Even if you don’t like marijuana, you very likely have used its sister species, hemp, at some point in your life. Hemp is one of the most useful plants to humans, with a long history of use around the world. From ancient Egypt to China to Medieval Europe, people have cultivated Hemp for 10,000 years. Although we have evolved right alongside this functional species in the last hundred years or so, political and social norms pushed it out of favor.
In the U.S., the federal government demonized hemp for much of the 20th century. It went from super crop to illicit crop in only a short matter of time. With the recent moves towards legal marijuana in the US, in Canada, and around the world, hemp is experiencing a bit of rejuvenation. Now we are starting to remember just how useful hemp is. How could we have ever forgotten?
There have always been advocates for hemp, but typically society has written them off as stoners and hippies. But hemp is coming into its own once again, stoners and hippies aside. Builders, clothing designers, food scientists, and engineers are all learning to appreciate the possibilities of this long forgotten plant.
Hemp in the U.S. and Around the World
In the US, the rules around hemp cultivation are only just starting to open up, but in Europe, there is a long history of farming. China and India are also feverishly pursuing the hemp market, leaving America playing a game of catch up.
In 2018, hemp is about to take the world by storm. In 2017 the global market for hemp was estimated at USD 3.9 billion, but the projections for its future growth are astronomical. Between now and 2025, the market should jump 14 percent per year. Why is it growing at such a breakneck pace?
Because you can use hemp for everything, and by everything, we mean it.
What is Hemp?
Hemp evolved in Asia but was quickly spread over the trade routes to Europe and eventually to North America. It is tall, and grows ‘like a weed.’ According to archeological digs, early peoples used hemp fibers around 10,000 years ago for cloth.
A field of hemp is dense and looks a lot like bamboo. Only thinner. The leaves are sparse and the stalks tall and plentiful. The stalks are one of the primary beneficial parts of the plant, especially in the early days of cultivation. When you unravel the outside of the stem from the hard woody interior, the exterior is a strong and complex fiber. Even to look at it in its raw form, its usefulness as a fiber is clear.
Hemp’s fiber was one of its first uses. Early societies used it as clothing, ropes, as sails, and eventually paper. There are still many examples on museum shelves today, of clothing and cloth fragments dug up from archaeological digs in China, India, and across Northern Africa. This remnants, although tattered, clearly show how useful this little plant was for early societies.
It was so useful it was one of the first plants brought over by the early settlers of North America. As early as 1588, the English had 10,000 acres of hemp in the New World. Hemp was so important for the English and Spanish colonizing the continent because they used the fibers to produce canvas and ropes for the naval fleets. According to documents from the Virginia Assembly, from 1632, they mandated
that every planter as soone as he may, provide seede of flaxe and hempe and sowe the same.
Obviously, it helped build America in the early days.
What is the Difference Between Hemp and Marijuana?
Hemp and marijuana often get confused for one another, especially by lawmakers. They are both very closely related but have a few key differences. These significant differences should have changed the way US hemp policy unfolded in the last century. Hemp and marijuana, while evolving from the same parent species, are now cultivated for two very different reasons.
Both types fall under the same family of plants known as Cannabis Sativa. Hemp, grown for industrial purposes, is a subspecies called Cannabis sativa L. subsp. sativa var. Sativa. Cannabis, on the other hand, is Cannabis sativa subsp. Indica. Confused yet? It gets even more confusing when you start searching the internet for information on the topic. More often than not, one source will get it completely wrong.
Hemp vs. Marijuana
For this article, we’ll talk about non-smokable cannabis as hemp and the smokable stuff as marijuana. We grow hemp for commercial and industrial reasons. Its seeds, stalks, and fibers used for a multitude of purposes. Marijuana, on the other hand, has been bred specially for the flowers and the significant THC content. Industrial hemp still contains cannabinoids, but almost no measurable levels of THC. No matter how much hemp you smoke, you will never get high.
Beyond the cannabinoid differences, the physical plant also looks quite different. Marijuana, because of the focus on the flower, is bushy, and top heavy. Hemp has fewer leaves, grows taller, and appears to be more stalk than anything else.
Despite the pretty clear differences between cannabis and hemp, for over a hundred years the federal U.S. government has treated the species as the same.
What Can You Use Hemp For?
A better question to ask is what can’t hemp be used for? Even if America forgot about hemp for the last 100 years, in the early 20th century people already had so many uses for the plant. From food to building materials to Henry Ford’s hemp car, hemp was a multipurpose crop. Today, with the many advances in science, the world is going crazy for all things hemp. We are no longer restricted by just the primary materials from the plant; now science can tinker and produce exciting and valuable secondary materials.
What does this mean in practice? Hemp isn’t just useful for its seeds, stalks, and leaves. We can use hemp for plastics, concrete, and insulation. We can use it as a primary material for 3D printers, or as a biofuel. The more scientists play with the primary parts of hemp (oils, stalks, leaves) the more possibilities open up.
Here are a few of the most common uses for the plant today:
The seeds of the hemp plant are a superfood. They contain tons of healthy fats and are high in protein. It’s now a common ingredient in health food stores and beyond, sprinkled on granola, or ground into a supplemental and healthy flour.
Producers are now putting hemp seeds through a cold-pressing, to produce liquid gold. A healthy oil, used primarily in cooking (with lesser grades used for some industrial applications), it is a perfect balance of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. It can also be used for topical applications and as a health supplement. Some research links hemp oil as beneficial for the brain and the immune system.
Like other nut and seed kinds of milk, you can produce hemp milk by blending the small hemp seeds with water. The remaining solids are strained out, and delicious seed milk remains. Although it doesn’t contain nearly the quantities of healthy fats and nutrients as the seeds do, it still has a few lingering beneficial properties. It makes for a good dairy-free alternative to milk for vegetarian and vegan diets.
Hemp Protein (Powder)
Hemp seeds are now a common ingredient in vegetarian protein powders. The seeds, even as a powder, contain upwards of 31 percent protein. This is an abundant protein level from a plant source. It is not a complete source of protein, but a hemp protein powder will have a careful combination of other sources (nuts, seeds, legumes) to ensure it hits all the marks.
Clothing and hemp-based textiles may be the first useful product sourced from hemp. Hemp-based fibers are still used to this day, in increasingly innovative ways. Originally ancient societies spun the course fibers into clothing, ropes, and canvas for sails. Today, the fibers from hemp are much more refined. You’d be forgiven if you found a hemp shirt and thought it was cotton, it’s that soft.
Hemp requires a bit more processing than cotton, but it is still a sustainable and renewable clothing material. It uses much less water than cotton, so is better on the environment during cultivation. It’s lightweight, UV resistant, and can be weatherproofed for outdoor wear.
What is hempcrete you ask? It’s just what it sounds like, a hemp-based type of concrete. Hempcrete is a biocomposite building material, which is much more environmentally friendly than conventional concrete. It uses the hard woody core of the stalk (instead of the fibers), mixed into a lime-based binder. It’s used in eco-focused projects for foundations, walls and more. It isn’t as strong as conventional concrete, but with the right project, it is a practical alternative.
A supercapacitor is a material used to store energy. Graphene is a common supercapacitor, but it’s ridiculously expensive. It’s why some of the new ultra-thin televisions haven’t taken off, because Graphene is so rare and so costly to procure. But some very early designs are taking advantage of hemp, and using them as a novel new supercapacitor. According to some studies, hemp-based carbon nanosheets are much more powerful than the supercapacitors we have on the market today.
Way back in the first half of the 19th century, Henry Ford had a dream. He built the first ever car out of hemp. Henry Ford used hemp-based fabrics for the interior, hemp-plastics for the exterior and biofuel to replace petroleum. It was a novel approach in a time when nobody thought about climate change and the effects of oil. Hemp biofuel is essentially Ethanol, or plant-based oils turned into a fuel source. Hemp biofuel is already widely produced around the globe as a more efficient and eco-friendly alternative to petroleum.
The cellulose structure of hemp makes it ideal for creating different types of plastics. Alongside soy and corn-based plant plastics, hemp plastics are a new way to combat the damage from petroleum plastics. Not all hemp plastic is biodegradable, but specific production techniques do end up with a very eco-friendly final product.
Hemp plastics are usually made from a combination of plant-sources but are just as adaptable as conventional plastic. Although you may find hemp plastic in disposable forks, spoons, and cups, it’s also showing up in some surprising places. Today, components of boats, cars, and musical instruments are all made from hemp bioplastics.
Hemp paper is more expensive to produce than wood-based products, but it nevertheless is a viable alternative. Hemp paper is produced from the pulp of the hemp plant. One of the main benefits of hemp-based paper products is the time frame it takes to grow the material. An adult hemp plant takes only four months to reach maturity. A tree grown for its pulp will take at least 40 years. With the forests of the world declining at such a fast rate, finding sustainable paper alternatives are crucial. You may have even used hemp paper before if you use hemp rolling papers. Rolling a marijuana cigarette out of hemp paper is doubling down on the same plant.
Why is Hemp Illegal
There are many essential differences between hemp and marijuana, yet the U.S. government has failed to see the difference. At least for the past 50 years. Hemp and marijuana were conflated with each other during the early 1900s when immigrant workers traveled to the Southern states to work on hemp farms. These immigrant workers, as the story goes, also happened to smoke weed.
Soon the local communities in the former-confederate states came to associate marijuana (and hemp) with Mexican farm workers. These communities felt threatened by immigrants supposedly taking their jobs, and smoking cannabis publicly. You can see parallels to this story in America today.
Politicians took note of the societal concerns with marijuana and started a campaign against the plant. Increasingly strict taxation and restrictions were put into place across the states. Hemp and marijuana were typically categorized under the very same species, even if only one could make you high.
The Controlled Substances Act
The laws enacted during the 1930s and onward are today recognized as racist. The laws against marijuana, and by association hemp, targeted minorities across the US. In the 1970s cannabis sativa suffered the final nail in its coffin with the introduction of the Controlled Substances Act. Ever since, the entire species and subspecies were demonized in the media, by politicians and society at large.
Arguably the only reason why hemp is making a comeback today is that marijuana has too. The American government has slowly been opening up hemp legislation, to allow for controlled cultivation and production. The federal government now differentiates hemp from marijuana by its THC content. Hemp plants must legally have under 0.3 percent THC for regulators to consider it industrial in intent.
The Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2009, which was strengthened by the Farm Act in 2014, are two acts which have started to open up hemp laws. Today, many individual states have also passed supportive legislation. Unless you live in one of these states or have received the necessary permits and licenses to grow hemp, it is still illegal in the country. Under most circumstances, farmers may only produce for research purposes, but this is rapidly changing.
CBD and the Hemp Industry
The CBD industry has turned to hemp to circumvent the Schedule I status of cannabinoid-rich marijuana. Marijuana is packed full of cannabinoids, mostly THC and CBD, but hemp has a measurable level as well. Generally speaking, hemp contains only CBD, at least in any quantifiable levels.
Most of the CBD products produced and sold in the U.S. come from hemp sources and not marijuana. In the early research, CBD has shown remarkable promise for treating inflammation, anxiety, epilepsy, glaucoma and more. Some people use it exclusively as an all natural alternative to more conventional prescriptions. It’s also a popular alternative pet treat.
Researchers are still digging into exactly how and why CBD works for so many different health issues, but that hasn’t stopped people from using it. The CBD industry is projected to hit $2.1 billion in sales by the year 2020 and the vast majority of it will come straight from industrial hemp.
As the fear of marijuana lessens, so too will the restrictions on hemp production. Hemp is by no means new material, but it is going to prove increasingly useful as the world moves away from petroleum products. We are all reliant on oil to power our cars, run out cities and improve our lives with plastic products. If we can exchange some of these oil-based products for hemp-based ones, we are on the right track.
Next time you are shopping, look for natural clothing options from wool, cotton, silk, and of course, hemp. Need to grab a few disposable plates and cups for your next party? Look for some made from bioplastics. If you’ve got a renovation coming up, or you are building a house, you could also incorporate novel new hemp-based building materials into the design. When you start looking, you’ll be surprised where hemp shows up.