Why the Hemp Industry isn’t Big Business (Yet)

Author Vanesa Fernandez, PhD by Vanesa Fernandez, PhD
hemp products history and future

After decades of taking a back seat — and being confused with its cousin, Cannabis indica — the hemp plant is suddenly center stage in a starring role of multiple new businesses across a wide range of industries. There are new lines of active and performance clothing made from hemp fiber, hemp wellness and lifestyle products, and hemp-infused beauty products, to name just a few. Hemp is big business.

As a researcher and lead science officer for a major CBD extraction company (we’re part of the team behind SHEbd’s broad-spectrum hemp oil products!), I find this new surge of research and industrial hemp products very exciting. It brings us so much closer to a world where we recognize and make use of the full potential of CBD and the hemp plant itself.

It also brings up the question: why is now the right time for the explosion of new CBD and hemp products? Understanding that means understanding the role hemp has played throughout history, and how a series of unfortunate circumstances stifled research into hemp and CBD for most of the last century.

Hemp Throughout History

For most of recorded history, our ancestors used the hemp plant in myriad ways. There are records of hemp farming for fiber — fabrics and rope, as well as nets — as early as 2800 BCE in China and early in the Christian era in Mediterranean Europe. The historical lineage of hemp includes:

  • Traditional Chinese Medicine prescribed hemp extracts and concoctions to treat malaria, constipation, rheumatic pains, absent-mindedness and “women’s diseases.”
  •  In the United States, hemp products were widely accepted and used into the mid-20th century. In fact, the US Pharmacopoeia, which was established to list the best understood and most effective medicines known, listed hemp extract in its entries until the 1940s.
  • JR Reynolds, a British Royal Physician from 1867 until 1896, published research on hemp that showed it improved symptoms in conditions ranging from tics and migraines to dysmenorrhea and asthma.
  • The 5th Dutch Pharmacopoeia, published in 1926, included a monograph on “Cannabis indicate herba” — herb of Indian Hemp.

And then, just like that, hemp and hemp products essentially disappeared from the marketplace, despite its long history of use in many cultures. In the U.S., Congress passed laws against industrial hemp farming, and the Drug Enforcement Administration added cannabis — including hemp — to its list of illegal substances. What happened to change the laws regarding hemp and hemp products in such a drastic way, and why is the pendulum swinging back in the other direction now?

hemp products history

What Made Hemp a Bad Guy?

The simple answer to that question is that hemp is so versatile and so useful that it became a major threat to a number of growing industries. These industries had powerful lobbyists working against the interests of industrial hemp farmers at both the state and federal level. Here are just a few areas that have worked to squash the hemp industry in the U.S.

Plastics/Petroleum Industry

In 1935, Wallace Carothers invented nylon, a synthetic silk made from petroleum byproducts. The lightweight, tough fiber was widely used in the military for parachute, body armor, ropes and helmet liners, among others. By the end of World War II, plastic production in the United States had increased by 300 percent, becoming a powerhouse economic industry. Petroleum lobbyists helped lead the charge to regulate the hemp industry order to crush competition.

Cotton Industry

Cotton is the most widely used natural fiber in the world. The roots of cotton weave throughout U.S. history (pun very much intended) and not always in a good way. Because it’s not native to the U.S., cotton requires extensive irrigation, fertilization and pest management, adding to the runoff of agricultural chemicals in the soil and water. Regardless, it is an economic pillar in the U.S., where it is grown in 17 states, making the US the third largest producer of cotton in the world. Subsidies to the cotton industry have kept production artificially inexpensive, despite its high ecological cost.

Drug Enforcement Administration

By the time Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Marihuana Tax Act on August 2, 1937, all 50 states had adopted regulations that were aimed at controlling the growth and use of cannabis. The primary motive behind the regulation was the fear campaign waged by Harry Anslinger, who claimed that the recreational use of cannabis was a national menace and that it led to the use of harder drugs and addiction.

hemp products banned

History has unveiled Anslinger’s true motive — a combination of racism and the need to keep his agency relevant after Prohibition was appealed — but his legacy lived on for most of the second half of the last century. Even as the original act was overturned and ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, the Drug Enforcement Administration added Cannabis sativa and indica to its list of Schedule 1 drugs — on a par with heroin, opioids and other highly addictive drugs. The law also restricted research into cannabis and cannabis products, stifling the possibility of treatments for a wide range of conditions.

A New Dawn for Hemp CBD

In 2014, as more and more states passed laws legalizing cannabis for medicinal and recreational use, the U.S. Congress once again started examining the case of the hemp plant, its production and its medicinal and industrial uses. The 2014 Farm Bill included a pilot program that allowed for industrial hemp production and research into the uses of hemp. The 2018 Farm Bill — known as the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 — authorized industrial hemp production, and removed hemp and hemp seeds from the DEA list of controlled substances.

While each state is free to impose its own regulations and restrictions, hemp, hemp-derived CBD and research on hemp are essentially legal throughout the United States. You can learn more about hemp laws by state in this article at Leafly or by exploring our article covering the topic.

The Most Promising New Research And Where It May Lead

While U.S. researchers have been held back in their work, scientists in other countries have been moving ahead with research into the effects of hemp-derived CBD on various conditions. The new spate of research has a lot to do with one of the effects of lifting regulations that prohibited the making of CBD products and the growth of the medicinal cannabis industry: standardization.

When you experiment with a substance, it’s important that you are delivering a standard dose to your subjects. As the hemp industry has grown, they’ve developed professional standards to ensure that every dose delivered is uniform. 

hemp products research

Keeping that in mind, here are some of the most promising studies I’ve seen recently about the benefits of CBD, and a suggestion of where they may lead.

This barely scratches the surface of the benefits of hemp products and CBD — and the research is just beginning. As more studies show the benefits of CBD products for skin care, pain relief, scar reduction and even anti-tumor activity, I foresee a not-too-distant future where your family doctor is as comfortable prescribing a course of treatment with CBD as she is suggesting that you take two aspirin and call her in the morning.