It seems like most everyone is jazzed about hemp these days. From consumers to farmers to lawmakers to medical researchers to financial investors, hemp holds immense potential for a host of user groups.
But why, exactly?
For one, hemp is incredibly nutrient-rich with neuroprotectant, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties. Second, there’s a growing market for hemp, making it an increasingly appealing crop for farmers and investors alike. Third, industrial hemp can be used in an estimated 25,000 products from construction to textiles.
And the list goes on.
However, even as the regulatory framework starts to loosen a bit—thanks in part to the recent passage of the 2018 Farm Bill that removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act—and hemp production grows into a mainstream, $820 million industry, there remains some lingering confusion surrounding hemp, marijuana, cannabidiol oil, and cannabis in general.
From basic questions about key differences between hemp and marijuana to the various restrictions on hemp cultivation, let’s unpack some of these points and clarify what hemp is, and perhaps more importantly, what it is not.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the agency tasked with regulating hemp production, industrial hemp includes “the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part or derivative of such plant, including seeds of such plant, whether growing or not, that is used exclusively for industrial purposes (fiber and seed) with a tetrahydrocannabinols concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.”
In other words, hemp is part of the cannabis family, has very low levels of the psychoactive component, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and its seeds and fibers are used for industrial purposes such as textiles or food.
Marijuana is also a cannabis variety but has much higher levels of THC, somewhere between 3% and 30%. And unlike hemp, marijuana is typically cultivated for medicinal or recreational consumption.
In oil form, hemp tends to have a high concentration of cannabidiol oil and low concentration of THC, while marijuana oil has a high amount of psychoactive compounds and lower CBD levels.
The differences between hemp and marijuana extend beyond chemical composition too. Hemp is known for its tall, lengthy stalks while marijuana is known for its shorter, leafier stalks.
According to research published in Chemistry and Biodiversity, cannabis is one of the oldest cultivated plants, dating back to ancient Egyptian medical texts circa 1700 BC. Cannabis is known to have a nutrient-rich profile and has been used to treat a variety of ailments, including fever, pain, and inflammation while enhancing cardiovascular and digestive health.
According to a 2010 review published in Nutrition and Metabolism, hemp has “excellent nutritional value,” including high levels of:
Additional research notes that while hemp seeds are rich in unsaturated fats and protein, they contain trace levels of cholesterol, which can be a consideration for cardiovascular health. The same research estimates that 100 grams of hemp seeds could provide up to 63% of the recommended daily value for protein, making hemp a unique source of protein, particularly for low-meat diets.
In addition to its unique therapeutic and nutritional properties, hemp can be refined into a wide range of commercial and industrial products, including food, beverages, personal care products, nutritional supplements, fabrics, textiles, paper, construction materials, and other manufactured goods.
In fact, the Congressional Research Service estimates that there are roughly 25,000 hemp products across the following nine markets:
It’s also a versatile crop and can be grown as:
Hemp’s versatility and new legal status has given rise to a burgeoning US hemp market that has grown between 10% and 20% annually since 2011.
That’s not all, though.
A new report from New Frontier Data estimates that global hemp retail sales soared to $3.7 billion in 2018 and are projected to reach $5.7 billion by 2020.
In 2018, China accounted for approximately $1.2 billion in hemp sales, followed by the United States ($1 billion), Europe ($980 million), and Central and South America ($220 million). However, New Frontier Data estimates that hemp sales in the United States will grow to $2.6 billion by 2022, with hemp-derived CBD products accounting for approximately half of all hemp sales.
Although the 2018 Farm Bill now classifies hemp as an agricultural product rather than as a controlled substance, there are a lack of research-based agronomic standards for its growth and cultivation.
This lack of standardization can have implications well beyond the crop yield. According to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at North Caroline State University, a variety of plant stresses such as drought, flooding, fertilizer levels, cold, heat, etc., can impact the concentration of THC in a given hemp crop. This can have serious consequences when it comes time to harvest and sell hemp, since the amount of THC in a cannabis plant determines whether it is hemp (i.e., legal under federal law) or whether it is marijuana (i.e., illegal under federal law).
Depending on the state, growers might have to report when the hemp plant is flowering and undergo third-party testing to verify THC concentrations. If the THC concentration is below 0.3% it is hemp and legal within federal law. However, if the THC content is greater than 0.3%, it is marijuana, and, depending on the state, the grower might have to destroy the crop. This can pose a serious risk for farmers since hemp crops are not covered under crop insurance.
Beyond uncertainties surrounding hemp production and THC levels, there are also inconsistencies regarding the resources needed to grow hemp. Generally speaking, hemp is typically considered a low-maintenance crop and can grow in an industrial setting much like a field of wheat, corn, or alfalfa while withstanding temperatures just above freezing. It’s also categorized as high yielding, sustainable, and environmental friendly crop.
However, hemp advocates sometimes claim that hemp requires a fraction of the water as traditional crops and can flourish in a variety of soils with minimal fertilizer intake. However, according to the Hemp Project at Purdue University, although hemp can tolerate a variety of soils, it grows best on a loose, well-aerated loam soil with abundant organic matter and adequate and consistent rainfall or irrigation.
Like most crops, hemp grows best with added fertilizers such as phosphorous or nitrogen and, similar to most crops, is prone to pests and pathogens such as fungus and insects.
Hemp oil and CBD oil both come from the cannabis plant and contain a host of healthy nutrients. However, the two extracts differ in use, chemical composition, and cannabinoid profile.
Hemp oil is extracted specifically from the seeds of the hemp plant. This is an important distinction given the tight legal definition surrounding industrial hemp and hemp products. Hemp oil is typically used in cooking, nutritional supplements, and moisturizing products, and many expect the hemp oil market to continue to expand.
CBD oil, on the other hand, can be extracted from the cannabis plant or the hemp plant, though the extraction process can impact the quality and medicinal potency of the CBD oil.
According to Project CBD, hemp-derived CBD oil typically contains less cannabidiol than CBD extracted from the cannabis plant. Additionally, hemp-derived CBD oil can have lower medicinal content such as terpenes and secondary cannabinoids, which are often found in cannabis oil.
Although hemp and cannabinoids such as cannabidiol oil are known to have a range of therapeutic and nutritional properties, researchers are also interested in understanding optimal ways to administer hemp and CBD oil. New research is coming out evaluating what is known as full spectrum products or pure isolate products.
Full spectrum refers to hemp or cannabidiol oil extracts that include other phytocannabinoids from the cannabis plant, including tetrahydrocannabivarin, cannabigerol, cannabichromene, and others. Isolate means that the hemp or cannabidiol oil has been separated from the other cannabis compounds and is instead derived from pure, single-molecule compounds.
There are well-documented therapeutic uses of pure hemp or CBD oil in treating a variety of ailments, including pain, nausea, inflammation, etc. However, some studies are starting to evaluate hemp and CBD oil in conjunction with other plant constituents, such as cannabinoids.
For example, a 2015 CBD study published in Pharmacology and Pharmacy found that CBD administered with other cannabis compounds was “more potent or efficacious than pure CBD” when treating the proliferation of tumor cells and bladder contractility. Researchers explained, “the higher efficiency of plant extract might be explained by additive or synergistic interactions between CBD and minor phytocannabinoids or non-cannabinoids presented in the extracts.” The researchers also found that the administration of single-molecule CBD resulted in a “bell-shaped dose response” where the “healing was only observed when CBD was given within a very limited dose range, whereas no beneficial effect was achieved at either lower or higher doses.”
Another study published by the Lautenberg Center for Immunology and Cancer Research examined the effectiveness of administering isolated cannabinoid extracts and whole plant cannabis extracts. Researchers found “the whole plant extract, which contained a large percentage of CBD but also contained traces of the other cannabinoids, proved far more effective than CBD-only solutions in alleviating inflammation and pain sensation.”
However, the Lautenberg Center points out that the full-spectrum extracts, whether it be hemp or CBD, likely contains low levels of THC, which be a limiting factor for some users.
Hemp holds incredible promise across a host of industries. From cleaner construction to more sustainable agriculture, hemp has immense environmental, economic, and nutritional potential.
The hemp market, like the CBD market, is projected to grow and grow in the coming years, and with it, an influx of products and promises. However, in the absence of agronomic standards and federal guidelines, it’s important to be an informed consumer and recognize both the promise and limitations of this emerging industry.