If you think laws in cannabis only started changing recently, you’d be wrong. The very first piece of US legislation regulating cannabis was the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. While this didn’t outright ban the sale of cannabis, it made it de facto illegal. During WWII, this tax was lifted to encourage farmers to grow hemp.
In 1942, the US Government released Hemp For Victory. It’s a black and white film teaching farmers how to cultivate hemp, and why the troops need it.
Hemp actually has a long history in American agriculture. George Washington actually grew hemp on Mt. Vernon. He even pondered whether hemp would be a better cash crop than tobacco.
While it may be fun to think of George Washington lighting up a fat doob, hemp cultivation does not produce smokable flowers. Hemp seeds can produce oil, and the stalk can produce paper, rope, and fabric. Hemp can grow like a weed. Cannabis flower cultivation requires careful monitoring for bugs, mold, and other things that can ruin buds.
Hemp is an excellent material for industrial-strength fibers. Sailors back in ancient times used hemp to make ropes and sails for their boats. Hemp produces both rope and canvas. The film explains that a 44-gun frigate such as Old Ironside needed 60 tons of hemp. They also have fun facts like the word “canvas” comes from the Arabic word for hemp.
The film explains that hemp cultivation was an important part of Kentucky and Missouri farming. However, cheaper imported fibers like jute and sisal displaced hemp’s market. They conveniently neglected to mention any recent laws passed around hemp cultivation.
During WWII, Japan took over America’s industrial fiber suppliers. In order to meet the war demand for rope and canvas, the government needed US farmers to once again grow hemp.
The film comes in two parts. The first film is nearly seven minutes long, and the second film is just over seven minutes. The films were shown back to back. Together, they make a 15-minute-long feature teaching farmers how to grow hemp.
The film starts by explaining what hemp is, and why there was a need to grow more hemp. The stated goal for 1943 was to grow 50,000 acres of seed hemp. In order to be able to do that, farmers would need education on how to cultivate the “ancient crop.”
After the introduction, the film authoritatively states “This is hemp seed. Be careful how you use it. For to grow hemp legally, you must have a federal recitation and tax stamp. This is provided for in your contract.” It then shows an example of the special tax stamp. It has this hilarious old-timey spelling stating that the holder is a “Producer of Marihuana.”
It goes on to teach farmers how to grow hemp, starting with the soil. They emphasize that soil that is good for growing corn will also grow good hemp. Hemp has a tendency to choke out other weeds, so it leaves the soil full of nutrients for the next crop.
The film details different growing techniques for hemp seeds vs stalks. Most flowering plants are hermaphroditic, which means flowers tend to have both male and female parts. Not hemp. While both plants produce stalks, only female hemp plants produce seeds. At-home cannabis cultivators may be familiar with the need to separate male and female plants.
After the war, hemp immediately returned to its de facto-banned status. The government destroyed most copies of Hemp For Victory. Both the USDA and Library of Congress insisted the film was never made. By all official government accounts, neither the USDA nor any other branch of government had made a pro-cannabis film.
However, there was at least one copy still out there. In 1976, William Conde obtained a broadcast-quality copy of the film. Conde got the film from a Miami Herald reporter who had connections to the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church of Jamaica. They gave it to him with one mission: to make this film available to as many people as possible.
Conde went around showing this film far and wide, which in the pre-internet days wasn’t much. However, in 1984 Conde met Jack Herer (yeah, he’s a real guy, not just a strain) at the Oregon Marijuana Initiative. Conde gave a copy of the video to Herer, who continued to spread the film.
In 1989 Maria Farrow, Carl Packard, and Jack Herer donated two VHS copies of the broadcast back to the Library of Congress. In July of that year, Jack Herer and Crist Write requested a copy of the film from the National Archives. Though it was listed in the Archives, the curators could not locate the film.
A year later in May of 1990, John Birrenbach, founder of The Institute for Hemp, got a copy from the National Archives. These days, Hemp for Victory is free to download from the National Archives.
As you can see, cannabis cultivation has a long history in American agriculture. Hemp is an amazing source of industrial fiber. It is tragically underused due to the prohibition of marijuana. Not only is it underused today, but its history has also faced attempted erasure.