Hemp is possibly one of the earliest plants to be cultivated. An archeological site in the Oki Islands near Japan contained cannabis achenes from about 8000 BC, probably signifying the use of the plant. Hemp use archaeologically dates back to the Neolithic Age in China, with hemp fiber imprints found on Yangshao culture pottery dating from the 5th millennium BC. The Chinese later used hemp to make clothes, shoes, ropes, and an early form of paper. The classical Greek historian Herodotus (ca. 480 BC) reported that the inhabitants of Scythia would often inhale the vapors of hemp-seed smoke, both as ritual and for their pleasurable recreation.
Textile expert Elizabeth Wayland Barber summarizes the historical evidence that Cannabis sativa, "grew and was known in the Neolithic period all across the northern latitudes, from Europe (Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Romania, Ukraine) to East Asia (Tibet and China)," but, "textile use of Cannabis sativa does not surface for certain in the West until relatively late, namely the Iron Age. I strongly suspect, however, that what catapulted hemp to sudden fame and fortune as a cultigen and caused it to spread rapidly westwards in the first millennium B.C. was the spread of the habit of pot-smoking from somewhere in south-central Asia, where the drug-bearing variety of the plant originally occurred. The linguistic evidence strongly supports this theory, both as to time and direction of spread and as to cause."
Jews living in Palestine in the 2nd century were familiar with the cultivation of hemp, as witnessed by a reference to it in the Mishna (Kil'ayim 2:5) as a variety of plant, along with Arum, that sometimes takes as many as three years to grow from a seedling. In late medieval Germany and Italy, hemp was employed in cooked dishes, as filling in pies and tortes or boiled in a soup. Hemp in later Europe was mainly cultivated for its fibers and was used for ropes on many ships, including those of Christopher Columbus. The use of hemp as a cloth was centered largely in the countryside, with higher quality textiles being available in the towns.
The Spaniards brought hemp to the Americas and cultivated it in Chile starting about 1545. Similar attempts were made in Peru, Colombia, and Mexico, but only in Chile did the crop find success. In July 1605, Samuel Champlain reported the use of grass and hemp clothing by the (Wampanoag) people of Cape Cod, and the (Nauset) people of Plymouth Bay told him they harvested hemp in their region where it grew wild to a height of 4 to 5 ft. In May 1607, "hemp" was among the crops Gabriel Archer observed being cultivated by the natives at the main Powhatan village, where Richmond, Virginia is now situated; and in 1613, Samuell Argall reported wild hemp "better than that in England" growing along the shores of the upper Potomac. As early as 1619, the first Virginia House of Burgesses passed an Act requiring all planters in Virginia to sow "both English and Indian" hemp on their plantations. The Puritans are first known to have cultivated hemp in New England in 1645.
George Washington pushed for the growth of hemp as it was a cash crop commonly used to make rope and fabric. In May 1765 he noted in his diary about the sowing of seeds each day until mid-April. Then he recounts the harvest in October which he grew 27 bushels that year.
It is sometimes supposed that an excerpt from Washington's diary, which reads "Began to separate the Male from the Female hemp at Do.&—rather too late" is evidence that he was trying to grow female plants for the THC found in the flowers. However, the editorial remark accompanying the diary states that "This may arise from their [the male] being coarser, and the stalks larger" In subsequent days, he describes soaking the hemp (to make the fibers usable) and harvesting the seeds, suggesting that he was growing hemp for industrial purposes, not recreational.
George Washington also imported the Indian hemp plant from Asia, which was used for fiber and, by some growers, for intoxicating resin production. In a 1796 letter to William Pearce who managed the plants for him, Washington says, "What was done with the Indian Hemp plant from last summer? It ought, all of it, to be sown again; that not only a stock of seed sufficient for my purposes might have been raised, but to have disseminated seed to others; as it is more valuable than common hemp.
Other presidents known to have farmed hemp for alternative purposes include Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, and Franklin Pierce. Historically, hemp production had made up a significant portion of antebellum Kentucky's economy. Before the American Civil War, many slaves worked on plantations producing hemp.
In 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed in the United States, levying a tax on anyone who dealt commercially in cannabis, hemp, or marijuana. The passing of the Act to destroy the U.S. hemp industry has been disputed to involve businessmen Andrew Mellon, Randolph Hearst, and the Du Pont family.
One claim is that Hearst believed that his extensive timber holdings were threatened by the invention of the decorticator that he feared would allow hemp to become a cheap substitute for the paper pulp used for the newspaper. Historical research indicates this fear was unfounded because improvements of the decorticators in the 1930s – machines that separated the fibers from the hemp stem – could not make hemp fiber a cheaper substitute for fibers from other sources. Further, decorticators did not perform satisfactorily in commercial production.
Another claim is that Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury and the wealthiest man in America at that time, had invested heavily in DuPont's new synthetic fiber, nylon, and believed that the replacement of the traditional resource, hemp, was integral to the new product's success. The company DuPont and many industrial historians dispute a link between nylon and hemp, nylon became immediately a scarce commodity. Nylon had characteristics that could be used for toothbrushes (sold from 1938) and very thin nylon fiber could compete with silk and rayon in various textiles normally not produced from hemp fiber, such as very thin stockings for women.
While the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 had just been signed into law, the United States Department of Agriculture lifted the tax on hemp cultivation during WW II. Before WW II, the U.S. Navy used Jute and Manila Hemp from the Philippines and Indonesia for the cordage on their ships. During the war, Japan cut off those supply lines. America was forced to turn inward and revitalize the cultivation of Hemp on U.S. soils.
Hemp was used extensively by the United States during World War II to make uniforms, canvas, and rope. Much of the hemp used was cultivated in Kentucky and the Midwest. During World War II, the U.S. produced a short 1942 film, Hemp for Victory, promoting hemp as a necessary crop to win the war. U.S. farmers participated in the campaign to increase U.S. hemp production to 36,000 acres in 1942. This increase amounted to more than 20 times the production in 1941 before the war effort.
In the United States, Executive Order 12919 (1994) identified hemp as a strategic national product that should be stockpiled.
The United States "Marihuana" production permit. In the United States, hemp cultivation is legally prohibited, but during World War II farmers were encouraged to grow hemp for cordage, to replace Manila hemp previously obtained from Japanese-controlled areas. The U.S. government produced a film explaining the uses of hemp, called Hemp for Victory.
Hemp has been grown for millennia in Asia and the Middle East for its fiber. Commercial production of hemp in the West took off in the eighteenth century but was grown in the sixteenth century in eastern England. Because of the colonial and naval expansion of the era, economies needed large quantities of hemp for rope and oakum. In the early 1940s, world production of hemp fiber ranged from 250 000 to 350 000 metric tonnes, Russia was the biggest producer.
In Western Europe, the cultivation of hemp was not legally banned by the 1930s, but the commercial cultivation stopped by then, due to decreased demand compared to increasingly popular artificial fibers. Speculation about the potential for commercial cultivation of hemp in large quantities has been criticized due to successful competition from other fibers for many products. The world production of hemp fiber fell from over 300,000 metric tons in 1961 to about 75,000 metric tons in the early 1990s and has after that been stable at that level.
In Japan, hemp was historically used as paper and a fiber crop. There is archaeological evidence cannabis was used for clothing and the seeds were eaten in Japan back to the Jōmon period (10,000 to 300 BC). Many Kimono designs portray hemp, or as a (Japanese: 麻), as a beautiful plant. In 1948, marijuana was restricted as a narcotic drug. The ban on marijuana imposed by the United States authorities was alien to Japanese culture, as the drug had never been widely used in Japan before. Though these laws against marijuana are some of the world's strictest, allowing five years imprisonment for possession of the drug, they exempt hemp growers, whose crop is used to make robes for Buddhist monks and loincloths for Sumo wrestlers. Because marijuana use in Japan has doubled in the past decade, these exemptions have recently been called into question.
The cultivation of hemp in Portuguese lands began around the fourteenth century. The raw material was used for the preparation of rope and plugs for the Portuguese ships. Portugal also utilized its colonies to support its hemp supply, including in certain parts of Brazil.
To recover the ailing Portuguese naval fleet after the Restoration of Independence in 1640, King John IV put a renewed emphasis on the growing of hemp. He ordered the creation of the Royal Linen and Hemp Factory in the town of Torre de Moncorvo to increase production and support the effort.
In 1971, the cultivation of hemp became illegal, and production was substantially reduced. Because of EU regulations 1308/70, 619/71, and 1164/89, this law was revoked (for some certified seed varieties).