Hemp is a term used for certain strains of the Cannabis sativa species. In contrast to “marijuana” – a common word for cannabis that is relatively high in THC – hemp is relatively low in THC.
People have been cultivating hemp plants for food, medicine and textiles for thousands of years. Hemp is possibly one of the oldest known crops that humans have grown for medicinal and nutritional purposes.
The people of ancient China appear to be around 2,700 BC. To have started growing hemp. According to historical records, hemp spread to Europe after spreading across Asia about 2,000 to 2,200 years ago.
The human relationship to hemp is diverse, because humans use hemp and parts of the hemp plant in a variety of ways. Some records claim that the back of the first copy of the Bible and even the ropes and canvas sails of Christopher Columbus were made from hemp fiber.
Read on to learn more about the hemp plant and its uses, including its current legality, health benefits, and other uses.
The main difference between hemp plants and other cannabis plants lies in their cultivation, their use and, above all, in the content of the compound delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC creates the “high” cannabis is famous for.
To be legally classified as a hemp plant, a cannabis plant cannot contain more than 0.3% THC on a dry weight basis. In contrast, most other cannabis plants contain between 5–30% THC.
The Cannabis sativa species contain around 480 natural components, over 100 of which belong to a group of compounds known as cannabinoids.
Some cannabinoids, especially THC, are intoxicating, meaning they can make someone feel “high”. While hemp plants are low in THC, they can be abundant in other cannabinoids like cannabidiol (CBD), which is non-intoxicating.
So far, THC and CBD are the two most widely researched cannabinoids, and both may have medicinal value.
Learn more about the differences between THC and CBD here.
Cannabis plants, especially in their natural wild state, can all look similar. However, hemp and other cannabis strains can look very different when the industry grows them for specific purposes.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that cannabis plants for hemp production tend to:
- have thinner leaves that are mostly concentrated at the top of the plant
- have few branches or leaves below the top of the plant to allow for long stems rich in hemp fiber
- be tall, up to 20 feet
- look like a weed and grow naturally in several states including Kansas and Nebraska
- grow very closely together
- grow in many different conditions and require minimal maintenance
Meanwhile, cannabis plants, grown primarily for their THC content, tend to:
- Have leaves that are densely budded, broad, or have tiny clump-like buds covered with small crystals or hairs
- look like a short, thick bush from a distance
- be heavily branched to encourage flower and THC production
- need a controlled, moist, warm environment in which to grow
- grow at a distance from other plants
For a long time, hemp plants, along with other forms of cannabis such as “marijuana”, were illegal and classified as a List I controlled substance under the US Control Substances Act.
However, the 2018 Agriculture Improvement Act, also known as the 2018 Farm Bill, legalized industrial hemp and removed hemp as a controlled substance.
The new rules allow farmers with USDA licenses to produce hemp under strict regulations. In some cases, people can also grow hemp with government or tribal permits, or for certain approved research projects.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) passed final rulings in early 2021 to set national regulations for hemp production.
While licensed growers in the US are legally allowed to produce and sell hemp, plants that contain more than 0.3% THC when dried are illegal as they are classified as “marijuana” plants rather than hemp plants.
Hemp seeds and hemp oil made from compressed hemp seeds are extremely nutritious. They’re high in protein, fiber, and magnesium. Hemp seeds also contain relatively high levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which can help:
- Reduce symptoms of osteoporosis (loss of bone density)
- increase cardiovascular health
- relieves symptoms of skin conditions such as eczema and dermatitis
Hemp also contains a variety of antioxidants, or compounds, that can protect cells from damage and help reduce the risk of cancer, including:
Protein supplements can also contain hemp flour. Some foods also contain raw hemp seeds or hemp seed oil. Hemp seed milk is also an alternative to cow’s milk and other less environmentally friendly products like almond milk.
Learn more about the health benefits of hemp seeds here.
In addition to the health benefits of nutritious ingredients from hemp, there are also potential health benefits from non-nutritious compounds like CBD and THC. However, more research needs to be done to identify their potential health benefits and safety.
There is currently some preliminary evidence that CBD may have the potential in the treatment or treatment of:
Some research suggests that CBD can also have neuroprotective effects and protect brain cells. Because of its potential neuroprotective effects, CBD can help treat neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Learn more about the health benefits of CBD here.
Hemp stem fibers are strong and are used in a variety of ways. More than 25,000 products contain hemp.
Some popular products made from hemp or hemp products are:
- Industrial oils and biofuels
- construction materials
- Food supplements
Hemp cultivation is more environmentally friendly, more efficient and more versatile than many other crops. Hemp plants grown for textile fibers provide about 600% more than flax and 250% more than cotton. The hemp plant is also able to grow in various conditions and can grow rapidly.
As they grow, hemp plants form a dense canopy of leaves that prevents the sun from reaching competing weeds. Industrial hemp can even grow without the significant amounts of pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides required by other crops.
Given its rapid growth, hemp is great at sequestering or “capturing” carbon or absorbing carbon from the air and converting it to plant material throughout the hemp plant. One hectare of industrial hemp can absorb around 15 tons of carbon dioxide (C02).
Hemp plants have dense, deep roots that can help prevent soil erosion and the associated land loss.
Hemp roots are also able to draw nutrients from deep within the soil, including harmful heavy metals, and incorporate them into harmless plant compounds. These properties make hemp excellent for reclaiming, fortifying and decontaminating or “cleaning” floors.
Hemp differs from other forms of cannabis in a number of ways, including cultivation, use, and THC content. Hemp also has multiple uses, and growing it is more environmentally friendly than many other crops.
More research is needed. However, parts in hemp, such as seeds, have significant nutritional value, and cannabinoids like CBD can have a variety of health benefits.
Only producers with USDA licenses or approved plans or projects can legally grow hemp in the United States.