Hemp, a species of cannabis plant, has been valued since ancient times for its fibers and seeds, but it’s been illegal to grow in the U.S. for decades. That all changed in late 2018 with the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill. It included a section legalizing hemp production, paving the way for what many are calling the next big cash crop.
Hemp has many uses, ranging from food to fiber, but it’s also the source of the hemp-derived compound cannabidiol (CBD), which shows promising medical uses. The CBD market in the U.S. was estimated at $ 600 million in 2018, with projections shooting up over $ 20 billion by 2022.1
The change in hemp’s legal status was a long time coming and paves the way for this beneficial plant to be treated like other crops, instead of an illegal substance.
The History of Hemp
The legalization of hemp is cause for celebration for more than just hemp supporters, who have been spearheading legalization attempts for decades. The move has ramifications for human health and the environment, now that this plant will no longer be treated as an illicit drug.
Hemp has been valued for thousands of years, with perhaps the oldest discovery of hemp dating back to a piece of hemp fabric from 8,000 B.C.2 As noted by the National Hemp Association, hemp has been used throughout the world for centuries:3
“The spread of cannabis took place from China to the Middle East and the Mediterranean area and, subsequently, to Europe, probably via nomadic peoples. Starting around the year 600, the Germans, Frankish tribes and Vikings produced rope, cloth and garments from hemp fiber.
In the Middle Ages, most people wore hemp sandals. Many farmers grew hemp on a small scale. Since the Middle Ages, the industrial use of hemp has seen a number of peaks.”
In the 17th century, for instance, ships took to the seas with sails and lines made from braided hemp fibers. Hemp clothing was also popular, and Rembrandt used hemp paper for sketching. In the U.S., Presidents Washington and Jefferson grew hemp, and according to the Hemp Industries Association (HIA), “Americans were legally bound to grow hemp during the Colonial Era and Early Republic.”4
By the 19th century, however, alternative materials like cotton and wood pulp began to take hemp’s place, making it less popular. In 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act was passed, which grouped hemp with marijuana, making hemp sales heavily taxed. The financial strain caused may hemp businesses to close and the hemp industry further declined.5
WWII brought with it a brief boost for hemp, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) encouraging U.S. farmers to grow the plant and the government offering subsidies for hemp cultivation. About 1 million acres of hemp were planted in the U.S. during that time, and the stiff fiber was used to make parachutes, uniforms, tarps and other products useful to the war industry.
“After the war ended, the government quietly shut down all the hemp processing plants and the industry faded away again,” the HIA noted.6 The final nail in the coffin came with the passage of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which grouped hemp and marijuana together as Schedule 1 substances, a classification reserved for drugs with “high potential for abuse” and “no accepted medical use.”
Three years later the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was formed to enforce the newly created drug schedules, and the fight against marijuana and hemp use began.
Marijuana Versus Hemp: What’s the Difference?
While both marijuana and hemp come from the cannabis plant, hemp is low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the substance that produces the “high” associated with marijuana use. Whereas hemp typically contains 0.3 percent THC or less, marijuana may contain anywhere from 5 to 35 percent THC, according to HIA.
Interestingly, the 0.3 percent for THC in hemp came about quite by accident when a couple of Canadian scientists designated that number in a 1976 report they wrote on the two plants. Later, the DEA used the same number when they were formulating rules to ban hemp and all products with THC in them. The 0.3 percent later became part of federal law with the 2014 Farm Bill, explained later in this article.7
And while the THC percentage varies in marijuana depending on which part of the plant is used, the Alcohol & Drug Institute at the University of Washington says the average THC in marijuana dried leaves and buds in the U.S. can vary from less than1 percent to 20 percent.8
Marijuana is typically used for medicinal or recreational purposes, whereas hemp can be used for a variety of applications ranging from food and medicine to clothing, construction, body care and even plastic. You can’t get high from hemp, but its high CBD content makes it attractive for medicinal purposes.
Further, whereas marijuana must be grown in a carefully controlled atmosphere, hemp is easy to grow and thrives in most climates. Generally speaking, cannabis sativa, which has long and narrow leaves, is grown outdoors and has higher CBD and low THC, producing no psychoactive effects.
Cannabis idica, on the other hand, has shorter, wider leaves, grows best indoors and contains higher THC, which produces the high most recreational marijuana users are after.
However, because many hybrids have been produced, it’s not possible to identify these qualities from plant name alone.9 According to the 2014 Farm Bill, hemp refers to cannabis sativa plants containing 0.3 percent or less of THC, and that definition remained unchanged in the 2018 Bill.
The Slow Progress Toward Hemp Legalization in the US
In 2013, Colorado legalized industrial hemp farming for commercial and research purposes, provided the farmers verified the THC levels and paid for a permit. In 2014, the Farm Bill also included a section that allowed hemp cultivation for select research and pilot programs, and dozens of states introduced pro-hemp legislation to follow.
By 2017, nearly 26,000 acres of hemp were being grown in 19 states.10 Still, in a major waste of taxpayer dollars, the DEA would target hemp farmers. Ministry of Hemp noted that prior to the 2018 legalization:11
“[F]armers in all these states still risk being raided by the DEA, going to prison, and losing their property because the federal policy fail[ed] to distinguish non-drug oilseed and fiber varieties of industrial hemp from the psychoactive drug varieties (i.e., ‘marijuana’)”
Now that hemp has been legalized, it removes restrictions for crop insurance, banking and other barriers to farmers looking for a profitable crop. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who spearheaded the bill, believes hemp could replace tobacco as a new cash crop, stating:12
“At a time when farm income is down and growers are struggling, industrial hemp is a bright spot of agriculture’s future. My provision in the Farm Bill will not only legalize domestic hemp, but it will also allow state departments of agriculture to be responsible for its oversight.”
What’s more, hemp is sometimes described as a miracle crop, providing sustainable material to replace trees for paper, for instance, because it has a growing cycle of just four to six months. Hemp is beneficial for the soil as well, as it doesn’t require the use of pesticides due to its dense, deep roots, which repel weeds naturally.13
Because it grows so close together, hemp can be grown in tight spaces, decreasing land use while still leading to high yields because of its fast growing rate. Basically, hemp grows like a weed, tolerating a variety of climates and soil types, and requiring relatively little water. It was even used to extract toxins from the soil at Chernobyl.14
What Will the Legalization of Hemp Mean for CBD Products?
With hemp’s legalization, CBD products, which are already on the upswing, are set to take off. Their legal status is another issue entirely. CBD is technically illegal according to the DEA, and it’s unclear whether it will be reclassified. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), meanwhile, classifies CBD as a drug and has no plans to change that. In a statement, FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said:15
“[T]he FDA requires a cannabis product (hemp-derived or otherwise) that is marketed with a claim of therapeutic benefit, or with any other disease claim, to be approved by the FDA for its intended use before it may be introduced into interstate commerce. This is the same standard to which we hold any product marketed as a drug for human or animal use.
Cannabis and cannabis-derived products claiming in their marketing and promotional materials that they’re intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment or prevention of diseases (such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, psychiatric disorders and diabetes) are considered new drugs or new animal drugs and must go through the FDA drug approval process for human or animal use before they are marketed in the U.S.”
CBD can come from either marijuana or hemp. Again, the distinction between these two plants hinges on the THC content. Hemp has very little if any THC, whereas marijuana will have varying amounts of THC. Hemp products such as hemp oil and hemp extract are legal.
So even though they may have small amounts of CBD, hemp products such as hemp oil can be lawfully marketed, provided they don’t reference CBD or claim to cure any diseases. This is a potential loophole the CBD industry could use. The drawback is hemp products may not have much CBD in them, and they may not be clinically effective.
That being said, the new legal status will open up hemp and CBD for research, potentially leading to more definitive knowledge about proper dosing and usage. And as noted by the Ministry of Hemp, “Attitudes are already changing. Even before being signed into law, the 2018 Farm Bill inspired the Alabama state attorney general to back off from plans to prosecute CBD stores.”16
The Many Benefits of Hemp
The hoopla over hemp is well deserved. Its seeds contain nearly as much protein as soybeans and all nine essential amino acids, especially arginine, which is beneficial for heart health.
Two main proteins in hemp seed protein, albumin and edestin, are rich in essential amino acids, with profiles comparable to egg white. Hemp’s edestin content is among the highest of all plants. Hemp protein is also easy to digest because of its lack of oligosaccharides and trypsin inhibitors, which can affect protein absorption.
Hemp seeds are also an excellent source of plant-based omega-3s and include a balanced 1-to-3 ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fats. Hemp seeds, especially those with the hulls intact, are also rich in fiber and contain a variety of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin E, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, zinc and B vitamins.
Many of hemp’s health benefits relate to its CBD content as well, which has been found to offer neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory benefits.17 Potential uses for CBD and other hemp extracts include:18,19
Childhood seizure disorders
Posttraumatic stress disorder
Vomiting and nausea
Medicinal uses aside, hemp seed oil is used in body care products while the fiber can be used to make fabric, clothing, paper and even a recyclable hemp plastic and hemp concrete. There are reportedly more than 25,000 industrial uses for hemp,20 and this probably only scratches the surface of what this versatile plant is good for.
The legalization of hemp in the U.S. will now make it easier for humans and the environment alike to enjoy the benefits of this natural wonder plant once again.