What is hemp? While marijuana really is a wonder weed, it’s important not to ignore its non-psychoactive cousin in the cannabis plant world: hemp.
What is hemp? Well, it’s a variation of the cannabis sativa species of plants. It’s one of the earliest domesticated plants in human history, and there are indications that people in China were farming hemp as long ago as the Neolothic Age. Hemp paper predates paper made from wood. In other words, we’re talking some truly ancient stuff.
Parts of the Hemp Plant
Hemp is also incredibly useful. There are many different parts to the hemp plant, and each part has a multitude of ways it can be used.
Hemp seeds are often used for food products such as bread, dairy products, granola, animal food, protein powder, and flour. Hemp oil also comes from hemp seeds, and you’ll find it being used to make fuel, different types of lubricants, cosmetics, varnish, ink, oil-based paint, as well as food products like dressings and margarine.
Hemp flowers contain many useful compounds that can be turned into various extracts and perfumes. They also contain cannabinoids, the active ingredients in cannabis. One of these cannabinoids, CBD (cannabidiol), is marketed as a useful treatment for everything from mood disorders to epilepsy. There is some disagreement amongst various parties about whether hemp-derived CBD or marijuana-derived CBD is more useful. Another cannabinoid found in hemp, CBC (cannabigerol), is helpful in relieving blood pressure.
Hemp stalks are made of several parts. The outer, fibrous part of the stalk is used to make different items than the inner part (called the hurd).
Hemp fiber is great for manufacturing clothing and paper products. In fact, cannabis lovers can find hemp rolling papers that allow them to wrap their cannabis in…well..more cannabis!
Hemp fiber can be used for plastic composites, as well as canvas and rope. It can also be used to make biofuel that can power diesel engines. Ethanol fuel made from hemp is particularly attractive because hemp requires less fertilizer than corn.
Hemp hurd is the inner, woody part of the hemp stalk. It’s used to create things like mulch, fiberboard, and animal bedding. Hemp hurd is also used to make a fascinating material known as “hempcrete.”
Sustainable Building with Hempcrete
Hempcrete is a material commonly used in what the New York Times has referred to as “cannabis construction”—construction that uses earth-friendly, cannabis-derived materials. After huge numbers of homes were destroyed in Hurricane Katrina and the devastating earthquake in Haiti, Wall Street analyst James Savage wanted to create green building materials made from cannabis, leading to him becoming one of the most vocal proponents of hempcrete.
Hempcrete is a mixture of hemp chips and lime. When it’s made into a paste and left to dry, the result is a sustainable, toxin-free building material. It’s tough stuff that is resistant to mold, pest damage, and fire.
Despite its name, hempcrete isn’t strong enough to be used for structural purposes. It has to be supported by a strong frame made of something such as steel, brick, or wood. Hempcrete is best used for insulation, and it makes fantastic, albeit thick, insulation. It’s such a great insulator that it can help lessen the need for heating and cooling a structure, which can reduce emissions.
Even better? It’s a carbon-negative building material. The hemp absorbs carbon dioxide as it grows, and the lime absorbs carbon during the curing process.
While the modern version of hempcrete emerged from France in the 1980s, versions of the material have been found in ancient structures in western Europe and Japan. It’s become an incredibly popular building material in Europe, but hasn’t become as popular in the US because the stigma surrounding hemp and the federal restrictions on all forms of cannabis.
Hemp can be found in some very unexpected places, from the composite material that makes up the inside of some car doors to certain bath and body products. Huge companies such as Ford Motors, The Body Shop, and Patagonia use hemp in their products. Fabric made from hemp naturally resists mildew. provides UV protection, and is hypoallergenic and thermodynamic. It’s great stuff…so why don’t we see more of it?
Surprise: There’s No High from Hemp
Because marijuana and industrial hemp share the cannabis sativa name, this creates a lot of confusion. It’s also created a huge stigma—and in some countries, continued criminalization—around hemp. However, industrial hemp is not marijuana. In fact, it’s not a drug at all.
Marijuana contains high levels of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the ingredient that causes the psychoactive high that makes it popular among those who use it. Hemp, meanwhile, contains practically nonexistent levels of THC—0.3 percent or less. As a comparison, the psychoactive strains of cannabis contain THC levels that typically run 5 percent or higher.
In other words, you could smoke a truckload of hemp and never get high. Sorry. Your body would process the THC faster than it can build up in your system. The only result would be a horrible headache.
Unfortunately, because the public has long perceived hemp and marijuana as the same substance, this has led some countries to outlaw hemp growing. We’ll talk more about that later.
Hemp As Food
As mentioned above, you can find hemp in a wide range of food products. Natural health guru Dr. Andrew Weil notes that hemp contains minerals, as well as vitamins A, C, E, and beta-carotene. Adding a bit of hemp into your diet is also a great way to get a punch of protein, carbs, and fiber. It also contains healthy omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.
While more studies are needed to verify the health benefits of hemp, they contain ingredients that have been proven to boost health. In addition the nutrients we’ve already mentioned, hemp seeds contain high levels of arginine, an amino acid that helps reduce the risk of heart disease. Women suffering from PMS could benefit from the gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) in hemp seeds, as studies have shown that it can help reduce symptoms of PMS, as well as menopause.
What’s the best way to get a bit of healthy hemp into your diet? Dr. Weil suggests whole hemp seeds toasted in a dry skillet and tossed with a bit of olive oil, salt, pepper, and whatever tasty herbs or sauce you enjoy. Put them in a bowl or baggie and munch on them as a snack.
Industrial hemp grows incredibly fast, maturing at between 8 to 12 weeks. It can be planted 3 or 4 times in a single season. This is what makes it so wonderful as a raw material for paper production. Trees must grow for several years to produce even low-quality paper, while mature hemp can produce high-quality paper products.
Hemp grows in many different climates and a variety of soil types. It’s excellent at helping control erosion of topsoil. Farmers love that it crowds out most weeds and is practically resistant to pests, practically eliminating the need for chemical pesticides.
Green farming is just the start. Once hemp is processed into clothing and wood fiber, it naturally has a bright color. This means that, unlike traditional paper and cotton clothing, manufacturers don’t need to use bleach to lighten it.
Hemp to Prevent Deforestation
One of the prime benefits of hemp is that it’s a sustainable crop. This means that it the crop can be renewed at a rate that’s equal to or faster than it is consumed. Because hemp grows much more quickly and produces 4 times more raw material than trees, it’s a much better choice for make paper products. Another great thing about hemp? It can be recycled up to an amazing 10 times. Wood-based paper can only be recycled 3 or 4 times.
The ever-growing demand for paper products has created a problem with deforestation. Each day, the world loses approximately 116 square miles of rain forest. When huge swaths of forests are cut down to make paper, the environment suffers. Deforestation adversely affects the world’s biodiversity, killing off wildlife and causing many species to become endangered. A switch to hemp as a resource for paper products would help slow the destruction of the world’s remaining forests.
The Legal Status of Hemp
Many governments that have outlawed the psychoactive form of cannabis still allow farmers to grow hemp as long as it has low levels of THC. Britain, Germany, France, Spain, and Canada are among the 31 countries that grow industrial hemp.
The United States has differed in its approach, outlawing all forms of the cannabis plant. This wasn’t always the case, though.
Many years ago, hemp was an important crop in the U.S. When the country was first colonized, King James I ordered the colonies to grow hemp in order to export it for hemp fiber. George Washington, the first U.S. president, grew hemp at his Mount Vernon plantation. It was a common crop in the U.S. through the early 20th century. So what changed?
One of the most popular theories about why hemp was criminalized in the U.S. points to a mix of societal racism, as well as the thirst for profit exercised by William Randolph Hearst and the Du Pont family. Hearst was the head of the largest newspaper chain in the country and it was rumored that he had significant holdings in the timber industry. Meanwhile, the Du Pont company had just patented nylon and had discovered a new process of manufacturing paper from wood pulp.
Because it was capable of producing high-quality, low-cost paper, hemp posed a threat to the Hearst and Du Pont investments. Together with nylon investor and political ally Andre Mellon (who was Secretary of the Treasury), Du Pont and Hearst worked to demonize marijuana and its more tame, industrial cousin.
Racism and the American Cannabis Prohibition
It was easy to make people afraid of marijuana, or “marihuana” was it was termed in the 1930’s. Hearst’s newspapers were well-known for the crude, sensationalistic form of reporting known as “yellow journalism.” He used his papers as a mouthpiece to connect the drug with racial minorities, claiming that it caused them to go on wild, murderous rampages.
Although the smokable form of the plant had previously been known as “cannabis,” prohibition advocates began calling it by its Spanish name, “marihuana,” in order to make it seem dangerous and exotic.
An editorial in one of Hearst’s newspapers screamed, “The fatal marihuana cigarette must be recognized as a DEADLY DRUG, and American children must be PROTECTED AGAINST IT.” Fears of immigrants bringing drugs and crime caused an anti-marijuana furor amongst the public. It was easy for industrial hemp to become confused and connected with the high-inducting version of marijuana, and as prohibition laws began to pass, both forms were banned.
Although some sources debate the truth behind Hearst’s timber holdings and the Du Pont family’s interest in preventing the expansion of the hemp industry in the U.S., a few things are certain. One of them is the racism that fueled the campaign against marijuana. In 1936, a editor for a newspaper in Colorado warned citizens: “I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigaret can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents.”
The second thing that is undebatable is the parade of laws that began to pass, starting with the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. On its face, the was a simple tax on all cannabis sales. However, it was written in a way that effectively suffocated the ability to legally possess or sell cannabis in the U.S.
This prohibition was strengthened by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which criminalized the possession, use, and sale of specific drugs. The Drug Enforcement Agency was established three years later.
Moving Forward with Education about Hemp
Over the years, hemp advocates in the U.S. have worked to educate the public about the difference between industrial hemp and marijuana. They hoped to remove the stigma surrounding industrial hemp and encourage farmers to grow it (before it was fully outlawed). In 1942, in the midst of WWII and with industrial fiber supplies running low, the US government made a film entitled Hemp for Victory that described all of the various ways that hemp could be used to manufacture wartime supplies.
As attitudes about marijuana have shifted, so have attitudes towards industrial hemp. Today, it’s legal to import and use raw hemp materials in the U.S. but still mostly illegal to grow it. The U.S. Farm Bill of 2014 allowed for states with industrial hemp legislation to grow it for research & development. In 2015, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act was introduced in Congress. If passed, it would remove all federal restrictions on hemp, removing it from the government’s list of controlled substances.
As with marijuana, much of the stigma surrounding hemp is based on a complete misunderstanding of the product. And as with marijuana, a change in laws and public perception is going to depend on public education and small steps to legalize and normalize hemp as the wonderful, sustainable, useful product that it is.