Oil: 17mg CBD per 1mL
Hemp’s Early Beginnings
Well before any kind of laws were put in place to regulate it, hemp was cultivated and used around the world for thousands of years both for its long, durable fiber and for its versatile seeds. The cultivation of hemp began more than 10,000 years ago in the region that is modern day Taiwan, as one of the world’s first agricultural crops. The earliest known fabric made from hemp was woven somewhere between 8,000 and 7,000 B.C.E., found in present day Iraq. Hemp-made rope imprints found on Chinese pottery can be dated back to around the same time. Between 2,000 and 800 B.C.E. cultivation of hemp continued to spread throughout Asia and the Middle East, with hemp leaves featured in the sacred Hindu text “Atharvaveda.” The earliest paper made from hemp is thought to be from 140 B.C.E. You get the idea. Hemp in society is not a new phenomenon.
Hemp in the American Colonies
For its role in America, fast forward to the early 17th century, where hemp was a major resource in colonial life. In Jamestown, Virginia, hemp was brought over from England, grown in the new colony, and used to make rope, sails, and clothing, among other things. Leading up to the Revolutionary War, many of the colonies were compelled by law to grow hemp to be sent back to England, creating an industry around the crop that ultimately led to it being used as a currency and method with which to pay taxes. Several early American towns got their names thanks to their most abundant crop, including: Hempstead, New York; Hemphill, Kentucky; and Hempfield, Pennsylvania. By 1776, the United States Declaration of Independence was even drafted on hemp paper.
Hemp in the 20th Century
By the 19th century, hemp was recognized for its wellness uses, in addition to its industrial uses—but its properties were tied up with those of marijuana, and the distinction between the two species was muddled. Prompted by a trickle of incremental federal and state regulation in the early 20th century, the bountiful reign of hemp in the states came to a halt with the passing of the Marihuana Tax Act (now commonly referred to using the modern spelling, as the Marijuana Tax Act), which went into effect October 1, 1937.
The 75th U.S. Congress passed the act, which was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to “impose an occupational excise tax upon certain dealers in marijuana, to impose a transfer tax upon certain dealings in marijuana, and to safeguard the revenue there from by registry and recording.” While only marijuana is mentioned in the text, hemp was included—heavily limiting the production of both types of cannabis plants for commercial and industrial uses.
But of course, the story doesn’t end there. “Historically and traditionally, hemp was bred for things like seed content, seed oils, hemp powder, hemp protein,” says Reel. Primarily, the focus was on the seeds of the plant and the fibers of the plant. By 1942, the production of hemp was back in full swing with support from the USDA, who launched a program called ‘Hemp for Victory’. This program focused on growing hemp for its use in textiles, like ropes for the Navy, to bolster the United States’ efforts in World War II, calling back to its early colonial usage (more than 120,000 pounds of hemp fiber was needed to rig the 44-gun USS Constitution).
Come 1970, the hemp industry was challenged once again. The Controlled Substances Act (CSA), signed into law by President Richard Nixon, classified hemp, alongside heroin, methamphetamines, and marijuana as a “schedule I substance,” meaning it was considered illegal because of its allegedly high potential for abuse, lack of wellness use, and severe safety concerns. For over 40 years, this misleading stigma around the cannabis family persevered. During this time, a number of states decided to allow the cultivation of industrial hemp—but farmers were always at risk of being penalized by the federal government.
Present Day Hemp
But the Farm Bill, signed into law in 2014 by President Barack Obama, provided some hope; it allowed some farmers to grow hemp legally, under USDA and state supervision. These pilot programs helped shift public opinion, leading to record-high support for legalizing marijuana use—over two-thirds of the population were in favor, according to a Gallup poll in 2017. The most recent Farm Bill, signed into law in 2018 by President Donald Trump, finally removed hemp from schedule I of the CSA, legalizing its production for all purposes.
And that brings us to today. “Today, especially here at Charlotte’s Web, we breed for high cannabinoid levels—specifically, CBD,” says Reel. “CBD is a common molecule in hemp that will not get you intoxicated at all,” she adds. Charlotte’s Web has led the charge in an industry that is now booming, with new products being innovated every day. From tinctures and topicals, to gummies and even dog chews, Americans are finally learning the difference between hemp and marijuana. With companies like Charlotte’s Web producing quality products derived from hemp, it has not only regained its status as a wonder crop, but is part of a new, modern chapter in the history books.
That’s a wrap on Hemp 101. But if you want to ace the class, why not take advantage of hemp’s legal status, and experience it for yourself?
Charlotte's Web CBD 101 Bundle
The CBD 101 Bundle from Charlotte’s web will get you up to speed with the latest innovations in full-spectrum hemp extract. It features one bottle of 17mg CBD Oil, one bottle of 15mg CBD Liquid Capsules (which are both consumed orally) and one mini hemp-infused Balm for your skin.
Looking for more on hemp's history? Check out Episode 4 of the Charlotte's Web series Searching for Answers:
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.