What Is Hemp?
The hemp plant is a variety of Cannabis sativa, an annual, flowering herb that is believed to have originated in Asia. This versatile plant is now grown in countries all over the world, and is used to make thousands of different items including food, clothing, paper, beauty products, fuel, and building supplies.
Hemp and THC
Both hemp and its intoxicating cousin, marijuana, come from the Cannabis sativa plant, however the two are quite different. The main thing that distinguishes hemp from marijuana is THC content. THC stands for tetrahydrocannabinol. It’s part of a group of chemical compounds called cannabinoids that are unique to the cannabis plant. Some researchers believe there are close to a hundred different cannabinoids. These cannabinoids interact with receptors in the human body, and have a variety of different effects on health and mood. THC’s primary effect is psychoactive; it causes the high you feel when you smoke or ingest marijuana.
In order to be classified as hemp, a cannabis plant must have only a trace amount of this intoxicating chemical. Under U.S. law, there must be less than 0.3 percent THC by dry weight. 0.3 percent is so low that no matter how much you smoke, ingest, or otherwise use hemp with less than 0.3 percent THC, it is very unlikely that you would ever feel any kind of high. A plant with more than 0.3 percent THC is classified as marijuana, not hemp. Most marijuana plants actually have significantly more THC than 0.3 percent. Average THC levels for marijuana are between 5 and 20 percent, and sometimes as high as 30 percent.
Hemp plants have a unique appearance. They typically grow tall and are relatively slender, and their long stems are hollow, with a woody core. Each hemp leaf has of an average of 7 to 9 leaflets—13 at most—with serrated edges. The plant also produces flowers and edible seeds. Beneath the ground, long taproots are capable of growing deep into the soil to find nutrients and water. This root system can also help loosen the soil, and reduce erosion. A hemp plant is ready for harvest approximately 3 to 4 months after planting, and in that time it can grow up to 15 feet tall.
Compared to many other crops, hemp is relatively easy to grow. It is usually cultivated outside, and generally flourishes in a variety of different soils and climates. The plant is naturally resistant to most pests, meaning that it can often be grown without pesticides. Plants can also be grown close together, making it difficult for weeds to survive, and thus reducing the need for herbicides.
Some experts argue that hemp has a lesser environmental impact than many alternative crops. For example, a number of studies have compared the environmental impacts of hemp cultivation with that of cotton. Both crops can be used to create a wide variety of textiles, however cotton is believed to cause much greater harm to the environment. In one study by the Stockholm Environmental Group, researchers found that a field can produce approximately three times more hemp fiber than cotton fiber, and also requires significantly less water. Overall, the researchers concluded that hemp has a smaller ecological footprint that cotton.
According to a 2018 report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), there are an astonishing 25,000 different hemp products. Almost every part of the plant can be used in some way. Hemp seeds are rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals, and can be eaten plain or incorporated into a wide variety of foods including cereals, breads, and milks. Hemp seeds can also be pressed into oil, which like the seed can be consumed plain or added to foods like salad dressings and smoothies. Hemp seed oil is also used in many non-edible products such as cosmetics, skin care items, hair care formulas, and bath products.
In recent years, hemp oil has become increasingly popular as a health supplement too. It is widely believed that the cannabinoids and other chemical compounds in hemp have many medical benefits. For example, cannabidiol (CBD)—the next most common cannabinoid after THC—has exploded in popularity in the past five years. It is used to help treat dozens of conditions including anxiety, nausea, pain, and epilepsy.
In addition to seeds, hemp plants contain a large quantity of fiber, which also has a wide variety of uses. Hemp fiber is extremely strong, durable, and absorbent, and has also been shown to have antibacterial properties. It is commonly used to make clothing and other textiles. Many people find that hemp-based textiles are extremely comfortable and breathable, and insist that hemp is superior to many other fabrics for both hot and cold weather. Hemp fiber is also used in a vast number of other products including rope, paper products, mulch, animal bedding, paints, plastics, insulation, and concrete.
In the United States, federal and state laws about hemp differ. At the federal level, all types of cannabis are classified as a Schedule I drug, which is defined as a substance that has a high potential for abuse, and no currently accepted medical use. The Agricultural Act of 2014 makes some exceptions by establishing certain limited conditions under which hemp can legally be grown by universities and state departments of agriculture. However, hemp is still highly restricted at the federal level.
A number of states have passed their own laws about hemp though, many of which allow the cultivation of this plant. According to a 2018 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures, in total at least 35 states have passed laws regarding industrial hemp. The organization, Vote Hemp, reports that in 2017, hemp was cultivated in nineteen U.S. states. According to its report, Colorado is the largest hemp grower in the United States.
Overall, hemp production in the United States has increased in recent years, but still remains relatively low compared to many other countries. According to the CRS report, between 2016 and 2017, U.S. hemp production increased substantially, from less than 10,000 acres to more than 25,000. In contrast, according to a 2017 report by the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance, in 2015 Canada produced about 84,000 acres of hemp. While U.S. production is low, demand is high, and as a result, the United States imports large quantities of hemp. Leading hemp growers include Canada, Europe, Russia, and China.
Written By: Andrea C. Nakaya