What is Industrial Hemp?
Hemp is a crop that has been growing around the world for centuries producing food products and fiber for a wealth of building materials. It is also a variety of the species Cannabis sativa, which includes the plant known as marijuana. However, the big difference between hemp and marijuana, though they are considered part of the same species, is that hemp cannot get someone high. The psychoactive compound in marijuana (THC) is only found in trace amounts in hemp. This means that there are no inebriating effects from compounds found in that variety. Marijuana looks similar to hemp, but produces vastly more THC, the psychoactive chemical that resulted in its outlaw.
The Colorado Department of Agriculture defines Industrial Hemp as “a plant of the genus Cannabis and any part of the plant, whether growing or not, containing a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration of no more than three-tenths of one percent (0.3%) on a dry weight basis”. Hemp grown on a large scale for use as raw material or as an agricultural product is said to have over 25,000 uses with some estimates even higher. The plant originated in Asia and was spread worldwide, making it to the Americas by 16062. By 1840, the hemp industry in Kentucky and much of the US territory was very popular, and in the 1920’s the US and Canada were doing research on hemp fiber.
In 1937, the US Marijuana Tax Act made a close association between the two plants and required growers to get approval by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), leading to a plummet in production2. Other western countries such as Canada also prohibited growth. In 1970, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act treated marijuana and hemp as the same plant and a Schedule 1 drug. Since 1998, Canada and countries in Europe began again industrially producing and researching hemp for fiber and seed oil2. Small scale research and growth occurred in the US, but almost all hemp products were imported for consumers.
As more research about hemp came out over the years, attitudes towards it and marijuana both began to shift. There are over 66 unique chemical compounds extractable from the plant. CBD for example, is non-psychoactive and produced in high amounts in some hemp types3. CBD is currently an extremely popular active pharmaceutical ingredient used to treat epilepsy and other ailments. Hemp is a very cheap way to produce CBD for an increasing demand worldwide. The whole plant itself from the seeds to the stems can be utilized to produce various products. Hemp seed oil is very rich in a balanced combination of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids6. These are essential nutrients for messaging and metabolism in the body and are commonly purchased as diet supplements. Waste products from the seed oil production are used for livestock feed and seeds are used for food as they are high in protein and fatty acids. Other materials such as paper, textiles, and biodegradable plastics are being produced7. The desire to use sustainable products has drawn people to hemp because it is a very environmentally hardy plant that can grow in rough conditions and with little water. It is also naturally resistant to pests and grows very quickly. All of these uses sparked investment in the hemp industry from countries around the world, but the US still had laws in place to heavily restrict its growth even though it has been importing hemp products and continues to do so.
A genetics study conducted in 2006 which compared the DNA of several hemp and marijuana plants found that there are clear genetic markers distinguishing the varieties4. Some markers were identified as specific genes that code for THC production in marijuana which were absent in the hemp. This simple DNA analysis makes it very easy to tell the difference between the two which is useful in enforcing the regulation of hemp growth and drug trafficking.
In the past decade, bipartisan support from lawmakers in Kentucky, Colorado, and many other states pushed for legalization. In 2014 the Farm Bill3 allowed states to create pilot programs for research in which they can legally grow hemp in collaboration with universities to determine its economic viability. This law officially classified hemp as varieties that contain trace amounts (0.3% or less) of THC by dry weight, anything above this threshold is considered marijuana. This is the standard used in Canada as well. Since 2014, hemp pilot programs in the US have grown substantially and have shown promise in being a successful cash crop1.
The Hemp Farming Act of 2018 was introduced in March as a small part of a new Farm Bill that has yet to be approved. It seeks to declassify hemp as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act, and make it federally legal to grow as a crop beyond the tight regulations of the 2014 Farm Bill. Congress has been working to get this bill ready for presidential approval because the Farm Bill of 2014 was set to expire on September 30th of 2018. Due to controversy surrounding changes to food stamp programs, it is likely the approval will be delayed until after midterm elections. If the new Farm Bill is approved and still contains the Hemp Farming Act, it will be legal for farmers in America to grow hemp.