Cannabis’s Suppressed Role in WWII

“Hemp for Victory”

Public knowledge of the cannabis plant’s long history as an influence on American development isn’t conducive to its criminalization under American law. This conflict of interest helps explain why most Americans today remain ignorant of hemp’s many accepted uses from US and world history before the modern era of prohibition.

For decades, the most firmly suppressed part of this history was a government-sponsored documentary film from 1942, titled “Hemp for Victory,” which encouraged domestic hemp production, in no uncertain terms, as vital to the Allied war effort. A stark reversal of the federal establishment’s pre- and postwar attitudes toward cannabis, the film shined a light on hemp fibers’ major role in earlier American war efforts, but notably glossed over the more recent controversy over the plant’s consumption as a recreational drug.

Tons upon tons of hemp were used in the rigging of 1812-era warships like the USS Constitution and produced in agricultural fields owned by the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. New and efficient uses for the ancient industrial crop were still being developed by 1916, when the USDA published findings that hemp was capable of producing more than four times the amount of paper per acre than trees.

Unfortunately, just as hemp’s untapped industrial potentials were coming into increased focus, news sources and federal officials like Harry J. Anslinger of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, established in 1930, combined to publicize the dangers of “reefer madness,” xenophobically associating “marihuana” with Mexican immigrants as well as violent or sexual crimes like rape. In 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act effectively outlawed hemp production by enacting steep new levies on both its medicinal and industrial applications.

A popular theory alleges this anti-cannabis campaign was a concerted effort between Anslinger and private entrepreneurs including his in-law banker Andrew Mellon, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (the founder of “yellow journalism” noted for pursuing personal grudges through public reporting), and industrial processors the DuPonts, for whom hemp production was a threat to their interests in paper pulp and new synthetic fibers like nylon.

Whatever the reasons behind these restrictions, their flimsiness became clear when the existential concerns of wartime outweighed the political motives for hemp’s prohibition. In 1942, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) reversed the federal stance on cannabis by funding the production and release of “Hemp for Victory,” a 15-minute documentary pushing and instructing Midwest and Appalachian farmers on how to grow and process hemp for the naval war effort, which was then running short of imported supplies of the fiber from Manila. The film touted plans for “a great expansion of a hemp industry as part of the war program,” which came to fruition with the planting of more than 400,000 acres of hemp in the four-year period from 1942 to ’45.

The end of World War II meant a reversion to hemp’s earlier, unfavored status, and to the federal government’s encouragement of synthetic material sources like nylon and plastic in its stead. The last commercial hemp fields (before the current regulatory reversal) were planted in Wisconsin in 1957, and public knowledge of “Hemp for Victory” and the USDA’s wartime infatuation with hemp faded as cannabis’s illegal status crystallized with the 1970 Controlled Substances Act. Then-President Richard Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, later candidly admitted their goal was to “associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin,” letting authorities disrupt and demonize their political adversaries much as Hearst and others allegedly sought to do with their business competitors.

Led by America’s prohibitionist policies, world production of industrial hemp plummeted from more than 300,000 metric tons in 1961 to about 75,000 in the early 1990s. The very existence of “Hemp for Victory” was unconfirmed and firmly denied by the USDA and other federal agencies until the 1989 recovery of two VHS copies by pro-cannabis advocates Jack Herer, Maria Farrow, and Carl Packard. Now the historic short is available for download from the National Archives or to watch on YouTube, and our extended national cold war against industrial hemp is finally beginning to thaw with the legalization of commercial production in the 2018 Farm Bill. Valued at $3.1 billion at the end of 2017, the industry is projected to triple that figure by 2022.

Now with both cannabis’s agricultural and recreational applications in the midst of a historic paradigm shift, it pays to remember and learn from the crop’s tumultuous history in American medicine and military efforts alike.

Jeffrey Rindskopf

Jeffrey Rindskopf is a freelance writer and editor based in Seattle, born and raised in southern California. He attended film school at Chapman University before beginning his career as a freelancer in 2014, writing fiction and articles covering travel, food, and culture. When he isn't writing, Jeffrey likes to travel or simply melt into the couch while consuming some of his favorite media.

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