NEW YORK ( MainStreet) — The marijuana legalization movement of late has amped up its momentum, and the hemp provision in the recently-passed Farm Bill allows colleges, universities and state agriculture agencies to grow and experiment on industrial hemp with impunity in states that have legalized the crop. Some think this advent could be a major boon for the medicinal cannabis market.

But few realize that hemp has been an integral part of the American economy since the colonial days. Myths, unconfirmed, abound:

  • The sails and rigging of the Mayflower were made from hemp.
  • The first American flags were sown from hemp cloth.
  • The first currency of the American's was printed on hemp.

Those are all debatable, but, according to Ernest L. Abel, author of Marihuana, The First Twelve Thousand Years (McGraw-Hill, 1982), the significance of hemp to colonial America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries should not be underestimated.

"It was a very important cash crop after tobacco and lumber," he said. "England made it contingent upon colonists...they had to grow hemp to send back to England for the ship building industry."

Indeed, by decree of King James I in 1619, The Virginia Company made every colonist grow 100 hemp plants for export. Hemp was such an essential crop that farmers could be fined for not growing it—even jailed during periods of shortage in the mid 1760s. And yes, even the Puritans began growing hemp by 1645.

Even before President Barack Obama admitted his approval of legalized marijuana and his past use of the drug, and before President Bill Clinton famously stated that he did not inhale, cannabis has played a major role among the country's earliest leadership.

Eric Steenstra, executive director of the Hemp Industries Association noted that George Washington at Mt. Vernon and Thomas Jefferson at Monticello grew the crop. Washington even imported special seeds from Asia.

"Washington and Jefferson both promoted the importance of farming hemp and its many uses," he said. "Clearly hemp was an important crop and grown widely. In Virginia there was a law during the 1600s that required its growth and you could also pay your taxes with hemp fiber."

Hemp was part and parcel of the U.S. foundational period.

That's not to say the founding father's sat around taking hits.

"There is no indication that the founding fathers smoked industrial hemp. If they did, they would have only had a headache," Steenstra said. "Medicinal varieties of cannabis were called 'Indian hemp' in that day, and they understood the difference between the two. "

But according to Harvey Wasserman, author of the self-published, tongue-in-cheek but historically substantive tome Passions of the Potsmoking Patriots (2008), the founding fathers may have used hemp to smoke medicinally. "I've never seen hard evidence—letters, diary notes, etc.—to confirm that they smoked it," Wasserman said. "I find it hard to believe they didn't know about it, given how much hemp they raised. Washington did talk at one point about separating males from females, which today indicates growing it for smoking."