The Stigmatisation of Hemp – a History

by Dermot Moore


Chowing down on a succulent fried chicken or a tasty burger was something Ethan Brown of Maryland in the US loved, but sorely missed when he turned vegan. Yet, he could not ignore the discourse that was going on around meat production and its harm to the environment, human health and animal slaughter

Ethan noticed the immense amount of guilt that was infused with people’s decisions to go vegan. He realised that lack of choice in vegan food options contributed to these guilt swayed decisions. In particular, proteinous vegan food seemed less available, so they were considered a weak alternative to meat. 

Any attempts were often considered tasteless and unenjoyable. This was not helped by stigma of vegans tending to be activists or ‘hippies’, partially due to vegan protests or action on farms, mentioned in the press. Ethan also faced the challenge of stigma around alternative proteins, often referred to as lab grown, unhealthy and including GMOs. 

Since this realisation, Ethan has been hard at work developing his now internationally acclaimed company, Beyond Meat, which combines just a small number of plant ingredients to create incredible meat dining experiences without the meat. 

Ethan’s efforts show how tweaking just one small aspect, and creating more choice, managed to destigmatise vegan food – creating a pleasant option that also benefits the planet. 

The journey of vegan food, and in particular alternative proteins, from stigmatisation to mainstream is not complete but it’s well underway. The tale of hemp stigmatisation is also one of misguided views and disputes, driven by political narratives about hemp’s ‘controversial’ cousin. 

Roots of Hemp’s Stigma

Looking at events of the mid-twentieth century, an intricate scenario unfolds. Shaped by European colonial activities and conflicts within the rising global influence that was the United States, components, such as race and economics, often among core roots of human disputes, assume a central role in the tale of cannabis prohibition. 

The twentieth century was also a watershed in the history of stigmatisation, as scientific research fell under greater influence from socio-economic disputes of western powers, as seen through ideological overshadowing of research.

The War on Drugs Begins: US (Marijuana: A Short History)

In the early nineteen hundreds, the US federal government was realising the reaches of its regulatory capabilities, with the passing of the Federal Food and Drug Act in 1906, intended to control and standardise commercial food and drugs. 

However, the opportunity to harness this act for different ambitions quickly became apparent. An early example, which framed the later stigmatisation of cannabis, was the racially charged banning of Chinese opium imports in 1909. 

Although total prohibition of cannabis did not arrive until 1970, it too became a point of justification for racially-charged intolerance and was employed at the highest level by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics against the Mexican community and subsequently African Americans, who were cruelly accused of succumbing to the influence of marijuana smoking Mexican immigrants. By the time cannabis was banned, it came to epitomise social degradation, according to authorities. 

Stories from Distant Lands (Cannabis Prohibition in Egypt, 1880—1939, pp.443-448)

Across the Atlantic, Britain engaged in its own feud with cannabis. Curiosity about marijuana was sparked from interactions with varying colonies where it was used for many purposes, from religious to recreational and the medicinal. 

Stories of this plant from British travellers and colonialists exoticised and mysticised the nature of cannabis and people who used it, an image that did not align with the Christian ideals of Europe. 

One such example comes from the French physiologist Charles Richet, who described his strolls through the streets of Cairo, smelling cannabis smoke’s;

penetrating odour, which attacks the throat and insensibly intoxicates even those who do not smoke it. (p.445)

Sowing the Seeds of Blame

In British occupied Egypt, there was an additional influence from the upper classes at play. The Ottoman elites who preceded British rule, deemed marijuana a detestable corrupter of the lower classes. 

This idea was reinforced by British forces that had their own interests, painting Egyptians and also Middle Eastern regions with the same brush, as lazy and corrupt, as it allowed them to consolidate their self-image as that of the reformer. Cannabis in the nineteenth century and at least the early twentieth was generally referred to as hemp. Such terminology further explains why hemp fell victim to stigmatisation.

By the mid nineteen twenties, the impact of these proceedings became truly prominent in western Europe, as Britain, along with several other European nations banned the production and trade of cannabis products on the island of Britain. However, it took almost two decades for fear of cannabis to become truly engrained. 

In post World War II Britain colonial exploits were finally being realised, with the passing of the British nationality Act in 1948, meaning those living across the Empire were permitted to move to Britain without a visa and with some a link to cannabis trade routes. 

Now exposure to illegal cannabis increased, and with it phobia of the plant. The fear that this was specifically caused by immigrant communities can be seen in London tabloids from the nineteen fifties.

Tech Boom

Historically, hemp was a vital component in many industries from use as a raw material in heavy industry, such as shipping and fishing to everyday life, from clothing to oil lamps. 

Yet, this began to change with the onset of industrial revolution. Cotton was not dissimilar to hemp in terms of uses, but hemp offered a sturdier alternative, that is until cotton became quicker and easier to process. 

The invention of the Cotton Gin engine for processing cotton fibre in 1794 saw the beginning of hemp’s descent from top of the material chain. Unfortunately for “proponents of” hemp, it could no longer hold its own against more efficiently processed cotton.  

The introduction of plastic in the twentieth century was a nail in the coffin for hemp, which had until now, been the primary material for sails and rope. Polypropylene, a plastic fibre offered a much cheaper, water repellant alternative to hemp. Although hemp got one last boom, as demand increased exponentially during the World Wars, there was no staunching the flow of rapid industrial and technological development. Here we can see how hemp’s decline unfortunately, but smoothly coincided with stigmatisation of cannabis. A material now viewed as unnecessary, it was easier to simply toss hemp into the pile of undesirable produce, alongside cannabis. 

The most integral feature of hemp’s ill history is the role of colonialism and its globalising effect on socio-economic relations. In the British and US contexts, drug policy was a concerted effort to protect against societal issues that were perceived to be caused by the influx of drugs from colonies or neighbouring regions. 

The prohibition of cannabis is just one of many instances where we see how stigmatisation can quickly form where there is a lack of knowledge or clashing of ideals and developing technological systems. But now a brighter future is on the horizon, as hemp and other cannabis products are being considered from new environmental, health and economic perspectives.

Dermot Moore is the analyst at Hemspan, a UK based company using innovative hemp materials for construction. He is currently undertaking a Masters in Environmental History at the University of Uppsala. Tweets @4Dermot

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