Ancient Crop for Modern Times

Hemp leaf with black background

8000 BCE- 0BCE

“Agriculture is not natural; it is a human invention” – a step towards #civilization . True, we all know that. But are we aware of the fact that hemp was one of the oldest agrarian crops? The use of Hemp (Cannabis Sativa L) has, in fact, been traced back to 8000 BCE. Yes, Hemp cord in pottery remains from this era were found in modern-day Taiwan.

One stop plant with many uses; as food, animal feed, textile, sustainable construction

6000 to 2000 BCE saw Hemp’s usage expand in China and Turkestan. Hempseed and hemp oil were used for food, while fibre was used in textiles. In 2737 BCE, Chinese Emperor Shen Neng introduced medicinal uses. Along with the expansion of Hemp usage in China, in 1500 BCE, Scythians started experimenting with Hemp fibres. Its was included in various ritual by the Scythian tribes around 700 to 400 BCE. It was around this time, the stories of Gautam Buddha going on a “one hemp seed a day” diet got popularized.

Did you know that the use of Hemp is mentioned in the Vedas? Yes, Atharva Veda talks about the medicinal as well as ritualistic uses of this plant. Hemp, in the form of Bhang, the “good narcotic”, is also mentioned in Zend-Avesta, the Zoroastrian text.

Around 600 BCE Hemp was used to prepare ropes in Russia. And it wasn’t long until the same was introduced in Greece.

Paper and Hemp, is that possible? Well, it is. Traces of the first hemp paper is found in China (100 BCE).

Other books and scripts mentioning medicinal properties of Cannabis include:

  • Pen Tsao Ching
  • De Materia Medica

Scythians and Scythian Fire – the entheogenic use of cannabis

Walking through the history of cannabis , it is important to understand various entheogenic uses of cannabis related to different beliefs. One such popular claim was noted by the Greek historian Herodotus. 

Herodotus, during his extensive travel, came across the ancient nomadic tribe - Scythians . In his records (Histories, 440 BCE), he writes about Scythians and their ‘Cannabis steam baths’. And guess what, it is here that we can see the use of hemp seeds . After setting up the ground, they threw the seeds onto piping hot stones, which go on to produce vapours. This served as their water-bath. The same has also been inferred as a burning/ death ritual - “to loosen the boundaries of death” (probably why marijuana was known as scythian fire for a long time). This is interpreted to have helped the tribe overcome depression and sorrow. Cannabis was an integral part of the Scythian belief system. Archaeologists have unearthed cannabis from various burial chambers. 

It is also believed that Thracians (who had immediate contact with the Scythians) introduced the plant to Dacians. Here, it gained popularity among the shamanic cult Kapnobatai or “the people who walk in the clouds”. Very little is known about the Scythians and their culture. The mentioned theories are still subjected to debate.

Cannabis in Hinduism and Zoroastrianism

The role of cannabis in olden times were manifold. Apart from being a source of food, clothing and medicine, it was also a central ingredient for various religious rites.

Cannabis in Hinduism and Zoroastrianism

Hinduism , being one of the oldest living religions today,  has mentioned hemp in Atharvaveda. Here, Bhang (dried cannabis leaves, seeds and stems) is mentioned as “Sacred grass” – one among the 5 sacred plants. It is also considered as an offering made to Lord Shiva. Historical reference to cannabis is also seen in Rigveda , Sushrutasamhita and the Mahabharata.

Zoroastrianism is yet another religion that has mentioned cannabis in their text Zendavastha . It is probably the common ancestry shared with Hinduism that accounts for the similarities in their cosmologies and languages. The Persian Haoma is nothing but the Indian Soma . In fact, in Zoroaster’s Zend-Avesta, Bhang is referred as the “good narcotic”.

“Cannabis is one of the 5 sacred plants as per Hindu texts, a source of joy, a liberator. As per the myths, a guardian angel once lived in its leaves. Popularly known as “the herb of the Magi”, cannabis is also mentioned as a good narcotic in Zend-Avesta.”

0CE to 1000 CE

 0 to 1000 CE saw a spread of Cannabis and Hemp in various parts of Europe and Arabia.

Hemp rope

Imported Hemp ropes were introduced in England at around 100 CE. Vikings, 850 CE, introduced hemp ropes and seeds to Iceland. In fact, they had their sails, fishing nets, lines and caulkings made out of hemp.

Even though evidence suggests that the first Hemp paper was found in China at around 100 BCE, as per the legend Ts’ai Lun (known for the development of paper) popularized Hemp paper during this timeline.

Apart from ropes and papers, the analgesic uses of cannabis also found a boom during this period. Hua Tuo, the first Chinese physician to use anaesthesia in surgery, noted the medicinal uses of cannabis. Pliny the Elder’s “The Natural History” also mentions analgesic uses marijuana.

Vikings, Norse myths and their connection with Hemp

Do we have proof that Hemp existed in Norway? The first solid proof of Hemp in Norway is from the Viking age. The Vikings relied massively on the performance of their ships which needed strong materials to remain afloat. Hemp was their choice. They prepared ropes and sails with Hemp fibres. According to a study from 2021,  Viking may have been the first European ones to ever set foot on North American soil half a millennium before Columbus "discovered" the continent.

Wooden Viking ship

In Gausdal, a Norwegian valley, people were known to lift/remove their hats as a greeting when they approached a hemp field. They believed that the plant housed a Vette, a nature spirit that had to be respected. Also, in Norwegian folklore, Hemp cloth stood for the beginning as well as the end. Hence, it was the first and the last in which people were wrapped in their life.

It is generally believed that in Viking and early Middle Ages Scandinavia, Hemp was used for preparing only coarse textiles. More like ropes and sailcloth. Hemp fibre was of importance to the Vikings. It was their chief material for cordage. Until Hemp was introduced, they produced ropes and lines primarily from the bast of lime trees. The long, flexible hemp fibres made it possible to make better cordage. It was necessary for the long sea journeys the Vikings undertook. Hemp was, therefore, an important item of trade and armed raids.

Some have also found that the Vikings used Cannabis to relieve toothaches and pain during childbirth (subjected to debate).

1000-1500 CE

1000s to 1500s put Cannabis to use industrially and medically. But it didn’t stop there. This was the timeline where Cannabis started to gain popularity as an intoxicant. Here’s a list of noteworthy events from this period:

Gutenberg prints Bible on hemp paper
  •  The English word HEMPE got listed in the dictionary for the first time
  • The Moorish starts the first hemp-based paper mill in Europe
  • Cannabis spread throughout the middle east as an inebriant. And from there to Africa – traces of this can even be seen in “1001 Nights”, a collection of Arabian tales.
  • Gutenberg prints The Bible on hemp paper
  • We all know Christopher Columbus, don’t we? Guess what? Without Hemp, it wouldn’t have been possible for him to discover “the new world”. The sails and ropes on his ships were made out of Hemp!
  • This was also the time when persecution of witches began in Europe. Cannabis, being considered a part of witchcraft, got popularly demonized.
  • 1533, the golden age in England for Hemp, was when King Henry VIII went on to even fine farmers who didn’t grow hemp for industrial purposes.
  • Portuguese and Chinese reports/writes about medicinal uses of marijuana


Did you know that the oldest known document written on paper in Europe, Mozarab Missal of Silos, was written on paper made of Hemp? Xativa is known to be the home of the first recorded paper-mill in the Iberian Peninsula. 

Moors, Spain and Hemp – Many scholars state that around 1150,  it was the Moorish conquest of Spain that paved the way for hemp-based paper production in Europe. They introduced methods to use Hemp and linen rags as fibre sources. 


The 16th century was a golden age for Hemp in England. During his reign, King Henry VIII passed laws mandating the cultivation of hemp. For every 60 acres of land, farmers were expected to grow at least a quarter-acre of hemp or flax. And what if they didn’t? Rulebreakers were fined 3 shillings and 4 pence.

1600-1800 CE

The timeline between the 17th and the 19th century saw some changes in the legality and laws related to Hemp. However, it wasn’t just the laws that happened during this period. Did you know that this was when some of the classifications of Cannabis took place?

Here are some of the major  hemp worthy events that took place between the 1600 and 1800s:

  • Industrial and medicinal uses of Hemp experience a boom in Europe
  • Hashish became a major trade between South and Central Asia
  • American farmers were required to grow hemp by law. Virginia, for example, was a state that offered a reward for promoting Hemp culture. Just as in 16th century England, the rulebreakers were penalised.
  • Linnaeus classified cannabis Sativa
  • A hoax (or a legend) that the US Constitution was drafted on hemp paper floated around
  • Cannabis was reclassified as Sativa and Indica by French Naturalist
  • Abraham Lincoln used hemp seed oil for household lamps
  • British puts a tax on ganja and charas trade in India
  • CBN was identified
  • Indian Hemp drug commission report was issued


Farmers preparing flat ganja in Naogaon, in what is today north Bangladesh

Farmers preparing flat ganja in Naogaon, in what is today north Bangladesh

One can always see a tiff on whether to legalise cannabis or not – “The Cannabis Dilemma” as they call it. This is an ongoing debate on the cultivation, procurement and use (or abuse) of the species. How is the same treated in India, a place where ganja, bhang, charas, siddhi etc have cultural and religious significance as well? There are laws defining legality, of course. To start, let’s look at what Indian Hemp Drug Commission is.

Indian drug commission report was completed on 1894, an Indo-British study on the use of cannabis in India.

The report which was completed in 1894 was an Indo-British study conducted about the usage of cannabis in India. The seven-member commission was formed as a response to the request raised by the British House of Commons regarding the cultivation, trade, consumption etc of Hemp in Bengal. What started as an inquiry/study in Bengal ended up being known as one of the “lengthiest, most thorough investigations of cannabis”. The report was issued in 8 volumes. It focussed not just on the usage but also on:

  • the botany of the plant,
  • methods used for cultivation,
  • effects on the physical and mental health of users
  • rules, regulations and taxation in states that were under the British control

This report is often praised by those who approve of its recommendation in favour of regulation and taxation of cannabis.

The role of cotton in the decline of Hemp

We have, till now, seen that Hemp has been one of the most significant crops for people across civilizations. However, recent times witnessed the deterioration of its uses. It has reached an extent that people recognize it as a mere source of “getting high”. One such use that remains long forgotten is the role Hemp played in supplying fibre. Now, how did this decline come about? Well, Hemp was eventually overshadowed by cotton.

As Chris Duvall says in his book, Cannabis, “Cannabis resisted mechanization”. During the late 18th-century mechanical cotton gin was introduced, making it easier to process the cotton. Harvesting Hemp was labour-intensive as it was traditionally processed by hand.

Steam-powered textile mills were developed during the 1800s for flax and cotton. Though Hemp had proved to be a staple and sustainable for centuries, more affordable options became desirable.

1900-2000 CE

The “Golden age for Hemp” saw a decline due to laws/acts preventing cultivation and use. 

There has been a lot of changes in the realm of cannabis over the years. The “Golden age for Hemp” suddenly went downhill as the 20th century saw a major setback in its cultivation. Various laws were being enforced to prohibit its recreational uses (which gained momentum in many parts of the world) and industrial ones. Here are some of the major events that took place during the 20th century:

  • Nylon gets patented forcing Hemp and Hemp-based products to step back
  • In 1924, the Russian botanist, E. Janischewsky, identifies and describes Ruderalis
  • The Canadian house of commons encourages farmers to cultivate hemp
  • The US Congress passes the Marijuana Tax Act. Later during the timeline, cannabis also gets removed from the US Pharmacopoeia
  • Henry Ford, during the years 1941 and 1942, develops a car that ran on hemp ethanol fuel
  • The fag end of the 1950s saw a complete ban on Hemp in the US
  • UN allows the cultivation of industrial hemp
  • Carl Sagan proposes that marijuana might have been the first agricultural crop leading to civilization itself

Marijuana Tax Act

Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 – A bill to curb Marijuana in the US.

Concerns against marijuana intensified in the US by the mid-1930s, resulting in its prohibition. The Marijuana Tax Act was enacted in 1937. Though it didn’t exactly ban cultivation and usage of the species, it taxed the sale of cannabis. The law was passed despite objections from American Medical Association. Instead, it was proposed to add the same to the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act.

It is debated that the Act was aimed at reducing the hemp industry’s growth through heavy taxation. This is believed to have been due to the impact of lobbying of various synthetic textile magnets, with DuPont playing a major role. Well, the Hemp industry was indeed on the verge of becoming a “billion-dollar crop”.  Heavy taxes were imposed which in turn affected the Hemp industry. The 1930s also saw the term Marijuana be popularized by Harry J Hanslinger during his campaign against the drug.

Hemp for Victory campaign

Hemp imports to the US ceased during the Second World War as Japan seized the Philippines. This urged the US government to encourage domestic Hemp. To meet the wartime demands, the US and Canadian governments lifted restrictions.  Thus, despite the ban on Hemp cultivation, registered farmers were allowed to produce.  The “Hemp for Victory” campaign that started in 1942 offered farmers guaranteed fixed prices.

Later on, in 1951, the Boggs Act and the Narcotics Control Act in the US increased various drug penalties. After the Boggs and Narcotics Control Act, the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 included Hemp as Schedule I controlled substances along with heroin, LSD etc.

Henry Ford

“10 times stronger than steel” - Henry Ford’s Hemp-fueled car – Fact or a Fallacy? After years of research, in 1941, Henry Ford exhibited the prototype of a car produced using Hemp composite and ran on Hemp-based fuel.

Henry ford built a car made of hemp composite and ran on Hemp based fuel.

There are posts and articles on how Henry Ford built a car that was completely fueled with Hemp. It is quite natural to ask if this is a fact or a fallacy. Well, it is somewhere in between.

Ford’s vision of manufacturing cars from the ground, integrating automobile and agricultural industries, started with plastic-bodied cars. This idea came up as a response to two events:

  • The Great Depression – Ford, owing to his affinity towards the working class, wanted to help the farmers.
  • The shortage of metals during World War II

It is reported that the material for the car body consisted of soybeans, wheat, corn, flax, ramie as well as hemp. Yes, Hemp. But how much Hemp was involved? The car was composed of 70% cellulose fibres of which around 10% was Hemp. It is also said that the diesel engine was also manufactured to run on seed (hemp seed) and vegetable oils. The prototype premiered at the Dearborn Days festival in Michigan.

Petrochemical era

The petrochemical era marked the Hemp industry’s downfall. Hemp production became expensive and labour-intensive. It was substituted with petroleum-based synthetics, wood etc.

Things started going haywire for the Hemp industry with the introduction of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937. Soon after, in 1938, DuPont’s announcement introducing their latest invention, Nylon, made things worse. 

After the second world war, countries started adopting petroleum-based production, which got strengthened during the 1970s. New technologies that simplified harvesting and production loomed. Companies, seeing hemp as a threat to their business, started routing for petroleum-based synthetic textiles. Hemp production, being “technologically primitive” and labour-intensive, was forced to take the backseat. 

UN single convention

Single Convention on Narcotics Drug, 1961 - An international agreement to prohibit the production and supply of narcotic drugs with exceptions (under license) for defined purposes. Single Convention considers the medicinal and scientific uses of controlled substances though articles 1, 2, 4, 9, 12, 19 & 49. Pressurized by the US, the convention placed Cannabis under Schedule IV which is where the regulations for “hard drugs” are laid out.  Article 28, however,  goes on to exempt industrial Hemp from heavy restrictions. the Article states that “This Convention shall not apply to the cultivation of the cannabis plant exclusively for industrial purposes (fibre and seed) or horticultural purposes.” 

UN single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961

The International Drug Control Conventions (IDCC) regulates not just the pharmaceutical uses of Cannabis but also its non-medical applications. However, there are irregularities when it comes to these industrial uses of the species.

IDCC comprises of three treaties:

  • UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (1961): This got amended in 1972. It mostly covers the traditional usage of the Cannabis plant for medical or pharmaceutical purposes.
  • UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances (1971): It focuses on regulating the plant’s chemical side (THC). Tries to address and regulate the psychoactive substances from their chemical perspective.
  • UN Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (1988) – Provides comprehensive measures to combat illicit usage of drugs and their trafficking. It helps reinforce the above conventions from a legal perspective.

Though these do not restrict or regulate Hemp, the irregularities and grey zones related to defining Cannabis did affect Hemp-based production.

NDPS India

A hemp shop somewhere in Khandesh, with ganja, majoon and bhang on offer Source IHDC report

NDPS or the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances or the NDPS Act of 1985. Is Hemp Legal in India?  The explanation comes under the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances or the NDPS Act of 1985. It defines or lays down the rules and regulations, for Indians, regarding Cannabis production and usage. Due to the socio-cultural use of the plant, India had opposed it when the UN Single Convention voted Cannabis as a hard drug. After being exempted for nearly 25 years, the Indian government under Rajeev Gandhi had to succumb to pressure from the American political-economic dominance and enact the NDPS act banning Narcotic drugs. 

Ever wondered why there are places in India where one gets to see authorized Bhang shops? The NDPS Act does not prohibit the production and sale of seeds and leaves but forbids the sale and production of resin and flowers (charas and ganja). States hold the power to draft laws and regulate the sale and production of seeds and leaves. UP and Rajasthan, for example, have authorized shops for the same. Under Section 10, states can permit/regulate the cultivation of cannabis plants, their production, manufacture, transportation, import/export etc (excluding charas).

Under Section 14, a special provision has been provided where the government may allow the cultivation of the plant for industrial purposes (obtaining fibre or seed). 

NDPS act 1985
Cannabis leaf and extract are treated as narcotic as per NDPS, leaving behind the leaves, stalk and seeds.

Hemp in 21st century

Hemp fibre, hemp fabric

Industrial Hemp has started making its way back! Various acts have been passed that removed Hemp from the list of hard drugs. China and the US have started moving towards redefining and recognising industrial Hemp as an agrarian crop. Others, like Canada, Europe and Australia, have also reclassified cannabis. Most of these countries have identified Hemp’s potential as a sustainable replacement as well as its ability to combat climate change. Research and development are currently happening in this field.

Hemp is plant with many uses
Every part of the hemp plant can be used.

The 21st century is witnessing a boom in Hemp cultivation and usage. Countries have slowly started adopting various industrial and medicinal uses of Cannabis. Focus is being given to research and development.

Here are some of the recent events that helped in changing peoples outlook towards Cannabis:

  • Uttarakhand became the first Indian state, in 2018, to legalise Hemp cultivation
  • The hemp farming act was passed in 2018 in the US to remove Hemp from the list of Schedule I controlled substances.
  • UN reclassifies Cannabis and removes it from the list of Schedule IV drugs.
  • US, Europe and China lead in farm plantation

UN reclassifies Cannabis 

UN removes cannabis from Schedule IV drugs.
India voted to for the removal cannabis from Schedule IV drugs at UN.

Cannabis species and their usage have been under strict monitoring for the past 60 years. On 2nd December 2020, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs re-classified Cannabis and voted for removing the same from the list of Schedule IV drugs (alongside heroin and such opioids). This was a response to WHOs recommendations on Cannabis.

Countries like the US voted to remove Cannabis from the list of Schedule IV drugs while maintaining the same in Schedule I list. Chile and Japan, however, voted against this. India voted for the reclassification and removal of cannabis from Schedule IV as well.

Uttarakhand becomes the first state

In 2018, Uttarakhand became the first Indian state to legalise Hemp cultivation for industrial purposes. The government introduced a pilot project promoting Hemp cultivation in the Pauri Garhwal district.
Area where the hemp plant grows wild
Areas where hemp plant grows wild (Indian Hemp Drug Commission, 1894)