Hemp has a long-standing history throughout civilization, but its illegality in the United States and association with marijuana has led many to wonder what is hemp used for and why is it illegal?
As a renewable source for raw materials, hemp is incorporated into thousands of products from health foods and holistic body care to paper, textiles, and rope. In fact, hemp has been around for thousands of years—its earliest documented usage dating back to approximately 8,000 BC. So, what’s all the concern about how does hemp differ from marijuana that we consume medicinally and recreationally?
Today, we’re tackling hemp 101. Our in-depth guide should give you a better understanding of the versatility of this material, it’s rich history, environmental benefits and importance as a cash crop.
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It’s a common misconception that hemp and marijuana are one in the same. While it’s true that they both come from the same cannabis family, they are genetically distinct. In addition to having a different chemical makeup, they are further distinguished by use and cultivation methods. To help you better understand the concept of hemp vs. marijuana, it’s important to first understand what cannabis means.
Cannabis (the plant family) is commonly used as an overarching term to describe both hemp and marijuana. This is the main reason why most people confuse the two plants. Hemp actually refers to the industrial, non-drug variant that is cultivated for its fiber, hurd and seeds. It contains all varieties of the Cannabis species that have negligible amounts of THC — the chemical the chemical component that gets you “high”. Let’s take a closer look at how these plants differ.
Hemp has many uses, but to understand its full potential it’s important to first look at the anatomy of a hemp plant. The most commonly used parts of the hemp plant can be broken down into two categories, seed and stalk.
Hemp seeds or “hemp nuts” are encased in an exterior husk called the “cake.” The hemp seed is one of the most important parts of the plant. Not only is this how the plant reproduces, but the seeds offer incredible nutrition and holistic benefits.
The nut is most commonly utilized for producing hempseed oil and hemp milk, which are used in a variety of skin care and food products. While at first glance the cake seems useless, it’s actually a highly valuable component used to create products like animal food, gluten-free flour and protein powder.
If you thought that hemp seeds had a wide variety of uses, you’ll be surprised by the hemp stalk. Similar to the seed, the stalk of the hemp plant is broken into two parts:
The bast fiber is what most people are probably familiar with as it’s used to create textiles, paper, rope and netting. The hurd is more commonly used as insulation, construction materials, animal bedding, and plaster.
Construction materials aren’t the only popular product derived from hemp stalk. When Henry Ford unveiled his plastic car in the 1940s, he gave the world a glimpse at the possibilities of hemp. The car’s tough panels were made from a recipe that called for 70 percent of cellulose fibers from wheat straw, hemp and sisal. More recently, a man named Bruce Michael Dietzen was the mastermind behind what he called the “green machine,” a vehicle that used about 100 pounds of woven hemp to create the body. And with the exterior at least 10 times more dent-resistant than steel, the car wouldn’t need as much fixing after an accident.
Now that you understand the anatomy of the hemp plant, let’s take a look at the role hemp plays in nutrition.
Hemp has become a wildly popular supplement in health, nutrition and beauty markets. Often referred to as hemp hearts, hemp seeds are exceptionally nutritious. They have a mild, nutty flavor and are rich in healthy fats, protein and various minerals. Hemp oil, derived from hemp seeds, is a highly beneficial supplement used in a variety of skin care products.
Hemp is a sustainable wonder crop that is sweeping the nation, but the uses for hemp go far beyond nutrition and health. In fact, it’s an incredibly sustainable crop with some unique environmentally-friendly characteristics that don’t go unnoticed.
Hemp is a farmer’s best friend. Unlike its cousin, marijuana, hemp is a hearty plant that grows in a variety of environments and soils. Additionally, it is less susceptible to disease and pests. It grows tightly spaced and has a fast grow rate, which leads to high yields. And because of hemp’s ability to restore soil fertility, farmers can grow food crops immediately after a hemp harvest without a fallow period.
Since the term “cotton is king” was coined in 1858, cotton reaped the benefits of being the world’s primary fabric, but much evidence suggests that cotton shouldn’t be the fabric of our daily lives. Hemp has been used to produce durable textiles for thousands of years, but its durability and efficient production aren’t the only reasons we should reconsider cotton consumption.
Cotton is an incredibly thirsty crop that puts a strain on freshwater sources. It can take more than 5,000 gallons of water to produce two pounds of cotton—the equivalent of a single t-shirt and pair of jeans. Hemp uses far less water than cotton, with an estimated 2,600 gallons of water to producing a little over two pounds of hemp matter.
Industrial hemp has the ability to clean contaminants found in soil through a process known as phytoremediation. The term “phytoremediation” was coined in the 1990s by the scientist Ilya Raskin, a member of a team that tested hemp’s ability to accumulate heavy metals from the soil in contaminated fields near Chernobyl. Similar and more recent tests have been conducted in the western United States in an effort to clean up high levels of selenium found in soil.
Almost any type of plant or organic material can be converted to fuel, and the advantages these alternative sources have over fossil fuels are huge. As a crop, hemp exhibits good resistance to pests and has a much lower water requirement when compared to other crops making it a great option for producing biomass fuels.
Because hemp farming has the ability to reduce our dependence on carbon producing, non-renewable resources like fossil fuels, lumber and plastic, it’s great for air quality. In fact, for every ton of hemp that is produced, 1.63 tons of carbon are removed from the air. Much like other plants, hemp is especially helpful for absorbing CO2 through natural photosynthesis, making it carbon-negative.
While hemp has deep roots in world history, its story in the United States is far more complicated. What used to be a primary crop and textile resource in the early 1700s was quickly prohibited because of its relationship to marijuana and the mind-altering effects feared by the general public. This timeline highlights some of the most important dates through hemp history in the United States, especially as we see hemp turn a new leaf with policy reforms and the need for more research.
As a result of this long-term prohibition, most people have forgotten the industrial uses and benefits of hemp. Next time someone asks you what is hemp used for or how it differs from marijuana, you can point them in the direction of this resource and others in this guide.
Much like anything else, education is the cornerstone to changing attitudes and reshaping the image of hemp. From purchasing hempseed beauty products to CBD oil at your local dispensary, hemp is an amazing plant and should be recognized as such.