what is hemp

Digging Deeper: Your Complete Overview of Hemp

Cultivated for millennia, hemp is a versatile and sustainable crop that can be used to make thousands of commercial products.

Thought to be one of the very first cultivated crops in human history, hemp is now on its way to a resurgence in the United States. Every day, new people discover the widespread benefits of hemp and how the versatile crop has the potential in the manufacturing of thousands of commercial products, replacing many more environmentally-harmful raw materials.

In this complete overview of hemp, we’ll cover the basics of the plant’s makeup, its history, and how it can be used as a sustainable alternative in the modern industry.

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, wellness products, 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 or hemp-derived products to cause intoxication.

Hemp is naturally higher in cannabidiol (CBD), one of over 100 cannabinoids that have so far been identified in the cannabis plant. CBD has quickly become a highly sought after compound in recent years as more is discovered about its natural balancing and wellness properties.

CBD can be easily extracted from parts of the hemp plant in the form of CBD oil, a viscous oil containing all the compounds naturally found in hemp. When derived from hemp, rather than marijuana, CBD oil is completely non-intoxicating and therefore won’t cause any euphoric effects, making it safe and well-tolerated for use by anyone, regardless of age.

How Hemp Differs From Marijuana

It’s easy to get confused when discussing the differences between hemp and marijuana, the two types of cannabis plants. 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 grown and harvested for its euphoric, psychoactive properties, which are responsible for making users experience intoxication. Shorter and not as fibrous, marijuana’s fibers and stalks 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.

Unlike hemp, marijuana and THC are federally illegal, no matter whether they’re for recreational or medical reasons. More than 30 states have, however, passed laws that have legalized either medical or recreational marijuana.

The Legality of Hemp

Hemp and hemp-derived products are now legal in the U.S. at the federal level. The 2018 Farm Bill that was signed into law in December 2018 clarified the legality of hemp and hemp products. It removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act so that domestic farmers could begin growing the plant for commercial purposes. Up until the recent passage of the Farm Bill, hemp could only be imported.

Hemp has had a complicated legal status in the U.S. ever since the country started its drug war. For many years, this incredibly useful plant was negatively associated with the stigma surrounding marijuana, leading to a patchwork of laws and regulations about the cultivation, processing, and sale of hemp in the U.S.

In 2001, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) announced that hemp intended for food and wellness products would be illegal, but the Hemp Industries Association (HIA) successfully sued the DEA to stop the rule from taking effect. In 2003, the DEA again attempted to prohibit the production and sale of hemp-based products. Like just a few years before, the HIA sued to stay the regulations. On February 6, 2004, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed the decision in favor of the HIA, ensuring that products made from hemp could be manufactured and sold.

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.” These crops were part of state hemp pilot programs meant for research purposes, rather than commercial production.

Now that hemp is unquestionably legal under U.S. federal law, a growing number of states are passing policies that permit its commercial production. Even in a short amount of time, the nation’s hemp market is surging: hemp production in the U.S. more than quadrupled since 2018.

Uses of Hemp

Hemp’s seeds and stalk can be used to manufacture a number of different products, including:

  • Food
  • Wellness products like CBD hemp oil
  • Body care products
  • Paper
  • Textiles
  • Bioplastic
  • Building materials
  • biofuels

hemp manufactured products

Plus, because it is more sustainable than other sources of fiber, oil, and fuel, hemp is a smart choice to help protect our planet.

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.

See our article about Hemp Hearts.

Because it is high in CBD, products made with hemp oil have become common sources for legal cannabinoids. Hemp oil with CBD has also found its way in bath and body products like shampoos and conditioners, anti-aging skincare products, hemp moisturizer, body lotions, and topical salves.

hemp food

Hemp Biz Journal estimates that the hemp market in the U.S. will grow from $820 million in 2017 to $1.9 billion by 2022, with a CAGR of 14.4%. Grand View Research predicts the global hemp market will reach $10.6 billion by 2025.

History of Hemp

Hemp has had a rich past, with communities across the globe finding a use for this versatile plant. 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 a 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.

Roughly 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.

industrial hemp farming

Benefits of Hemp Oil Products

There are many benefits to taking a daily serving of hemp-derived CBD oil but the most exciting among them is that CBD helps augment the body’s naturally occurring endocannabinoids, naturally 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.

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.

Outside of CBD, common cannabinoids include tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabinol (CBN), and cannabigerol (CBG). These cannabinoids interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system to promote its efficient regulation of the body’s natural functions.

hemp and the endocannabinoid system

Hemp is also a valuable source of many beneficial nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, all 8 essential amino acids, fiber, flavonoids, terpenes, and more.

Hemp-derived CBD oil can be used on its own or infused into other types of products, such as tinctures, capsules, moisturizer lotions, and vape oil.

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 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 natural wellness potential.

More About Hemp

You can learn even more about hemp and hemp-derived products like CBD oil through our education page.

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