In 1938, Popular Mechanics dubbed hemp the “new billion-dollar crop” and outlined over 25,000 potential uses and applications. But the ubiquity of hemp never materialized. “If you look at [hemp], it’s an amazingly beneficial plant. The fiber produces incredibly nutritious seed. You’ve got the cannabinoids. You can make building materials from the woody core. Even the roots have value,” said Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, a DC-based advocacy group.
Steenstra was first turned on to hemp as a crop when his friend Steve DeAngelo shared a book with him called The Emperor Wears No Clothes by Jack Herer. “Jack was the guy. He had rediscovered hemp in the late ’70s, early ’80s. Without him, I don’t think any of [the current shift in public opinion] would have happened,” Eric said. “Herer self-published his book and went all over the country to college campuses to talk to anybody that would listen… Through that process, he was able to educate. Herer’s book was published in multiple languages, across Europe and a number of other areas. The book had a massive impact.”
While still not ubiquitous today, hemp byproducts are beginning to appear in the consumer goods markets. Fashion designers like Mara Hoffman are utilizing the natural plant fiber in their collections and beauty brands are infusing products with its oils.
In its heyday, hemp was used for far more than that. The first American flag was sewn with hemp fabric and Henry Ford built a car using a plastic made from hemp. What accounts for hemp’s disappearance in between?
“You really didn’t learn about hemp in school,” says Steenstra. “It just kind of disappeared after hundreds of years of being part of American history. I mean, hemp was grown all over the U.S. before World War II.”
The Politicization of Hemp
The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 marked the beginning of the downfall of hemp as a U.S. crop. Any farm growing hemp was designated ‘Producer of Marijuana’ and subjected to new tax laws and levies.
According to cannabis historian Emily Dufton, speaking on the Parsons Healthy Materials Lab’s Trace Materials podcast, cannabis and its by-products became a political issue. “Generally, when political officials need to stay relevant, they create new crises to focus on,” she said. When prohibition ended in 1930, Harry Anslinger became the Treasury Department’s first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. With racialized protests against marijuana use coming from the South, Anslinger found a new substance to criminalize. “Basically the ‘reefer madness’ of the 1930s and the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937… is born out of Harry Anslinger’s desire to keep his job — and he does for 30 years.”
“If you look back, you can see elements of deep racism involved in the original prohibition of cannabis. There were these news stories trying to whip people up in the fear that if the youth or Black people were to smoke cannabis or hemp or whatever they called it at the time, that they were going to come after your daughters. It’s really horrible.”Eric Steenstra, Vote Hemp
For a brief time during World War II, when abaca fiber imports from the Philippines were cut off, the government brought hemp back. “After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the U.S. realized that they needed a source of fiber for ropes and for parachute webbing and such,” Eric said. In response, patriotic farmers planted 36,000 acres of hemp; but the enthusiasm was short-lived.
By 1970, the Controlled Substances Act dictated that the term marijuana covered all cannabis plants. “They didn’t even make any distinction for hemp anymore,” Eric said. This was the legacy of Anslinger’s campaign — one that Jack Herer then spent years trying to reverse.
After learning the tumultuous history of hemp, Steenstra and D’Angelo cofounded a sustainable clothing company called Ecolution. Back then, every company was importing hemp as it was a banned crop in the U.S. . In 1994, Steenstra, his partner, and their peers start a trade group called the Hemp Industries Association. “ In 2000, a group of us from the industry decided to start Vote Hemp as a separate arm to work specifically on trying to get the law changed. It was initially an all-volunteer effort to see if we could push this forward and try to bring hemp back as a crop.”
The initial goal was to legalize hemp, bring back commercial farming, and push back against any laws or efforts holding back the industry. “By 2014, we were successful in getting state pilot programs into the Farm Bill, and in 2018, we got full legalization. So we’ve shifted our footing. We’re continuing to work on improving state laws. We’re trying to ensure that the policies at the federal level and the state level are supporting the growth of this industry so that it can be successful longterm.”
Eric’s work with Vote Hemp is aimed at educating members of Congress and their staff about “what the market was, what the potential was, and how American farmers were being left out of the picture. That’s ultimately what helped us change the law: convincing them that there was a missed opportunity here.”
“It may take 10 or 15 more years before we get there, but I believe that hemp will once again be a major crop in the United States. We want to make sure that that can happen.”
With the 2014 Farm Bill, hemp was moved from a controlled substance to, essentially, a crop regulated by the USDA (rather than the DEA). “Those were great steps in the right direction. It allows states and tribes to be able to regulate hemp under federal law…once a plan is approved, that state or tribe is able to regulate hemp under the authority of the USDA.”
There are a number of other changes Vote Hemp is working on. The definition of hemp, for one. The group has tried to get a higher level of naturally occuring THC approved. Right now, hemp by legal definition has a maximum allowed 0.3% THC, over which gives the government a mandate to destroy hemp crops. “We think that’s just an unacceptable situation,” Eric said.
Ultimately, Eric Steenstra would like to see hemp used to its fullest potential — after all, Jack Herer believed it could save the world. But for that, he argues, we need investment in infrastructure.
“If you produce corn or soy, you can take it to your local grain elevator. With hemp, it’s a much smaller, more private market. That’s going to take some time, but I think investments in processing are going to be critical. Right now, a lot of the energy and excitement is around plant extracts, CBD [a non-psychoactive substance derived from cannabis] that type of thing. The extracts will always be an important part of the market, but over time, we’re going to see a lot of the larger acreage dedicated to the grain and the fiber side.”
For a thorough overview of the past, present, and future of hemp as a material, we recommend the Trace Materials podcast.
To see developments using hemp as a building material, see https://healthymaterialslab.org/blog/building-with-hemp-lime.
For additional resources, visit the CFDA’s hemp overview. And keep up with Eric Steenstra and Vote Hemp’s latest projects here.