Everything You Want to Know about Hemp

By Marc Lewis
Crystalweed Cannabis, Unsplash

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?

  1. Hemp is incredibly nutrient-rich with neuroprotectant, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties.
  2. There’s a growing market for hemp, making it an increasingly appealing crop for farmers and investors alike.
  3. Hemp is versatile. Industrial hemp can be used in an estimated 25,000 products from construction to textiles.

Plus, now hemp is legal. Thanks in part to the recent passage of the 2018 Farm Bill that removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, the economic potential of the hemp industry continues to grow.

However, even as the regulatory framework starts to loosen, this market is still faced with many challenges as confusion and misinformation surround cannabis extracts like CBD hemp oil, marijuana, and cannabis in general.

From basic questions about key differences between cannabis strains 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.

What is Hemp?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 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 tetrahydrocannabinol concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.”

In other words, hemp only contains trace levels of the psychoactive component tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and its seeds and fibers are used for industrial purposes such as textiles or food.

Marijuana is another variety of cannabis but has much higher levels of THC, somewhere between 3% and 30%. And unlike hemp, marijuana is typically cultivated for medicinal or recreational consumption.

The differences between hemp and marijuana also extend beyond chemical composition. When it comes to appearance, hemp cannabis sativa plants are known for their tall, lengthy stalks while marijuana is known for its shorter, leafier stalks.

How is hemp used in medicine?

According to research published in Chemistry and Biodiversity, cannabis has been used in medicine for thousands of years, 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:

  • Essential fatty acids and amino acids
  • Polyunsaturated fatty acids
  • Protein
  • Vitamin E
  • Minerals such as phosphorus, potassium, sodium, magnesium, sulfur, calcium, iron, and zinc
  • Arginine (a metabolic precursor for the production of nitric oxide (NO), which is an important indicator of cardiovascular health)

Additional research notes that while hemp seeds are rich in unsaturated fats and protein, they contain small amounts 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.

Other uses for hemp

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.

The Congressional Research Service estimates that there are roughly 25,000 hemp products across the following nine markets:

  • Agriculture
  • Textiles
  • Recycling
  • Automotive
  • Furniture
  • Food and beverage
  • Paper
  • Construction
  • Personal care

It’s also a versatile crop and can be grown as:

  • Hemp Fiber: used in hemp fabrics, textiles, yarns and spun fibers, hemp paper, carpeting, construction and insulation materials, auto parts, composites, animal bedding, material inputs, papermaking, and oil absorbents.
  • Hemp Seedused in foods and beverages, alternative hemp protein, soap, shampoo, hemp lotions, bath gels, cosmetics, nutritional supplements, and medicinal and pharmaceutical products.
  • Dual-Purpose: used in composite products, including hempcrete, building materials, biodiesel feedstock, fiberglass alternative, etc.

The hemp plant is a versatile and valuable crop that is giving family farms across the country a new way to make money.

Hemp Laws

Since 2014, when Congress passed a major Farm Bill allowing states to set their own regulations on hemp production, more than thirty states said  “yes” to industrial hemp. Now, a new Farm Bill, the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018, has clarified hemp laws and solidified hemp’s place in the American economy. The bill removed the plant from the list of federally controlled substances and broadened access to farming rights for the people who grow it.

The measure received strong bipartisan backing–and some pretty persuasive voices led the charge. While there is still some gray area, the Farm Bill made hemp legal in across the county—opening up the CBD industry. Now, hemp is probably legal in your state.

Here’s the background on hemp laws:

You might know hemp through its illicit association with its mind-altering cousin, marijuana. But the truth is, hemp’s criminal status in America is a relatively new trend. The plant was grown widely on early American farms, due in large part to its sturdy fibers which led to an astonishing array of everyday uses. It was only after hemp’s heavy taxation under the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, when it was targeted along with the act’s namesake, that American farmers began to shun the industrious crop.

That association might sound fair at first blush. After all, the two strains, hemp and marijuana, belong to the same plant species, Cannabis sativa L. And admittedly, they do share a family resemblance. But that’s about where the similarities end. The major feature setting hemp apart is the plant’s extremely low levels of one vital ingredient: tetrahydrocannabinol. Better known as THC, this tough-to-pronounce compound happens to be the primary component behind the buzz that gives marijuana its claim to fame.

The allotment of THC found in hemp is so tiny, however, it isn’t likely to put even a lab rat in an altered state. And yet, when the federal Controlled Substances Act was passed in 1970, it still grouped hemp together with marijuana in the hardest class: Schedule I. That move cemented hemp’s illicit status at the federal level. And it meant growing or possessing hemp could land you with serious charges, no matter your state.

How did the 2014 Farm Bill impact state hemp laws?

Mild-mannered hemp’s federal classification as a Schedule I drug placed it among the ranks of some seriously dangerous substances, like heroin and MDMA. And for several decades, this hardline stance on hemp remained the law of the land. In the 1990s, a few states enacted or pursued legislation to allow the production of industrial hemp, but their impacts were negligible and few crops were planted.

Then, in 2014, members of Congress succeeded in passing a pro-hemp proposal–Section 7606–as part of that year’s omnibus Farm Bill. That measure allowed states to authorize a narrow range of hemp cultivation activities within their borders, ushering in a new era in American hemp. After spending decades deferring to federal leaders on hemp laws, states suddenly found themselves in the driver seat.

What Section 7606 did:

  • Giving context to its actions, Section 7606 legally defined industrial hemp to include any member of Cannabis sativa L. with a THC concentration no higher than 0.3 percent by dry weight.
  • It then authorized state agriculture departments and institutions of higher learning in states where hemp production is legal under state law to create their own pilot programs to supervise the cultivation of hemp for research purposes.
  • In states starting pilot programs–whether through an agriculture department or a research institution–it charged the agriculture department with establishing compliance regulations for the programs. This could extend to the creation of new commissions or other regulatory bodies.
  • Farmers wanting to grow hemp would need to be certified by and registered with their state’s agriculture department and remain in compliance with all established regulations.

How the 2014 Farm Bill changed the hemp game:

If the 2014 Farm Bill moved the country closer to legal hemp. By 2015, seven states–Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oregon and Tennessee–had already passed legislation and put plants in the ground. With more states jumping at the chance in 2016, the U.S. hemp crop shot up from 3,933 acres grown to nearly ten thousand in a single year.

According to the National Council of State Legislatures, at least forty states have passed legislation to explore or hemp production, while at least thirty-eight now allow for hemp cultivation on some scale. Hemp plants are now being grown on more than 25,000 acres in at least nineteen states. And many of those states are already exploring some unique uses for the hemp they produce:

  • Kentucky’s pilot program is focused on studying the potential environmental benefits of hemp cultivation, including its possible use as a biofuel – an alternative to traditional fossil fuels.
  • In Colorado, researchers are taking a special look into hemp’s suitability as a source for animal feed, a potentially potent profit-driver for farmers given the staggering feed demands of the world’s farm animals.
  • Two universities in North CarolinaNorth Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T–are partnering with that state’s agriculture department to better understand how hemp farmers can practice soil conservation techniques in a variety of soil and climate types.

So, what changed with the 2018 Farm Bill?

First off, the 2018 Farm Bill changed hemp’s inclusion on the controlled substances list. Hemp is no longer a Schedule 1 drug. Previously states issued licenses to farmers to grow hemp, but now the plant is federally legal. The new law also allows hemp farmers to apply for federal grants and crop insurance.

In a statement after President Trump signed the Farm Bill into law, the U.S. Hemp Roundtable said:

Effective immediately, hemp is permanently deemed a legal agricultural commodity, and popular products such as hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) can no longer be mistaken as controlled substances, like marijuana. The Drug Enforcement Administration now has no possible claim to interfere with the interstate commerce of hemp products. This should give comfort to federally regulated institutions—banks, merchant services, credit card companies, e-commerce sites and advertising platforms—to engage in commerce with the hemp and hemp product industry. An exciting, emerging, multi-billion-dollar hemp industry is now unleashed, providing economic opportunity to farmers and small businesses all across America.

But there’s still confusion

Despite changes in federal laws, companies who sell hemp-derived CBD oil still operate in a confusing space. After the passage of the Farm Bill, the FDA said in a statement:

We’re aware of the growing public interest in cannabis and cannabis-derived products, including cannabidiol (CBD). This increasing public interest in these products makes it even more important with the passage of this law for the FDA to clarify its regulatory authority over these products. In short, we treat products containing cannabis or cannabis-derived compounds as we do any other FDA-regulated products—meaning they’re subject to the same authorities and requirements as FDA-regulated products containing any other substance. This is true regardless of the source of the substance, including whether the substance is derived from a plant that is classified as hemp under the Agriculture Improvement Act. To help members of the public understand how the FDA’s requirements apply to these products, the FDA has maintained a webpage with answers to frequently asked questions, which we intend to update moving forward to address questions regarding the Agriculture Improvement Act and regulation of these products generally.

Because the FDA still holds regulatory authority over products that contain CBD, brands are unclear about what they can say, how they can market products, and what the future holds for their business. There is also increasing confusion around the use of CBD in food and beverage products. As recently as January 2019, states like New York, North Carolina, and Maine have cracked down on companies who sell CBD in food products.

What’s next for hemp laws in America?

Right now, a lot of that depends on the FDA. With powerful voices on both sides of the aisle now firmly behind hemp as an agricultural commodity, now the questions about hemp revolve around products that contain CBD—how they will be regulated, tested, and sold.

A Note on Growing Hemp

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 stressors such as drought, flooding, fertilizer levels, cold, heat, etc., can impact the concentration of THC in a given cannabis 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 considered widely legal 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 of the CBD flower is different than that of marijuana. If the concentration is above 0.3% THC, the grower might have to destroy the crop. This can pose a serious risk for farmers since hemp plants are not covered under crop insurance.

Beyond uncertainties surrounding hemp production and THC levels, there are also inconsistencies regarding the resources needed to grow these crops. 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, advocates of hemp sometimes claim the plant requires a fraction of the water for traditional crops and can flourish in a variety of soils with minimal fertilizer intake. However, according to the Hemp Project at Purdue University, hemp can tolerate a variety of soils but it grows best on a loose, well-aerated loam soil with abundant organic matter and adequate 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 vs. Marijuana: A Summary

  • Marijuana has high levels of THC and produces intoxicating or euphoric effects
  • Medical marijuana also has a wide range of health applications
  • Hemp products contain no more than 0.3 percent THC, and won’t get you high
  • Industrial hemp plants are used to make CBD oil
  • CBD oil may treat anxiety, chronic pain, and have other medical benefits
  • Long term studies on how cannabis products in your body are limited

The Economic Impact of Hemp

Hemp’s versatility and new legal status has given rise to a burgeoning US 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.

More About Hemp

Final Thoughts

Hemp holds incredible promise across a host of industries. From cleaner construction to more sustainable agriculture and sustainable hemp clothing, hemp plants have immense environmental, economic, and nutritional potential. But it’s important to understand how hemp and marijuana are different—and know how the laws that govern the two species of cannabis vary.

The hemp industry, much like the CBD market, is projected to grow tremendously 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.

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