what is hemp

Digging Deeper: Your Complete Overview of Hemp

What is Hemp?

Hemp, like marijuana, is a member of the Cannabis sativa L species of plant. Hemp is harvested commercially for its seeds and stalks, which are used to produce a number of products  – including food, nutritional supplements, medicine, body care products, paper, textiles, building materials, plastic composites, and even biofuels.

Because it thrives under natural conditions, hemp is typically grown outside, with both male and female plants sown closely together to encourage wind pollination and increase seed production. The hemp plant grows sturdy and tall, up to 2 to 4 meters in height, without the need for herbicides or pesticides.

what is hemp

For cannabis to be considered hemp, it must contain no more than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) per dry weight. THC is the active compound in marijuana that causes its euphoric effect. The level of THC in hemp is 33 times less than the least potent marijuana strains, so it’s impossible for hemp to get a user “high.”

Hemp is naturally higher in cannabidiol (CBD), one of over 100 cannabinoids that have so far been identified in the cannabis plant. CBD is completely non-psychoactive and therefore won’t cause a high, making it safe for use by anyone, regardless of age.

It’s easy to get confused when discussing the differences between hemp and marijuana, two types of the cannabis plant. With so many unaware that hemp and marijuana are actually different varietals of cannabis, the two terms are often mistakenly applied interchangeably, despite the very distinct differences that exist between the two related plants.

 

Marijuana is a cannabis plant that is most frequently harvested for its euphoric, psychoactive properties, which are responsible for making users feel high or stoned. The fibers and stalks of marijuana are not used commercially. Instead, the marijuana plant is cultivated specifically for its flowers, which contain the highest levels of THC in the plant.

To maximize THC levels in marijuana, it’s often grown indoors so that conditions like light, temperature, and humidity can be closely monitored. Any male marijuana plants are removed to prevent the female plants from becoming fertilized, which lowers the plant’s concentration of THC. When compared to hemp, which grows tall, marijuana grows shorter and bushier with lots of flowers. Since it contains high levels of THC, use, and possession of marijuana, whether for recreational or medical reasons, remains federally illegal in the U.S., although states have passed laws that have legalized either medical or recreational marijuana.

Unlike marijuana, hemp can be manufactured into a number of different products, and because it is more sustainable than other sources of fiber, oil, and fuel, hemp is a smart choice to help protect our planet.

hemp manufactured products

Hemp fiber can be used more effectively to create paper products, as well as textiles like fabric for clothing, rope, and canvas. Hemp can also be used as a petroleum substitute in the creation of biofuels and bioplastics, meaning it may play an important role in the automotive and aeronautics industries in the future. Hemp is already being used in the construction of houses through its use as insulation and as hempcrete, a strong, lightweight, breathable building material.

Due to its nutritional content, hemp can also be used as a food for both humans and livestock. Hemp seed and its derived oil are popular ingredients in recipes and can be used as a plant-based source of vital nutrients. Because it is high in CBD, products made with hemp oil have become common sources for legal cannabinoids. Hemp has also found its way in bath and body products like shampoos and conditioners, anti-aging skin care products, hemp moisturizer, body lotions and topical salves.

See our article about Hemp Hearts.

Hemp has had a complicated legal status in the U.S. ever since the country started its drug war. Too often this incredibly useful plant gets negatively associated with psychoactive marijuana, causing a patchwork of laws and regulations about the cultivation, processing, and sale of hemp in the U.S.

After the DEA announced in 2001 that, going forward, hemp intended for food use would be illegal, the HIA successfully sued the DEA to stop the rule from taking effect. In 2003, the DEA attempted to again prohibit the production and sale of hemp-based foods. Like just a few years before, the HIA sued to stay the regulations.

hemp food

On February 6, 2004, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a unanimous decision in favor of the HIA in which Judge Betty Fletcher wrote, “[T]hey (DEA) cannot regulate naturally-occurring THC not contained within or derived from marijuana-i.e. non-psychoactive hemp is not included in Schedule I. The DEA has no authority to regulate drugs that are not scheduled, and it has not followed procedures required to schedule a substance. The DEA’s definition of “THC” contravenes the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and cannot be upheld”.

After the DEA declined to appeal to the Supreme Court, the HIA claimed victory, with the Ninth Circuit Court’s decision protecting the sale of hemp foods. Hemp still remains legal for import and sale throughout the U.S.

Vote Hemp estimates that the imported hemp market in the U.S. achieved 25% growth in 2016, reaching a total market value of $688 million. With federal legalization of domestic hemp cultivation, that number is expected to be boosted even further.

 

History of Hemp

Hemp has had a rich past, with communities finding use for this versatile plant around the globe. Hemp cultivation was widespread in post-neolithic ancient China. The Chinese used hemp to make a number of textiles and materials, including paper, and China does indeed boast the longest continuous history of hemp production.

As time goes on, the use of hemp and cannabis becomes more and more common around the world. The Scythians of ancient Iran were known to leave hemp as a tribute in the tombs of the dead, and hemp rope first makes an appearance on ships in Greece around the year 200 BCE.  

hemp rope
Imported hemp rope later made an appearance in England in about 100 AD, brought there by the Romans. However, by the end of the 15th century, as Britain began to grow as a naval power, one of the biggest challenges they faced was securing enough hemp to fully outfit their sailing ships. This was a perennial problem for the British empire.

To solve this issue, Britain mandated that hemp be grown in the American colonies. The goal was to secure a steady supply of raw hemp, thus solidifying Britain’s position as a global power.  

history of hemp

As prosperity grew in Colonial America, so did the colonies’ reliance on hemp. Colonists produced ropes and cloth and extracted oil from hemp seeds for use in lamps. As a result, some colonies had laws requiring farmers to cultivate hemp. It was even used as legal tender in the young American economy.

Eventually, hemp cultivation would come to be outlawed in the U.S. due to hemp’s relationship to marijuana. Both plants are of the Cannabis genus, causing non-psychoactive hemp to be lumped in with its illicit cousin. It is only in modern times that hemp and its major cannabinoid, cannabidiol or CBD, are once again being fully utilized around the world.

 

Growing Hemp

Hemp is a highly sustainable crop that, when grown without the use of harsh chemicals, can replace many commercial items with minimal impact on the environment.

Hemp plants are naturally resistant to most pests, meaning they can be grown without the use of pesticides. Because hemp is an efficient bioaccumulator, it is important to avoid using chemical pesticides that can cause residual contamination of products. Toxic pesticides sprayed on hemp plants can also leach into nearby soil and water sources, negatively impacting local biological environments.

growing hemp

Hemp plants are known for growing very tall and in close rows, limiting the ability of weeds to establish themselves among hemp fields. Like with pesticides, many growers avoid using herbicides because they can affect local biological communities or be absorbed by hemp plants and transferred residually to commercial products.

Approximately 30 countries currently grow hemp across Europe, Asia, and North and South America, including Germany, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Canada, Chile, Japan, and South Korea, to name just a few.

Efforts to legalize hemp crops were strengthened in 2014 when President Barack Obama signed the Agricultural Act, also known as the 2014 Farm Bill, into law.

Section 7606 of that Act legalized the growing and cultivating of industrial hemp for research purposes in states “where such growth and cultivation is legal under State law, notwithstanding existing Federal statutes that would otherwise criminalize such conduct.”

industrial hemp farming

In the U.S., nearly 10,000 acres of hemp were planted in 2016 in a total of 15 states, with successful crops harvested in Colorado, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia. Since then, hemp cultivation in the U.S. has boomed. Now, over 30 states have established hemp cultivation as part of government approved hemp pilot programs, and more acres of hemp are being planted now than in the past 50 years.

These crops were part of state hemp pilot programs meant for research purposes, rather than commercial production. These pilot programs are an important initial step towards building a successful hemp industry in the U.S.

 

Benefits of Hemp Oil Products

There are many benefits to taking a daily serving of CBD from hemp oil products, but the most exciting among them is that a CBD oil supplement helps augment the body’s naturally occurring endocannabinoids, increasing the body’s ability to promote homeostasis within its systems.

benefits of hemp oil products

There are over 100 presently discovered cannabinoids, which are largely responsible for the effects cannabis has on the body. Common cannabinoids include tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD), cannabinol (CBN), and cannabigerol (CBG). Cannabinoids work together with the body’s endocannabinoid system to regulate the body’s natural functions – including mood, sleep, appetite, and immune response.

Cannabinoids are a class of active chemical compounds produced by the cannabis plant. These cannabinoids act on cannabinoid receptors located in our cells as part of the endocannabinoid system and alter the release of neurotransmitters in the brain. The endocannabinoid system predominantly consists of two endocannabinoid receptors: CB1, located in the central nervous system, and CB2, found throughout the peripheral nervous system.

hemp and the endocannabinoid system

Once the endocannabinoid system is supplemented in this way, it is able to function more efficiently, optimizing the body’s performance each day. Although it is not critical to supplement the endocannabinoid system daily, doing so may increase the effectiveness of CBD and the endocannabinoid system.

Hemp oil products include commercial supplements like tinctures, capsules, moisturizer lotions, chewing gum, and hemp oil vaporizers.

 

Hemp studies

Major news media outlets often publish articles about major breakthroughs in CBD research, sometimes linking out to the research to make it easy to follow up and read for yourself. It is important to remember that there is a lot of misinformation out there regarding cannabinoids like CBD, leading to the controversy we see today as legalization spreads state by state across the U.S. Always be sure to get your information about CBD from a source you can trust.

hemp studies

You can also browse the thousands of reputable studies regarding CBD published online. There are over 1,700 medical papers covering cannabidiol published on the government’s website for the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Called PubMed, this resource collects all medical research data into a searchable database and is the first place to check for reliable information about studies into CBD’s potential.

Another government created a resource for studies on CBD is ClinicalTrials.gov. Launched as a resource for patients, their family members, health care professionals, researchers, and the public on clinical trials involving a number of conditions and treatments, including CBD.  

You can learn more about hemp, CBD, and the advantages of a CBD oil supplement on our education page.

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