Our editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Learn more.

In This Article

With Black History Month upon us, it seems like a good time to widen the lens a bit on our coverage of the cannabis and hemp industries (to whatever degree those industries are distinct at this point in time and place).

We tend to focus on the day-to-day ups and downs of cannabis or CBD companies, but rarely how this industry came to be what it is.

And while both industries stand on the shoulders of people of color, this is even less often acknowledged when it comes to hemp. When we think of the history of hemp in the US, slavery probably isn’t the first thing that pops into our minds. Why is that?

Certainly, hemp’s long-standing use as a crop was a well-rehearsed reason for legalization. The 17th-century colonists, after all, were required to grow hemp due to its wide-ranging usefulness as a fiber – for rope, clothing, and more.

While it is certainly true that hemp played a major economic role in the history of the United States, that version of history omits the uglier roots of the hemp industry. It leaves us with a picture of hard-working, industrious, and pious (white) colonists, growing their hemp crops and twisting the fibers into rope with their own work-hardened hands.

But the truth is that, while there certainly were early colonists that did the farming themselves, as slavery became established in the colonies (and later, states), it became the norm for that labor to fall on black shoulders.

In fact, in his 1951 book, History of the Hemp Industry in Kentucky, historian James F. Hopkins makes the argument that the flourishing of hemp and slavery were so closely tied that (in Kentucky, at least) the one may not have existed without the other:

“Without hemp, slavery might not have 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, and it is a significant fact that the heaviest concentration of slavery was in the hemp producing area.”

According to Hopkins, “Kentuckians sometimes referred to hemp as a ‘n***** crop,’” since no one else held the knowledge and the expertise as to its handling. This concentration of expertise in the enslaved black population was pretty much inevitable since white people of the pre-civil war era more or less refused to work with it:

“A Lexingtonian stated in 1836 that it was almost impossible to hire workmen to break a crop of hemp because the work was ‘very dirty, and so laborious that scarcely any white man will work at it,’ and he continued by saying that the task was done entirely by slave labor.”

Slavery supported hemp farming to such an extent that after the civil war the industry foundered. Until mechanization made hemp processing easier, hemp farmers found the labor-intensive nature of growing and manufacturing the crop to be prohibitive to making a profit.

Without free black labor, hemp, despite its many uses, would have played a much smaller role in US history.

At this juncture in US history, we differentiate between “hemp” and “cannabis.” This is largely a legal, rather than a scientific, distinction, imposed by lawmakers who need to regulate the psychoactive effects of THC.

The distinction also has a sort of convenient side benefit for the hemp industry. As we have gained awareness of the impact, for communities of color, of the war on drugs, the hemp industry has been allowed to maintain some distance from that history.

The modern hemp industry makes much of the healing benefits of hemp, for good reason. But alongside that truth, there exists a myth of innocence. It is as if the legal separation of hemp from cannabis allows the hemp industry to dissociate itself from the corrosive – and racist – history of cannabis in America.

But without reckoning with this history, the hemp industry will only continue to perpetuate the inequalities of the past. The reality is that there is no innocent history of cannabis in the US. That’s true whether we’re talking about the strains used historically for fibers or those used primarily for their cannabinoids.