Often overlooked as simply a material for rope, hemp is a deeply misunderstood material. Outlawed since 1937, the plant was grouped in with marijuana and banned under the Prohibitive Marijuana Tax Law. But now, as legal marijuana gains traction across the nation, many are taking a second look at hemp.
What is Hemp?
Here’s what hemp isn’t: psychoactive. The plant, often referred to as Industrial Hemp, is a cannabis sativa strain, meaning that it has higher CBD content than THC. In fact industrial hemp has <0.3% THC (the psychoactive component of marijuana). (Looking for more information about THC?)
Both hemp and marijuana are “cannabis” but have very different chemical makeups, and are used and cultivated differently.So What Can Hemp Do?
The better question is what can’t hemp do? While it can’t get you high, it can do just about everything else.
From paper to biofuel to baby products, hemp can be used to do just about anything. Let’s break it down a bit.
Seeds: The nut of the seeds can be used just like any other nut. It can make breads, powders, granola, even milk. It can be used to make flours which can be used for both human and animal consumption. The seed is also where you can extract hemp oil. Hemp oil is one of the most penetrative oils on the market, and is used as industrial lubricant. It also can be used to make cosmetics, baby products, paint, ink, margarine, and even fuel. Hemp oil contains gamma linolenic acid, traditionally found in breastmilk, and is a great source of unsaturated fatty acids. Its packed with Omega-3’s, making it a healthier alternative to vegetable oils.
Stalks: The stalk is where the hemp fiber comes from, which makes up most products you probably associate hemp with, like canvas, ropes, clothes, carpeting, bags, and shoes. Other parts of the stalks can be used to make insulation, concrete, fiberboard, cardboard, paper products, filters, mulch, and can even be used to make biofuels and chemicals absorbents. One man has made a car out of the material, while another is working on making airplanes. Hemp stalks can even store energy; a Canadian team of scientists made super-capacitors out of leftover hemp stalk, which can be used to charge anything you’d need a battery for – including cellphones and computers.
A Hemp History
Hemp might in fact be as American as apple pie. Many of the first settlers were hemp farmers; in Jamestown, King James I decreed all property owners were required to grow at least 100 hemp plants for export. Later, the Connecticut and Massachusetts colonies would implement similar policies. The material would go on to be used on British ships.
In revolutionary times, many founding fathers were cannabis cultivators. Both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were hemp farmers and many historians speculate that the first American flags were made of the material. And during World War II, facing a hemp shortage from Manila, the US Department of Agriculture began “Hemp for Victory,” a program that encouraged US farmers to grow hemp to contribute to the war effort.
But that plant has much deeper roots than that. Hemp is often considered the world’s oldest domesticated crop. The Chinese have been using hemp since the Stone Age and the Vikings used it to make sails for their ships. In fact the word “canvas” comes from the Greek word “kannabis” or Latin “cannabis.”
The plant is still grown around the world, everywhere from China to Canada, but ever since the “Reefer Madness” of the 1920’s and 30’s, growing the plant has been outlawed in the United States.
There has been growing advocacy for hemp legalization, however. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been a huge proponent for the plant, telling Politico Magazine in early 2015, “We are laying the groundwork for a new commodity market for Kentucky farmers…by exploring innovative ways to use industrial hemp to benefit a variety of Kentucky industries, the pilot programs could help boost our state’s economy and lead to future jobs.”
Today, the US imports hundreds of tons of the plant from abroad, leading many to wonder why we aren’t growing the crop ourselves. Indeed, following the decline of tobacco, many farmers have been looking for a plant to fill the void. Hemp, favored for its ability to prevent erosion and its soil detoxifying qualities, has been a farmer favorite. It requires very little water and no pesticides. And the DEA has started to take notice.
The Comeback Kid
As of October 2015, the DEA had issued permits to farmers in 9 different states to grow hemp, including Colorado, Minnesota, and Kentucky, among others. But there’s more legislation in the works.
In 2014, the US Farm Bill allowed states that have already passed their own industrial hemp legislation to grow hemp in the name of research and development, and in January 2015 Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced the Industrial Hemp Farming Act, which would remove all federal restrictions regarding the cultivation of hemp and would declassify the drug as a Schedule I Controlled Substance.
Hemp, one of the world’s most versatile plants, is set to make a comeback. It has the potential to be a huge cash crop for farmers across the nation, and in the coming years could greatly impact the way we view cannabis.
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