A Brief History of Hemp

Posted by Brad Lake on

20th Century Power: The Oppression of Hemp in the USA & The Effect on Aotearoa New Zealand. 

Hemp history


With such a heavy handed approach towards what was previously the most widely grown crop in the US, a little history lesson is needed to give some context of what hemp’s potential was, and, what making it illegal would do for a number of industries.

Before the 1800's it was common to see hemp products such as paper and textiles in the US. After the invention of the cotton gin, hemp became a forgotten fibre because cotton was a lot more comfortable and cheaper to produce for textiles. 

George Schlichten introduced the Hemp Decorticator in the early 1900's. This invention was going to revolutionise the hemp industry, making it much easier to process. Following the release of the machine for commercial use, negative propaganda skyrocketed about the cannabis plant. An American businessman, W.R Hearst, was a newspaper publisher and politician known for developing the nation's largest newspaper chain and media company, Hearst Communications. His outrageous journalism influenced the nation's popular media by promoting sensationalism and human interest stories.

W.R Hearst fabricated stories in his newspapers about this new drug called “marihuana,” which was causing people of colour to rape and kill white women. Before his articles, marijuana was never used as slang for cannabis — Hearst intentionally did this to demonise this plant with a new name. This led to a propaganda movie in 1936 called Reefer Madness, which portrays cannabis as the most dangerous drug in the world.


Not only did W.R Hearst own the largest newspaper company at the time, but he also owned many acres of forest that was used to create his papers - this gives some context to the government's change in perception of hemp.

Hearst wasn’t the only one trying to protect his interests. In the 1920s, DuPont, a large munitions and synthetic and chemical production company invested heavily in synthetic fibres and also saw hemp as a threat. Not to mention, DuPont produced chemicals for processing timber into paper.

Things got even worse in the early 1930s after Harry J. Anslinger was appointed the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which is known today as the DEA. Anslinger targeted minorities and supported Hearst’s outrageous stories about cannabis. After nearly a decade of negative stories about cannabis and minorities, Anslinger proposed the Marijuana Tax Act to Congress, which was passed on August 2, 1937. The Act did not itself criminalise the possession or usage of hemp, marijuana, or cannabis. But included penalty and enforcement provisions to which marijuana, cannabis, or hemp handlers were subject.


Hemp was dragged into the US government's battle against cannabis in Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 which strictly regulated the growing and use of all cannabis in the US. The US then sealed the fate for nearly 50 years of hemp as they released The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 which classified all forms of cannabis, including hemp, as a Schedule I drug – see below.

Schedule 1 (I) drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined by the federal government as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Schedule 1 (I) drugs are the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.

New Zealand follows

Hemp was banned from being grown in the US. New Zealand would go on to follow the US classification of all cannabis products under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 that classified cannabis, including hemp, as a class B drug alongside amphetamines and opium.

Millions of lives have been severely affected and changed through the criminalisation of cannabis. The exclusion of hemp products from medicine, fibre and food use has allowed the explosion of synthetic, petroleum based fabrics and pharmaceutical medicine. Three generations have passed without the benefits of the endocannabinoid profile of cannabis which our bodies are designed to utilise for homeostasis. We have more journal articles coming on this topic soon. 

2020 New Zealand Referendum

On September 19th 2020, Aotearoa New Zealand can have their say in the potential legalisation of cannabis in our country. Kōaka encourages you to ensure you are registered to vote to be a part of this decision. 

Over the coming month we will be hosting webinars and publishing more content to answer your questions in the lead up to voting day. 

To stay up to date with details and webinar times please sign up to receive our newsletter

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