Following the illegalization of hemp cultivation in 1937, a major event took place that would cause yet another resurgence for the cultivation of hemp. With the dawning of the Second Word War, there was once again a demand for the production of hemp. The supply chain of fibers needed for the war effort were cut off by the Japanese military, and American farmers were asked to grow hemp for the cause.
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The United States Army and the USDA combined their efforts and promoted a campaign that they called "Hemp for Victory." The campaign inspired many patriotic American farmers to cultivate hemp, which was used to produce ropes for the Navy and other essential materials. Farmers grew over 400,000 acres of industrial hemp for the war effort, and the U.S. Navy is still one of the biggest purchasers of hemp in the nation.
While the hemp industry was integral to the war effort, it went back to being demonized once the war had drawn to a close. during the era of the Vietnam War a couple of decades later, the illegal status of hemp was used as a tool of punishment against anti-war protesters. Conservatives at the highest levels of the government, such as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and President Richard Nixon, used the illegal status of cannabis to crack down on dissent.
In a revelatory statement made in the 1990s, President Nixon's domestic policy advisor John Ehrlichman said that "We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."
In 1969, the 1937 law that made hemp illegal was overturned. However, Nixon seized upon this opportunity by implementing the Controlled Substances Act, a law that we are subject to even to this day. Nixon commissioned the Shafer Commission, which did an in-depth study of the cannabis plant. The Shafer Commission found that the arrests and use of police force against growers of cannabis was unjustified, and that the cannabis plant was not as dangerous as it was being made out to be. Though Nixon himself had established the Commission, he rejected all of it's findings.
In Nixon's Controlled Substances Act, cannabis was classified as a Schedule 1 drug. Schedule 1 is meant to be the most threatening and addicting drugs, and cannabis was listed alongside drugs such as heroin and LSD. For comparison, cocaine was listed as a Schedule 2 drug and Amphetamines were listed in Schedule 3. Possession of Schedule 1 drugs carried the harshest legal sentences, and many believe that it is no coincidence that the drugs most prevalent in communities of color were placed higher than those that were popular among the white population.
While the history of hemp is now shrouded in controversy, it is important to be informed on the actual history and used of the plant. It is important to understand the context in which hemp was demonized, and assess what purposes lay behind the demonization. The history of hemp is interwoven into the history of racism and classism in the United States.
For more information on hemp, watch the video below and check out these articles by The Land Journal.