If It Can’t Get You High, Why Is Hemp So Strictly Regulated?

 

Did you know that the federal government classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug? Schedule I is the most dangerous classification, based on its potential for abuse and dependence, and includes heroin and ecstasy. As a result of this classification, all cannabis in the United States—including hemp—is strictly regulated by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). As we saw in Part 1 of this series, while hemp and marijuana both come from the cannabis plant, they are quite different to one another, and it’s impossible to get high from hemp. So why is hemp so tightly restricted in the United States? Why is it even restricted at all? Below, we delve into hemp’s turbulent history in order to answer that question.

 Ancient Egyptian Goddess Seshat depicted with a hemp leaf in her head dress.

Ancient Egyptian Goddess Seshat depicted with a hemp leaf in her head dress.

Everyone Used to Grow Cannabis

Hemp didn’t start out subject to so much regulation. It used to be just another regular agricultural crop. There is evidence that it has actually been cultivated by humans for thousands of years. For example, archaeologists have found the ancient remains of hemp rope, cloth, and paper in China. Some people believe that hemp is one of the oldest domesticated crops in the world.

It rose to importance in the United States in colonial times, when it became a major farm crop. Unlike today’s farmers, colonial farmers were not only allowed to grow hemp, but they were encouraged to do so. In 1619, the Virginia state government passed a law that actually required farmers to grow this crop. Massachusetts and Connecticut also passed similar laws. Hemp was such an important plant that it was even considered legal tender in some states, and people could pay their taxes with it. The reason for hemp’s value was that its strong and durable fibers were used to produce numerous products that almost everyone needed back then, including fabric, rope, and paper. Some historians believe that one of the first drafts of the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper, and that the first American flag was sewn out of hemp fabric.

 Marihuana propaganda posters from the 1930's

Marihuana propaganda posters from the 1930's

Anti-Cannabis Hysteria

Before the 1900s, most people saw cannabis simply as a plant to make useful everyday items out of. However, at the turn of the century, an increasing number of Mexican immigrants came to the United States, and they brought their custom of smoking marijuana with them. As a result, an increasing number of people started to realize that there was another way to use the cannabis plant; you could smoke it for a euphoric high.

As recreational use increased, critics started to worry, insisting that marijuana was harmful. They launched a number of hysterical anti-marijuana campaigns. For example, the famous 1936 film, Reefer Madness, depicts marijuana pushing teens into violence and insanity. Other campaigns combined a fear of the drug with prejudice against the new Mexican immigrants. There were sensationalized stories that these immigrants were using marijuana to gain superhuman strength, and were then committing violent crimes. Critics even insisted that immigrants were distributing marijuana to American schoolchildren.

 President Richard M. Nixon with Attorney General John Mitchell, right, after signing the Controlled Substances Act in Washington D.C., Oct 27, 1970. (AP Photo)

President Richard M. Nixon with Attorney General John Mitchell, right, after signing the Controlled Substances Act in Washington D.C., Oct 27, 1970. (AP Photo)

Cracking Down on Cannabis

Laws restricting cannabis quickly followed this hysteria, however many of these laws didn’t distinguish between hemp and marijuana. Instead, cannabis was treated as a potential danger no matter how it was used. The first laws were state laws. A number of states implemented regulations limiting or banning cannabis cultivation. Then in 1937, the federal government took action. It passed the Marihuana Tax Act, which imposed strict limitations on the cultivation and sale of all cannabis plants, including hemp.

There is disagreement over exactly why hemp was restricted along with marijuana. Some people believe that it was the result of simple ignorance about the difference between the two. However, around the same time that all this anti-cannabis sentiment was raging, there were a number of emerging industries producing products such as nylon and plastic, that could be used in the same way as hemp. Some people argue that the restrictions on hemp were intentional, so that these new industries would have a chance of competing with the huge hemp industry. Whatever the reason, early restrictions on cannabis marked the beginning of the decline of hemp cultivation in the United States.

 In 1914 the United Staes $10 bill featured an image of hemp being harvested, a symbol of how prevalent hemp cultivation was at the time.

In 1914 the United Staes $10 bill featured an image of hemp being harvested, a symbol of how prevalent hemp cultivation was at the time.

A Puzzling Classification

In 1970, the federal government took cannabis regulation a step further when it passed the Controlled Substances Act. Under the 1970 act, cannabis is classified as a Schedule I drug, and it is illegal to grow the plant without a permit from the DEA. The DEA defines a Schedule I drug as a substance that has a high potential for abuse, and no currently accepted medical use. It is widely reported that it is almost impossible to obtain a DEA permit to grow cannabis, whether it is marijuana or hemp.

The classification has provoked a lot of criticism. Many people argue that it makes no sense to apply this definition to hemp, a plant grown to make textiles and body-care products. There is even disagreement over classifying marijuana as a Schedule I drug. A number of research studies show that marijuana does have some medical benefits. For instance, in February 2017 the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published a comprehensive review of existing cannabis research. It reports that there is evidence that cannabis or cannabinoids can help people who are experiencing nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy, those with multiple sclerosis, and those suffering from sleep disturbances.

Regulation Has Not Stopped Demand

As a result of studies like this, and ongoing public pressure to change existing laws, in recent years both the federal government and several states have taken steps towards loosening restrictions on both hemp and marijuana. Overall though, the cannabis plant remains subject to significant prejudice and regulation. Yet despite all the laws and misinformation, hemp products have exploded in popularity in the United States. Coming up in part 3 of this series we’ll take a closer look at this thriving hemp market.

 


Written By:  Andrea C. Nakaya