Hemp emerges out of the smoke, reveals a history of cultivation
// Lindsay Flynn

“Can we smoke the clothes?” This is one of the more common questions shoppers jokingly ask of Erin Keast, general manager of Hemp and Company in Victoria, B.C.

“Of course there is a stigma around the word hemp and its close association with marijuana,” says Keast. “But we find that most people are becoming more educated and are genuinely interested in sustainable, environmentally-friendly products. Those who do visit us with a preconception of hemp are providing us with opportunities to educate them on its diversity and history.”


Though many people might think that hemp and marijuana are synonymous, they actually aren’t at all. Hemp and marijuana are two different varieties of the Cannabis sativa plant. Hemp contains less than one per cent of the psychoactive constituent, Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), necessary in order to have any effect on a human. In plain language, marijuana will get you high, and hemp will not.

While growing, both plants look and smell similar, but compared to the smaller marijuana plant, hemp can grow as tall as 25 feet tall. Hemp fibres are longer and stronger than cotton, and are naturally anti-mildew, antimicrobial, and biodegradable.

Hemp can be, and has been, used to make clothing, including denim, disposable diapers, shoes, tarps, rope, carpets, canvas, and the list goes on. These are just the uses for long fibre hemp, though. Alternative harvesting practices produce a variety of raw materials which can be put to over 25,000 different uses, including paper, margarine, shampoo, oil paint, cosmetics, stucco, cement blocks, lube, granola, and bio-diesel fuel, to name just a few.

Bio-diesel fuel, such as hemp oil, can run a vehicle, and has been used in some parts of Europe for over 20 years. It emits 80 per cent less carbon dioxide and nearly 100 per cent less sulphur dioxide than fossil fuels.

Hemp fabric has been proven to be stronger, softer, and more durable than cotton, and uses fewer chemicals to produce. It also requires minimal space to farm, with one acre of usable hemp fibre being equivalent in quantity to four acres of trees or two acres of cotton. The crops are pest- and draught-resistant, stand up against cold weather, and reap up to ten tons per acre every four months. On top of that, hemp matures in as little as 100 days, where trees, as we know in B.C., mature in 50100 years.

Hemp paper is an extremely promising product as well, as it can be recycled more times than wood fibre paper can, and it resists decomposing with age, thereby outlasting wood fibree paper by hundreds of years. Nearly four billion trees are cut down every year, 35 per cent of which goes to making paper. On average, the world consumes about 300 million tonnes of wood fibre paper every year, and the rates are consistently rising. The pulp and paper industry is the third-largest polluter in the world, though it also generates a significant amount of income for the producing countries, notably $200 billion in sales every year in the United States. However, the negative impact of deforestation and pollution caused by wood fibre paper production could be cut significantly if the hemp paper industry was more seriously encouraged.

Given all of the uses for hemp that exist and the obvious environmental benefits, it leaves a person wondering why we aren't making everything out of hemp, and hemp supporters advocate for just that. However, once you start digging around in hemp history, you'll see that it is only recently that hemp has been actively discouraged.


As far back as 8000 B.C., hemp was harvested by early agriculturists in Europe and Asia, while in China, hemp was used to make rope and fish nets as early as 4500 B.C. The Japanese used hemp as their primary clothing fibre until the 17th century, when cotton was introduced, and they continued to use hemp for many industrial uses. There's also a long history of information-sharing between Chinese and Japanese scholars on the many medical uses of hemp and hemp oil.

In Europe, the ancient Romans also celebrated hemp's medical uses, with Roman surgeon Dioscorides naming the plant Cannabis sativa and beginning documentation of treatments. In 1150 A.D., Spanish Muslims used hemp to found the first paper mill in the West; paper was then made of hemp for the next 700 years.

Major European powers grew hemp to create sails and rigging for ships, and hemp was brought to the New World for further cultivation. In 1564, King Philip of Spain ordered hemp to be grown throughout all of his empire, from modern day Argentina to Oregon.

Hemp also did well in North America: in 1619, hemp cultivation was mandatory in the colony of Virginia. By 1631, the money of the North American colonies was being printed on hemp. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are notorious for having been hemp farmers, and the first two drafts of the Declaration of Independence were written on the same standard paper used for all printing in the colonies, including bibles: hemp paper. In Canada, the Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada provided free hemp seeds to farmers on behalf of the King of England as early as 1801. Hemp continued to flourish as a cash crop, actively endorsed by governments and politicians.


By 1919, anti-drug sentiments were on the rise, with the introduction of Prohibition in the United States. Films such as the now comical Reefer Madness, Assassin of Youth, and Marihuana spread fear of the plant, warning users of potential rape, murder, and descent into madness.

Fueled by public hysteria, 1937 saw the Marihuana Tax Act passed by the United States Congress, insuring anyone convicted of growing, using, or distributing marijuana would be charged, imprisoned, and fined. In his book Hemp Horizons, author and hemp advocate John Roulac notes that numerous hemp historians and researchers have suggested various conspiracy theories that helped the Marihuana Tax Act find legal footing. Among the most popular are the idea that newspaper tycoon and forestry owner William Randolph Hearst used political influence to remove competition to his own products.

General public confusion over the difference between hemp and marijuana helped contribute to the decline of hemp production in the United States, with other Western countries following suit. In Canada, the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act was passed in 1938. According to the government's website, it was for the purposes of the “combined international battle against the abuse of THC and other controlled substances.”

The United Kingdom banned hemp production in 1971, Germany in 1981, while France continued production, as they had been growing hemp for 600 years to date. By the early 1990s, almost every industrialized country except France and China had banned industrial hemp production, with world wide production the lowest in history.


Awareness of hemp as an alternative crop began again in the 1980s and '90s. The environmental benefits of hemp were increasingly being brought into the limelight by vocal advocates of the environmentalist movement, including actor Woody Harrelson and singer Willie Nelson. Currently, the majority of industrial countries allow for industrial hemp growth, with Germany and the United Sates as noted exceptions, despite demand for imported hemp fabric in both countries remaining high.

By 1996, the Canadian government passed bill C-8, removing mature hemp stalks from the government's list of banned substances, and in 1998, full legality was given to commercial hemp growing, ushering in a new era of hemp production.

On their website, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada states that “as the world's premier renewable resource, hemp has been the source of food and fibre for the past 10,000 years.” The website goes on to state that by 2007, 900 tonnes of industrial hemp were being exported from Canada, with nearly 60 per cent of that being sold to our neighbours in the United States. According to the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance, “in 2010 it was estimated that 25,000 [acres] were grown. Hemp has been grown with success from coastto- coast.”

For businesses like Hemp and Company, there are definite drawbacks to the 70 year hiatus of the Canadian hemp industry. Keast notes that while her company has begun creating an in-house clothing line, obstacles remain.

“Currently, there exists no facilities in North America to process hemp into fibre,” says Keast. “So, we still import our cloth from fair-trade, fair wage suppliers in China, which has never had any regulations against hemp.”

Keast explains that at this point, “most [Canadians] are well aware of [hemp's] uses, especially for eco-conscious British Columbians. While we are fortunate in this respect, hemp is still illegal to grow in the United States, which comprises much of our tourist base.”

The Internet has assisted the flourishing of hemp product supply and demand; however, drawing customers from Australia and all over Europe, though their biggest clients outside of Canada are by far from the United States.


Increasingly, knowledge about the health benefits of hemp have also been brought to attention. Agriculture and Agri-food Canada states that “recent scientific research indicates that essential fatty acids (EFAs) cannot be manufactured by the human body and deficiencies can cause undesirable chronic conditions such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and eczema … Hemp seed and its by-products can be used to supplement diets poor in EFAs in order                  to maintain health. One by-product, hemp seed oil, contains 30 per cent of its weight in EFA-rich oil, delivering an ideal combination of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids for long term use. Hemp seed oil may have potential health benefits for diabetes, cancer, lupus, asthma rheumatoid arthritis, depression and hypertension.” The fatty acids found in hemp seeds and oil have become a hot commodity in the nutrition world, furthering demand for production.

Manitoba Harvest was founded in 1998, and according to the Canadian Hemp Alliance, are the “world’s largest vertically–integrated, farmer-owned hemp food manufacturer.” They, too, have embraced the demand for hemp products, producing everything from hemp protein to hemp butter to hemp beverages.


When hemp was reintroduced to the market in the 1990s, companies such as The Body Shop, with their line of hemp body creams, were openly using the symbol of the hemp leaf to attract consumers. Without being armed with more information, it is easy to see why this symbol is often still associated with marijuana and “stoner” culture.

When asked if Hemp and Company has ever felt pressure to cater business to a certain demographic in order to maintain success, Keast says that “the diversity of our product array appeals to all demographics … [The stigma] is usually because of misinformation or lack thereof. The uses of hemp are becoming more known and widespread in Canada and around the world … It is only a matter of time before the stigma no longer exists.”

When looking at the quality of hemp products and the myriad of uses and environmental benefits, it is easy to see why hemp producers are keen to put prejudice and hysteria in the past.

//Lindsay Flynn, writer
//Graphics and cover by Katie So

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