It wasn’t long ago that growing hemp in the U.S. could land you in jail on felony charges. But after decades of criminalization, hemp is once again legal thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill, and the eco-friendly outdoor apparel and gear company, Patagonia, isn’t wasting any time in perfecting it its hemp-based clothing line.
The featured film, “Misunderstood: A Brief History of Hemp in the U.S.,” produced by Patagonia Films, shows the history of hemp in America, including why and how it was demonized for so many years. The film also highlights hemp’s various uses, including as a hearty textile that’s three times more durable than cotton.1
Patagonia has been using legally sourced hemp fiber in its clothing since 1997, blending it with other fibers such as recycled polyester, organic cotton or spandex. Its hemp is currently sourced from China, a country Patagonia says has been subsidizing hemp for generations.2
Hemp and its use dates back to the birth of America, but in China it dates back even further, where it’s said to have been used to make the world’s first rope around 2800 B.C. Hemp was also used for cigarette papers, Bible pages and military uniforms.
Today, China grows nearly half the world’s legal hemp. The majority of it is exported as a textile fiber,3 including to companies like Patagonia, which are in the business of making sustainable clothing with little-to-no environmental impact.
A Mindful Way to Clothe Yourself
Like any other plant, hemp has its limitations, but compared to other plants it has some properties that stand out, said Elizabeth Pilon-Smits, professor of biology at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, in the film.
Hemp is valued for much more than its durability. When used for clothing, hemp is lightweight, absorbent and resistant to UV rays and mold, making it the perfect material for outdoor apparel. It has antimicrobial properties, too.
As a crop, hemp grows strong and fast. It requires little water and no pesticides. In about four to five months, hemp can grow taller than a person. Cultivating hemp is also good for the environment due to its ability to remediate the soil. Hemp can remove toxic chemicals and heavy metals from the soil in just one season, making it an effective plant for environmental cleanup, and to restore degraded land.
This was proven true when scientists used hemp in the 1990s to clean the soil following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Scientists later confirmed this use when hemp was shown to successfully extract heavy metals from the soil, including lead, cadmium and nickel.4
Shishir Goenka, founder of Fusion Clothing Company, which uses hemp for clothing, told the India Economic Times:5
“Hemp is one of the most versatile and sustainable crops on the planet. It can grow at the rate of sixteen feet in as little as one hundred days. Hemp is also a very eco-friendly crop, as it requires no pesticides and needs little water, yet it renews the soil with each growth cycle. Its long roots prevent erosion and help retain topsoil and grow readily in most temperate regions.”
Hemp and its many uses are nothing new. The plant was used in the U.S. dating back to the 18th century, when America’s Founding Fathers cultivated hemp for industrial use. George Washington is said to have grown more than 100 hemp plants at his home in Mount Vernon, Virginia. It was so valuable that at one point, the Farm Bureau required all farmers to grow at least a quarter of an acre of hemp, according to the featured film.
Hemp: The Miracle Plant
In the 18th century, hemp was viewed as an important cash crop. People migrating from Europe to America traveled on ships with sails made of hemp. It was used for rope by navies around the world, and as a thick durable linen ideal for clothing and packaging heavy materials. Additionally, hemp seed oil was used in soaps, paints and varnishes.
If hemp has all these incredible uses, you might be wondering why it was banned in the U.S. for so many decades? The explanation has something to do with the fact that hemp looks nearly identical to its close cousin, cannabis. But don’t get the two confused because, unlike cannabis, hemp contains less than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
When asked in the film how hemp is different from marijuana, Alli La Pierre, a material developer for Patagonia, explained:
“It’s not the same at all. You will not get high if you smoke hemp. The plants look and smell the same. But hemp doesn’t have the psychoactive properties that marijuana does.”
Hemp activist Craig Lee of the Kentucky Hemp Growers Cooperative Association explained it perfectly in the featured film when he said that while hemp and cannabis are close cousins, the difference between them is like that between popcorn and sweetcorn.
The War on Cannabis and Hemp
The war on cannabis is well detailed in the documentary, “The Marijuana Revolution.” The film shows how marijuana was once regarded as a harmful and addictive drug used mainly among black jazz musicians and Mexican migrant workers.
Despite its controversial reputation, cannabis (similar to hemp) has a variety of benefits including medicinal properties that can be used to treat insomnia, menstrual cramps, nausea, muscle spasms and depression.
Modern research has only expanded on these health benefits, now recognizing marijuana as an effective treatment for cancer, epilepsy, Parkinson's disease and Tourette's syndrome, as well as a host of other diseases.
However, the concept of cannabis as a medicine quickly began to fade when people started using the plant as a recreational drug in the 20th century. Those frightened of marijuana began to demonize it, using provocative terms like “devil weed” and “drug addicted zombies” to deter people from smoking it.
Harry J. Anslinger, a former railroad cop and prohibition agent, was one of the first powerful voices to come out against the plant. He used fear mongering and racism to sway public opinion on cannabis, targeting minorities including African-Americans, Hispanics and Filipinos.
Anslinger described the average marijuana user as being a minority entertainer who relied on the drug to create “[s]atanic music, jazz and swing.” He said the plant caused “white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”
US Government Shuts Down Hemp
In 1963, the U.S. government funded the propaganda film “Reefer Madness,” which warned that using marijuana just once could turn you into a drug-addicted zombie.
The authorities also changed the plant's name and began using the Spanish word “marijuana” in an effort to give it a negative connotation associated with Mexican migrant workers and other minorities. Shortly thereafter, the sale and use of cannabis in the U.S. was made illegal through the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937.
The legislation grouped hemp with cannabis, making hemp sales heavily taxed. The financial strain caused many hemp businesses to close and the hemp industry further declined.6 The rise of other industries, including cotton, wood pulp and plastic, also contributed to this decline.
World War II brought with it a brief boost for hemp, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture encouraging U.S. farmers to grow the plant and the government offering subsidies for hemp cultivation.
About 1 million acres of hemp were planted in the U.S. during that time, and the stiff fiber was used to make parachutes, uniforms, tarps and other products useful to the war industry. “After the war ended, the government quietly shut down all the hemp processing plants and the industry faded away again,” the Hemp Industry Association noted.7
The final nail in the coffin came with the passage of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which grouped hemp and marijuana together as Schedule 1 substances, a classification reserved for drugs with “high potential for abuse” and “no accepted medical use.”
Three years later the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was formed to enforce the newly created drug schedules, and the fight against marijuana and hemp use began.
The Slow Progress Toward Hemp Legalization in the US
In 2013, Colorado legalized industrial hemp farming for commercial and research purposes, provided the farmers verified the THC levels and paid for a permit. In 2014, the Farm Bill also included a section that allowed hemp cultivation for select research and pilot programs, and dozens of states introduced pro-hemp legislation to follow.
By 2017, nearly 26,000 acres of hemp were being grown in 19 states.8 Still, in a major waste of taxpayer dollars, the DEA would target hemp farmers. Ministry of Hemp noted that prior to the 2018 legalization:9
“[F]armers in all these states still risk being raided by the DEA, going to prison, and losing their property because the federal policy fail[ed] to distinguish non-drug oilseed and fiber varieties of industrial hemp from the psychoactive drug varieties (i.e., ‘marijuana').”
Now that hemp has been legalized, it removes restrictions for crop insurance, banking and other barriers to farmers looking for a profitable crop. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who spearheaded the bill, believes hemp could replace tobacco as a new cash crop, stating:10
“At a time when farm income is down and growers are struggling, industrial hemp is a bright spot of agriculture's future. My provision in the Farm Bill will not only legalize domestic hemp, but it will also allow state departments of agriculture to be responsible for its oversight.”
The CBD Oil Craze
While hemp’s popularity as a fiber or textile is expected to rise, it’s most common use currently in the U.S. is cannabidiol (CBD) oil. CBD oil can be made from either marijuana or hemp, and it offers a host of health benefits.
The strongest research suggests that CBD oil may be effective for treating epilepsy, as it’s shown to reduce seizures, and in some cases, stop them altogether. CBD oil may also help with anxiety, insomnia, inflammation and chronic pain.11
From the moment hemp was legalized in the Farm Bill, CBD products seemed to have hit store shelves across the U.S. almost overnight. Today, CBD products can be found in a wide variety of retailers, ranging from health and wellness retailers to grocery stores12 and even apparel and accessories retailers. The CBD oil market is projected to rise from $591 million globally in 2018 to $22 billion worldwide by 2022.13
Given that Patagonia has been using hemp since 1997, it’s no surprise that its hemp-based clothing line is an impressive one. Patagonia’s hemp collection includes items for men and women such as tanks, shorts, pants, sweatshirts, jackets, overalls and even ballcaps — all made, at least in part, from hemp.
One of the coolest parts about hemp clothing is that it’s completely biodegradable, notes the film. In other words, you can throw hemp clothing into your compost pile or even your backyard and it will biodegrade back into the earth. That said, hemp’s ability to uptake heavy metals would make me think twice about using hemp clothing in compost destined to be used in an organic garden.
For a peek inside the hemp production process, check out these impressive photos Patagonia had photographer Lloyd Belcher take of one of their supply chain sources in China.
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