A Brief History of Hemp

Ancient hemp usage

All the available literature leads the writer to believe that Hemp can and should be described to a large extent as the fibre which supported the cradle of civilisation. A stone-age village unearthed on the island of Taiwan, over 10,000 years old, contains the earliest evidence of Hemp to date.

Although the Chinese were probably the first to domesticate and use hemp extensively, the most noted euphoric users were the Hindu’s and Scythians. The Atharva-Veda (1400 BC) refers to its usage. The Scythians, who roamed the Asian continent and ruled ancient Russia during the days of the Greeks, used Hemp for utilitarian & euphoric purposes. “They were among the finest craftspeople, artists and warriors the world has ever known”. Jack Frazier/The Great American Hemp Industry

China appears to have the longest continuous history of Hemp cultivation (over 6000 years), interestingly they are also attributed with having invented paper. France has cultivated Hemp for at least 700 years to the present day, Spain and Chile similarly. Russia was a major grower/supplier for hundreds of years.

Hemp in the Southern Colonies

It is difficult if not impossible to ascertain when hemp first appeared in New Zealand, but without doubt it was part of Able Tasman’s ship’s inventory. It is unclear if any seeds were traded or left with the Natives of New Zealand at the time, though unconfirmed, it is thought likely.

Captain James Cook certainly had hemp seed on board Endeavour but similarly, no records exist concerning whether it was planted or traded anywhere in New Zealand. In the late 1770’s Sir Joseph Banks & Admiral Sir George Young were enamoured with the concept of creating colonies in the southern islands (Australia & New Zealand) on the basis of reducing the British Empires dependence on Russian Hemp.

Britain’s sea power was based on adequate supplies of both timber & hemp. To outfit a naval vessel of the day required 80 tons of hemp per ship. This equates to approximately 350 acres of hemp to produce a complete ship’s outfitting, refits of all hempen components took place every 3 to 4 years.

The French were also dependant on Russian hemp and in 1785 sent Le Prouse on an expedition with instructions to bring back samples of New Zealand hemp flax phormium tenax which was prized by the British.

1778 – 1820’s saw much interest & instructions from Britain including the King to the colonies to supply Britain with both New Zealand hemp phormium tenax and traditional hemp Cannabis Sativa L.

Those wishing to suppress uncomfortable truths regarding hemp have managed to date to suppress the most uncomfortable truth of all, that is: New Zealand & Australian colonies began, at least in part, with the intent of hemp colonies! In 1892 hemp seed imported to the colonies was distributed to over 600 farmers in Australia and to a lesser extent, New Zealand. For reasons that remain unclear, hemp did not become a major part of the colonies’ development, however some of the evidence of the attempt remains, such as the 1960’s Australian Hunter Valley discoveries of huge wild tracts of Cannabis Sativa L (industrial hemp).

There were abortive attempts to start a hemp colony on Norfolk Island during most of the 1800’s.

Mother Aubert, grew hemp at Jerusalem (near Wanganui) as part of her pharmacopoeia from 1883 on. Anecdotal reports suggest that industrial hemp was grown in most parts of New Zealand including Ruapuke Island in Foveaux Strait. (Below 45 degrees South with what could be described as an inhospitable climate).

Until the introduction of the DANGEROUS DRUGS & POISONS REGULATIONS 1927, chemists could sell Indian Hemp to anyone in New Zealand. Gazetted in 1928, Indian Hemp was included simply to control the importation for pharmacopoeia, no other controls or taxes were imposed at this time.

In 1941, the Dept. of Scientific & Industrial Research (DSIR) grew 1 hectare of Hungarian hemp in the central North Island. Shortly thereafter, Ministry of Agriculture & Fisheries (MAF) trialled 4 hectares near Foxton & reported, “It grew magnificently & fibre yield was excellent”. (Today MAF are unable or unwilling to provide any information regarding these trials, which were at the urging of the United States government of the time.)

Trials stopped abruptly in 1948 when they were told that it was Indian Hemp from which hashish was made.

The law was changed after the acquittal of an Aro St truck driver on cannabis possession charges in 1960, when the magistrate discovered there was nothing in the 1927 Dangerous Drugs & Poisons Regulations that made it an offence to possess or cultivate drugs with the exception of Opium. Within several months an order in council changed that, making it illegal to possess or cultivate cannabis. It also outlawed hemp seed in both bird feed & veterinary supplies.

This became part of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1961, now Misuse of Drugs Act 1975. Effectively, Cannabis possession & cultivation was not legally outlawed until 1961. (Coincidentally the same year the USA pushed the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961 through.)

Hemp products arrive in New Zealand

A number of hemp businesses began to appear during the early to mid 90’s, possibly the most notable being the HEMP TRADING COMPANY, based in Auckland, focusing in the main on textiles, and the HEMPORIUM in the capital Wellington, a hemp products retail outlet. Bryan Slight, one of the few visionaries was attempting to excite people and businesses around Tauranga, and did inspire a few to produce shampoos, clothes and to combine wool & hemp products such as socks and jerseys by HEMPNITZ. By 1997 there were at least 15 ‘purist’ Hemp companies registered in New Zealand and a large number of businesses having some Hemp products available as part of their inventory albeit often in a sporadic manner which possibly reflects the ability of overseas manufacturers and suppliers to meet demand.

There was a significant increase in Rural New Zealand interest in Industrial Hemp during 1996 & 1997, culminating in late 1997 with the first small business development grant to a Motueka group to investigate the job opportunity and economic viability of Industrial Hemp for the region.

Since 1997 the market in NZ has expanded to include food, textiles, oil and construction products. Such as Midlands and Hemptec, supplying fabric since 2002, and considered to be very knowledgeable and professional companies.

Vavilov Research Institute (Russia)

The Vavilov Research Institute is in Russia, near St Petersburg and was established in 1902. It is the world’s most complete source of cannabis sativa l (Industrial Hemp) genetics, having in excess of 500 specific germ plasms sourced from over 25 countries. (The USA destroyed theirs in the 1950’s).

Due to the recent upheavals in Russia and subsequent budget cuts, this invaluable genetic material was at risk until the International Hemp Association decided to financially support the continued accessions which are necessary every 4-5 years to ensure the seed viability. To date they have managed to do this with over 300 genetic seed stocks and even reintroduced a cultivar to Italy, its native homeland.

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