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When not Planting Cannabis became Illegal

Cannabis cultivation and use in Western Europe

As observed in previous blogs, over the course of the last five millennia or so, cannabis has periodically been cultivated in various places in Asia and Europe for making rope and textiles. Several of the earliest finds of cannabis in Western Europe come from Germany, probably introduced there by Teutonic tribes migrating from Eastern to Western Europe. Possibly the earliest find to date of cannabis in Western Europe was of seeds in the remains of an early Neolithic farming community in Germany, at Eisenberg in Thuringia, dating to between 5400 and 4900 BCE; however, this early date has been challenged (Clarke and Merlin 2013:113).

In another early find in Western Europe, remains of cannabis dating to the 5th century BCE were found in 1896 in a funerary urn in Brandenburg, Germany (Reininger 1972:32). Cannabis fibre was also found in an early Iron Age Celtic grave at Hochdorf in southern Germany, also dating to around the 5th or 6th centuries BCE (Clarke and Merlin 2013:113).

Discovered in a coffin beneath the crypt of the Cathedral of St-Denis in Paris were the remains of a Frankish queen, her gold jewellery, fine clothes and also a cloth made of hemp (Werner 1964:212). The Frank kingdom, founded by the Merovingian King Clovis, who ruled from 482 to 511 CE, was first established in Belgium, northern France and the Rhineland; it was subsequently extended throughout France and Germany. This tomb dates to the 6th century CE and provides additional confirmation that cannabis was probably widely known and used in Western Europe by the first millennium CE.

Cannabis cultivation begins in Britain

In Britain, rope made of hemp was used in a Roman fort at Bar Hill in Dunbartonshire, which was occupied by the Romans between 140 and 180 CE. However, as studies of pollen samples in soil indicates that cannabis was not cultivated in Britain until around 400 CE, when Anglo-Saxons arrived from mainland Europe, it seems that the Romans brought the hemp ropes to Britain from abroad. There is evidence indicating that by 400 CE cannabis was being cultivated in Norfolk in England by Anglo-Saxons, which appears to continue until around 1300 to 1400 CE (Godwin 1967).

Cannabis cultivation and the law in Britain 

So useful is cannabis for rope and sailcloth, that in 1533, in order to equip his expanding naval fleet, King Henry VIII decreed that for every sixty acres of land farmed, a quarter of an acre must be set aside for cannabis plants; the penalty for non-compliance was to be 3 shillings and 4 pence. This law was revived in 1563 by his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, and the fine for non-compliance was increased to 5 shillings; however, few farmers complied with the royal decree (Abel 1982:73). The mediaeval cultivation of hemp survives in numerous English place names: Hampstead, Hampshire and Brighton (Bright Hemp Stone > Bright Helm Stone > Brighton), for example.

Cannabis cultivation and law in the USA

Cannabis may have been growing in the USA before European settlers arrived, but this remains uncertain (Conrad 1993:23). However, from the 17th century onwards, cannabis was widely grown by the settlers in the USA for rope, paper and textiles. Owing to the British requirement for large quantities of cannabis, formal orders were issued in 1611 by King James I to the colony in Jamestown, Virginia, to raise hemp for the British government. Every colonist was required to set 100 plants, and the governor to set 5,000 plants. Parliament also offered Polish and Swedish hemp dressers £10 and 10 shillings to emigrate to Virginia (Abel 1982:73–79).

A law was passed in 1629 in Salem, Massachusetts, requiring all households to plant hemp. However, because of high labour costs, insufficient cannabis was supplied to Britain; by 1633 almost 97 percent of Britain’s cannabis was being imported from Russia. In 1773 the state of South Carolina offered a bounty for growing hemp, in order to induce greater production (Conrad 1993:26). By 1775, the state of Kentucky had become the greatest producer of cannabis, a staple product that became economically important also in the states of Tennessee, Missouri and Mississippi (Abel 1982:91). Spain also required hemp, so that in 1775 production was greatly increased in California. In 1807, 12,500 pounds were produced (Conrad 1993:27).

Thus, paradoxically, the first legislation in the Western world concerning cannabis was to require cultivation of it.


Abel, Ernest L. (1982). Marihuana: The First Twelve Thousand Years. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Clarke, Robert C., and Mark D. Merlin (2013). Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press.

Conrad, Chris (1993). Hemp: Lifeline to the Future (The Unexpected Answer for Our Environmental and Economic Recovery). Los Angeles: Creative Xpressions Publications.

Godwin, H. (1967). ‘The Ancient Cultivation of Hemp’. Antiquity, vol. 41, issue 16 (March) pp. 42–49.

Reininger, W. (1972) [1967]. ‘Remnants from Prehistoric Times’. In George Andrews and Simon Vinkenoog (eds.), The Book of Grass: An Anthology of Indian Hemp, pp. 32–33. Harmondsworth, U.K./Ringwood, Australia. Penguin Books Ltd.

Werner, Joachim (1964). ‘Frankish Royal Tombs in the Cathedrals of Cologne and Saint-Denis’. Antiquity, vol. 38, issue 151 (September), pp. 201–216.

Cultivation information, and media is given for those of our clients who live in countries where cannabis cultivation is decriminalised or legal, or to those that operate within a licensed model. We encourage all readers to be aware of their local laws and to ensure they do not break them.

This post is also available in: French

Matthew Clark

Since 2004, Dr. Matthew Clark has been a Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), where he taught courses on Hinduism between 1999 and 2004. He has spent many years in India, which he first visited in 1977, visiting nearly all important (several hundred) pilgrimage sites and trekking around 2,000 miles in the Himalayas. He first engaged with yoga in the mid-1970s and began regularly practicing Ashtanga Yoga in 1990. Since 2006 has been lecturing worldwide on yoga, philosophy, and psychedelics. He is one of the editors of the Journal of Yoga Studies and is one of the administrators of the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies. His publications include The Daśanāmī-Saṃnyāsīs: The Integration of Ascetic Lineages into an Order (2006), which is a study of a sect of sādhus; an exploration of the use of psychedelic plant concoctions in ancient Asia and Greece, The Tawny One: Soma, Haoma, and Ayahuasca (2017); and a short book on yoga, The Origins and Practices of Yoga: A Weeny Introduction (revised edition) (2018).