If there’s anything that’s misunderstood, it has to be the plants in the hemp family. Hemp and weed still conjure up completely negative associations with people. We appear to have forgotten how special these plants are.

The hemp family (also known as cannabis)

Before we go any deeper into the origin of the negative associations, it is important to know that the hemp family consists of two different plants: hemp and cannabis. Two completely different plants which are used for different purposes. Nevertheless, we seem to lump them both together which makes for much confusion.

1. Industrial hemp (fibre)

The hemp plant is commonly used as raw material for objects or specific food supplements. Hemp contains a very small percentage of THC (delta-8 and delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol). So small that the quantity is negligible. When you use a food supplement with hemp - for example CBD oil - you can never get high or stoned from it. Food supplements with hemp are commonly legally available in the Netherlands.

2. Cannabis (also called marihuana or weed)

A cannabis plant, on the other hand, contains much more THC. When you use cannabis you can get high or stoned from it. The reason for using cannabis varies by person. It can be both recreational and medicinal. You can smoke, vape or eat cannabis, or make an oil from it, ‘weed oil’. Cannabis plants or parts of them are never used as raw material for products or in food supplements that can be freely purchased.

Hemp: an age-old agricultural crop

Cannabis (both hemp and weed) has a rich history. It is even one of the oldest crops on Earth. For example, hemp plants were used as raw material because of their strong fibre and the ease with which farmers could grow them. Things we make from hemp include paper, clothing, fishing nets and rope. The first bible and the American Declaration of Independence were printed on hemp paper. As well as raw material, both weed and hemp are used as medicines.

The Golden Age of hemp

Even though cannabis has existed for centuries, only in the Golden Age did it become especially popular in the Netherlands. The Golden Age was a time of affluence. The Netherlands was the centre of world trade in which the many ships of the Dutch East India Company dominated the world’s seas. To supply the increasing demand, we were busy building ships at that time. Ships needed a lot of rope and canvas for the sails. In those days a single ship had about 21 kilometres of rope and hundreds of square metres of canvas for the sails. The raw material for these products? Hemp. Supplying a ship with rope and canvas required easily some 50 to 100 tonnes (!) of hemp. Consequently, hemp, along with wood, was one of the most important raw materials in the Golden Age.

The turning point

However, this Golden Age for cannabis (weed and hemp) came to an end. In the 1930’s things went downhill with the economy in America and elsewhere. There was even a depression, high unemployment and much poverty. This situation led people to seek an escape with narcotics. As a result of increasing demand, large groups of migrants moved into the country to sell weed to the suffering population. To the great annoyance of the American government.

As well as the recreational use of weed, new raw materials came onto the market such as plastic, jute, nylon and cotton. These raw materials were better alternatives to the hemp which had been in use so long. The arrival of steam power didn’t help either. Steamships meant much less canvas and rope was needed. Hemp production went backwards in a big way. Moreover, there are various conspiracy theories going around that powerful persons had invested in the new raw materials. Hemp production would have endangered their investment so they exercised their political influence to make hemp less popular.

The decline of hemp and weed

Because of the large groups of migrants, its recreational use and the arrival of other raw materials, cannabis cultivation had to be restricted. This meant both hemp and weed. In this way the problems could be tackled effectively. This task was landed on the then Commissioner of the American Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN): Anslinger. Anslinger thought up a very aggressive plan, the consequences of which - decades later - we are still seeing.

1. The Marihuana Tax Act

First of all, Anslinger introduced the Marihuana Tax Act Anyone who grew, processed, bought or sold cannabis, hemp or weed had to have a tax stamp. In this way, the trade in cannabis was strictly controlled and hefty excise duties were raised by the government.

The cunningness of these ‘Tax Stamps’ was that there were very few of them available. To be able to get a Tax Stamp, you had to show that you traded in cannabis. But trading in cannabis was punishable because it couldn’t be done without the ‘Tax Stamp’. This meant that it was virtually impossible to apply for one successfully.

2. Hate campaign

As well as the Marihuana Tax Act, recreational use had to be tackled too. The population had to itself not want to use it any longer. To achieve this, a hate campaign was put in place. Anslinger arranged for the newspapers to write in a negative way about cannabis. Whenever anything horrible happened, it was immediately reported that the perpetrator used cannabis. Various films were also made to show the terrible effects of cannabis. Slowly but surely people became afraid of cannabis.

Trailer for the film Reefer Madness (1936)

International effects

Because the Netherlands was signatory to international treaties, it had to comply with the same rules. When the rules surrounding cannabis were tightened up, this applied to the Netherlands also. Only in 1979 was the Dutch Opium Act changed and a tolerance policy introduced around cannabis.

And now? The future of hemp

Currently we still use hemp as raw material for everyday products. Think, for example, of shoes, T-shirts, insulation materials and composts. In addition, there are interesting developments taking place around cannabis. For example, take the legalisation of weed in Canada and the many CBD products which can be bought nowadays on the open market. Science is also starting to become more and more interested in this fascinating plant family and that is increasing our knowledge. These developments are increasing familiarity with hemp and weed and the difference between the two. That is not to say that the terms weed and hemp are being properly used everywhere. Newspapers regularly use the terms weed and hemp in the wrong way. Think for example of shutting down a hemp nursery - that is ALWAYS a cannabis nursery. In Groningen province some 2,000 hectares of hemp are fully legally in cultivation.

So although Anslinger was responsible for sowing much fear in people, the influence of his actions is slowly fading away. It lasted for a long time but we are now going in the right direction.