What Is Hemp?

A guide to the hemp plant: the industrial uses and health benefits of hemp, as well as its legal status in the U.S. and beyond.
Last Modified: February 07, 2019

Because hemp is a variation of the cannabis sativa species of plants, it’s often confused with its psychoactive cousin, marijuana. Unlike marijuana, however, hemp causes no high. What are the uses and benefits of hemp, and how did it become so controversial?

Hemp vs Marijuana

Because marijuana and hemp are both types of cannabis and even share the cannabis sativa name, this creates a lot of confusion. However, hemp is not marijuana.

Marijuana contains significant levels of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the ingredient that causes the psychoactive high that makes it especially popular among recreational consumers. Hemp, meanwhile, contains practically nonexistent levels of THC. In order to be legally considered hemp, a cannabis plant’s THC levels must be 0.3 percent or less. As a comparison, the psychoactive strains of cannabis contain THC levels that typically run 5 percent or higher. Even if someone consumed large amounts of hemp, the tiny amounts of THC would be processed long before they built up enough to cause a high.


Parts of the Hemp Plant

There are many different parts to the hemp plant, and each part has a multitude of ways it can be used. Hemp can be found in many 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.

Here are some of the most common hemp uses for various parts of the plant.

Hemp Seed

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 Buds

The hemp flower contains many useful compounds that can be turned into various extracts and perfumes. Hemp buds 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.

Hemp Leaves

The hemp leaf is full of nutrients; it can be eaten raw with fresh greens in salads or pressed and made into juice. Hemp leaves can also be brewed to make a calming CBD tea.

Hemp Stalks

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 Fibers

Hemp fiber is excellent for manufacturing clothing and paper products. In fact, cannabis consumers can even find hemp rolling papers that allow them to roll their marijuana in cannabis-based wrappers that are all-natural and chemical-free. 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

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 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 materials derived from industrial hemp.

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 an excellent insulator that it can help lessen the need for heating and cooling a structure, which can reduce emissions.

Hempcrete is also 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 U.S. because of the stigma surrounding hemp and the federal restrictions on all forms of cannabis.


Hemp Benefits

Many people value hemp as a health food supplement. In addition to CBD, it contains minerals, as well as vitamins A, C, E, and beta-carotene. It’s also a good source of protein, carbs, and fiber, in addition to 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 to the nutrients mentioned above, 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 and menopause.

As for the best way to consume hemp, whole hemp seeds can be toasted in a dry skillet and tossed with a bit of olive oil, salt, pepper, and any sort of herbs or sauce to add flavor. Many people enjoy putting the toasted seeds in a bowl or baggie and eating them as a snack. Hemp oil (which can be taken orally) is another popular way to harness the benefits of hemp.

Some people wonder what effects will result from smoking hemp. While hemp can be smoked, because it has such low levels of THC, it’s impossible to get high from it – even  by inhaling it. The human body would process such minuscule amounts of THC faster than it would be possible to build up and cause a high.

Because hemp is such an abundant source of CBD, smoking it can provide a sense of calm. Smoking hemp leaves one feeling completely clear-headed even as it relaxes the body.


Hemp Farming

Hemp plants grow incredibly fast, maturing at between 8 to 12 weeks. The crop can be replanted 3 or 4 times in a single season. This is what makes hemp 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 highly resistant to pests, practically eliminating the need for chemical pesticides.

There are many uses for industrial hemp, including creating fibers that can be made into clothing, bedding, or wood-like material. 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. When making the comparison between hemp vs cotton, the former means clothing and bedding materials can be manufactured using fewer harsh chemicals.

Hemp to Prevent Deforestation

Hemp benefits aren’t only limited to health; it’s also a sustainable crop. This means that it 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 making paper products. Industrial hemp can also be recycled up to 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 more than 116 square miles of rainforest. 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 industrial hemp as a resource for paper products would help slow the destruction of the world’s remaining forests.


The History of Hemp

Hemp is 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. In fact, hemp paper predates paper made from wood. It was an important crop in Europe during the Middle Ages, where it was used to make the canvas for ship sails (the word “canvas” actually comes from “cannabis”).

It’s likely that hemp was grown in North America before European settlers arrived, but once they came over, King James I ordered them 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.

Hemp Prohibition in the U.S.

A dark time in hemp history began in the early 1900’s due to a push from 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 and fibers that could be used to make cloth, 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 non-psychoactive industrial cousin.

Racism and the Anti-Hemp Crusade

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.

Fears of immigrants bringing drugs and crime caused an anti-marijuana furor amongst the public. It was easy for industrial hemp to become confused with the high-inducing version of marijuana.

The first prohibition law was 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. Although the act was briefly lifted to allow hemp to be grown to create ropes for the U.S. Navy (the government even put out an educational video called “Hemp for Victory”), it was quickly reinstated after the war ended. As additional prohibition laws were passed, both hemp and marijuana were soon banned in the U.S. and in many countries throughout the world.

Over time, many countries lifted their bans on industrial hemp. Most recently, the U.S. ended its hemp prohibition with a farm bill passed in late 2018.


Hemp FAQ

When talking about hemp vs marijuana, many people don’t understand the differences. Here are some of the questions that commonly arise regarding hemp, its uses, and its legal status.

Is hemp marijuana?

No. Marijuana and hemp plants are both part of the cannabis sativa species and they both contain active ingredients called cannabinoids. The major difference when it comes to marijuana vs hemp is that marijuana contains significant amounts of psychoactive THC, while hemp contains 0.3% or less of the compound.

Is hemp legal?

Industrial hemp is legal in dozens of countries across the globe. Various parts of the hemp plant are used to create materials for clothing, building, paper, and food items. While it was long illegal to grow hemp without special approval in the U.S., that prohibition was lifted with the passage of a farm bill in December 2018.

Why was hemp made illegal in 1937?

Hemp was outlawed in the U.S. starting with the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. This was largely because hemp was potential competition to the paper/nylon production of the Hearst and Dupont corporations – close friends of Secretary of the Treasury Andre Mellon.

Can you smoke hemp?

While hemp oil and seeds are popular health food supplements, hemp buds can also be smoked. Because of the minuscule amounts of THC, smoking hemp won’t cause a high. The CBD and other cannabinoids will create a sense of calm and relaxation, however.

Does hemp have THC?

To be legally considered hemp, THC levels must be 0.3% or less. The hemp leaf, flower, and seeds are often consumed as a health supplement. The low THC levels in hemp aren’t significant enough to cause a high or show up on a drug test.


Educating the World About Hemp

Over the years, hemp advocates around the world have worked to educate the public about the difference between hemp and cannabis that contains THC. They hope to remove the stigma surrounding industrial hemp and encourage farmers to grow it. In recent years, their work has begun to pay off.

The U.S. Farm Bill of 2014 allowed for states with industrial hemp legislation to grow it for research & development. A bill passed in the U.S. Congress in late 2018 finally ended the prohibition on growing hemp in the United States. This allows the country to at last join countries such as Britain, Germany, France, Spain, and Canada in growing and harvesting industrial hemp to sell as food and supplements, to produce paper and clothing, and to protect the environment.


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