While the popularity of industrial hemp seems to have become especially well known in recent years, the plant itself has a long history of human use. The ways it’s been utilised and the products it’s been made into have changed over time, originally starting out as a crop used for things like food and textiles. With more research over time it transformed into one of the most diverse plant based products, especially once it was split into its more basic components - including CBD. It’s been a long and windy path for hemp, with demand changing depending on the time period as well as political legislation and scientific research.
Hemp cultivation and its origins:
First recorded hemp cultivation:
The earliest evidence found of hemp cultivation were found in Mesopotamia and China. Starting with wild plants that were selectively bred through agriculture, male and female plants were being separated and planted at different times of the year to maximise yield. Evidence of hemp based string used in pottery in Mesopotamia has been found dating back as far as 5000 years ago. In China, from around 1100BC hemp has been consistently farmed for a variety of reasons including as a resource for fabric, food, paper and for medicinal purposes in teas throughout the country⁽¹⁾⁽²⁾. Europe caught on a lot later though has had consistent use and growth since, with the likes of France, Russia and Spain having grown the plant consistently for the last 700 years.
Hemp cultivation in the UK:
Hemp used to be a common crop grown in the UK. In 1535 Henry VIII required all farmers to sow quarter of an acre of hemp for every 60 acres they owned⁽²⁾. Hemp was valued for its rot-resistance and salt-water resistant properties making it particularly useful in the production of sails and rope for the navy. Hemp was also stronger than cotton and grew more quickly making it an ideal option over this time period.
As times changed and it became cheaper to import hemp from overseas, the UK’s production levels dropped away and it was eventually outlawed in 1928.
Hemp cultivation in the USA:
Much like the UK, the USA has a colourful history with the hemp plant. When the UK stopped producing as much hemp themselves and were importing from overseas, a lot of what they were importing was sourced from the US. Both the climate and space available in America made it an ideal place to cultivate large quantities of hemp. Despite its puritanical origins of the United States and the contentious issues surrounding hemp, many of the founding fathers were hemp farmers⁽³⁾.
The Marihuana Act of 1937 made it illegal to grow or use hemp unless for medical reasons, despite the fact that hemp carries incredibly low levels of THC. If you were growing it, there were hefty fees to pay to do so. Hemp was classified in the same way as marijuana and in 1970 the Controlled Substances Act made it illegal to grow without an FDA permit.
The discovery of CBD, THC and the endocannabinoid system:
CBD itself, found in both industrial hemp and marijunana, was discovered in 1942 by American chemist Roger Adams. Previously there was little known about the distinction between THC and CBD and how they impacted the human body differently. It was a huge milestone for the hemp industry once THC was established as the psychoactive cannabinoid while CBD was the non-psychoactive counterpart.
Until the endocannabinoid system was discovered and better understood, it was unclear which phytocannabinoids interacted with the human body and how. CB1 receptors were discovered in 1990, comparatively recently in hemps long history. CB2 receptors were discovered a few years later in 1993.
Re-legalisation, demand and use:
- While hemp was illegal to cultivate in the UK and USA for most of the 20th century, growing hemp was re-legalised in the UK in 1993.
- CBD was made legal in the UK in 2016 providing any products contained less than 0.2% THC.
- The USA legalised hemp cultivation again in December 2018 and with it, CBD products providing that they contain less than 0.3% THC.
Since hemp and CBD were legalised:
With the discovery of the endocannabinoid system, there was a more refined way to use hemp for specific purposes. Now that there’s a greater understanding of the endocannabinoid system and how CBD interacts with it, hemp derived CBD has gone mainstream. While high THC strains remain illegal in most countries, many governments are now making CBD legal.
Common use now:
With more known about the individual components of hemp including nutritional benefits of oils, protein powders, CBD and for use in biofuels, hemp has evolved. On top of all the original uses, hemp is now also utilised for things like:
- CBD tinctures, capsules and e-liquids. Supporting the human body’s ability to function normally both physically and mentally. With advances in extracting CBD from hemp, CBD has come a long way from being steeped as a tea in China thousands of years ago.
- Cosmetics. The nature of CBD derived from hemp is naturally anti-inflammatory and antibacterial. Combined with the oils it’s emollient, hydrating and can get into your system through the cannabinoid receptors in your skin.
- Food and oils (seeds and cold pressed oil from the seeds). Natural source of protein for vegans when the seeds are made into powder and the oil has high levels of essential fatty acids.
- Bioremediation. Hemp plants remove toxins, heavy metals and contaminants from soil. While you wouldn’t use these plants in products for human consumption, they can still be safely used for biofuels.
The future of hemp:
From sails and rope to tincture and e-liquids, the hemp plant has come a long way in its 5000 year journey since humans first started cultivating it. With the increasingly widespread legalisation of the plant as well as an increase in demand for everything from more sustainable fabrics, biofuels and of course CBD, hemp appears to be here to stay.
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