Hemp and the Revolutionary War

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Last year the 2018 Farm Bill was passed, which legalized the growth of hemp for industrial farming across the United States. The passing of this bill looks like potential relief for some of the troubles that many American farmers are facing today. With the decline of industries like tobacco and dairy, to the after-effects of a messy trade war with China - that’s causing a rapid decline in soybean sales - It’s been rough out here for farmers. But hemp could turn out to be a lucrative and sustainable crop for the farming folk - like it once was, decades ago.

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Before the War on Drugs put the final nail in hemps pre-1950’s booming era, it was a vital crop to the States. From the moment it was introduced to Jamestown in 1616, hemp was important. Not only to the colonies but to the British crown as well. Hemp was durable and reliable and perfect to make cloth, paper, and sacks  - but most importantly rope. As the British Navy expanded, so did its need for the rot-resistant hemp fibers to sail the seas and colonize “new lands.” By 1632, every famer within the colonies was expected to reserve space on their land to grow hemp and flax. 

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While hemp was a quick and replenishable crop to grow, it’s was also a back-breaking crop to harvest. From planting, harvesting and processing the cash crop it all required grueling and time-consuming labor. So is it really surprising that industries like hemp are connected to the boom of the Atlantic slave trade in the United States? It was only 13 years after The Thirteen Colonies were introduced to hemp, that the first enslaved West Africans were brought to Jamestown. Their import was shortly followed by laws that made the growth of hemp mandatory in all colonies. States like Virginia and Kentucky that had the largest slave populations also grew and flourished off of the most labor-intensive crops - hemp, tobacco, and cotton. Historian John Hopkins suspected this very theory and wrote in 1951

“Without hemp, slavery might have not flourished in Kentucky, since other agricultural products of the state were not conducive to the extensive use of bondsmen. On the hemp farm and in the hemp factories the need for laborers was filled to a large extent by the use of Negro slaves.” 

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By 1774, the colonies were a leading producer and exporter of hemp goods to Britain (all due to slave labor) - and also growing increasingly tired of The Britsh Crowns “taxation without representation.” Being a leader in the production of hemp, the colonies had a surplus of it. So much so, that they were able to trade hemp for arms, with the French. 

On April 18, 1775, hundreds of British soldiers were marching towards Concord, Massachusetts to confiscate a stockpile of arms and ammunition - and possibly tar and feather a few folks. But when they approached, they were greeted with armed and ready minute-men. This is where the “shot heard round the world” was, well shot, and the start of a deadly four-year war - that spoiler alert the colonist won. 

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It’s unfortunate that in the interests of paper, plastic and nylon, that hemp was run into the ground - but with its fresh legalization, I look forward to witnessing the innovations that are sure to come with the freedom to grow it. But just as I look forward to the future of hemp, I will always look back at it’s painful and anti-black past. This July 4th don’t just think of fireworks and cookouts but also the enslaved West Africans that helped grow the crops that funded the war as well as the enslaved West Africans that fought and lost their lives for the false promise of freedom

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Editors Note: Modern Day Slavery within our Federal Prisons continues to be an issue that targets People of Color. While Lealization of Cannabis and Hemp is seeing great progress throughout the country, our prisons stay filled with those who cared for this plant, who needed this plant for their health, who shared the benefits of this plant and who fought for our right to this plant and paid the price, in large part due to the color of their skin. If you are looking for ways to support these prisoners, and to make real changes within the system, It’s time to do your research and get to work! You can start by reaching out to and supporting organizations like MPP and NORML or head over to this list of actionable steps you can take to support prisoners of cannabis.

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