Until recently, most people thought of hemp as an antiquated industrial material used to make rope and textiles. Since discovering the endocannabinoid system in the 1990s, researchers have uncovered the immense therapeutic potential of hemp-derived compounds like cannabidiol (CBD).
These days, as laws regarding cannabis and hemp rapidly change, the general population is becoming more interested in hemp-derived products like CBD oils, edibles, and topicals. Additionally, smoking CBD-rich hemp flowers is becoming a more and more popular way to relax.
However, despite the growing number of hemp products on the market, many consumers remain confused about what hemp actually is and what it can do for them. We’ve prepared this in-depth guide to fill in some of the gaps so that you can understand more about this endlessly useful plant.
What Is Hemp?
Hemp is a type of cannabis plant, which has been cultivated for thousands of years for industrial, medicinal, and religious purposes. Historians speculate that the first widespread hemp cultivation occurred in China as early as 3000 BCE. Europeans used hemp to make ropes and sails for their ships, and they brought the plant to the Americas in the 1500s.
In the early United States, the traditional definition of industrial hemp included only plants of the subspecies Cannabis sativa L. These plants have the genetic propensity to grow tall and fibrous, making them ideal for industrial purposes, such as manufacturing rope, paper, and cloth.
Early Americans didn’t smoke the flowers because they thought of hemp as a purely industrial crop. Cannabis sativa L. plants produce flowers with a much lower THC content than other sativa species and Cannabis indica strains. Indica landrace strains like Hindu Kush yield plants with less fibrous stalks and are typically grown for the medicinal properties of their flowers. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that breeders started cultivating medicinal cannabis with high CBD contents and discovered that industrial hemp plants were naturally rich in CBD.
The 2018 Agricultural Improvement Act, known as the Farm Bill, introduced a radical change in the definition of hemp in the United States. According to the new specifications, industrial hemp includes any cannabis plant that contains less than .3% delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
The modern definition of hemp has opened the doors for breeders to produce legal, high CBD/low-THC plants from an infinite variety of genetic backgrounds, including indica-heavy strains like Bubba Kush. Today’s hemp growers also have access to more information about the endocannabinoid system and alternate cannabinoids, allowing them to produce plants like Jack Frost with high levels of cannabigerol (CBG).
How Did Hemp Become Illegal?
A combination of industrial pressures and racism led to the prohibition of all cannabis plants, including hemp. In the mid-1930s, the invention of a more efficient hemp decorticator posed a clear threat to several industries, including cotton, paper, and petrochemicals.
The end of alcohol prohibition also played a role in the persecution of hemp. In 1933, alcohol’s legalization put prohibition agents out of work. One of the affected parties was Harry Anslinger, who soon secured a position as the first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
Anslinger turned his attention to cannabis prohibition and used American racial prejudice to meet his political objectives. With the aid of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, Anslinger embarked on a now-legendary smear campaign against cannabis, culminating in the 1936 propaganda film Reefer Madness.
After the widespread campaign, Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937. The legislation placed heavy taxes and restrictions on the cultivation of cannabis, forcing hemp farmers to switch to other crops.
How is Hemp Different from Marijuana?
The word “marijuana” emerged from Mexico, where it became popular during the Mexican Revolution with the lyrics of the popular song “La Cucaracha.” The term didn’t enter widespread usage in the U.S. until the 1930s, when cannabis prohibitionists capitalized on growing racial unrest by associating the plant with a foreign word. At the time, the term “marijuana” encompassed any type of cannabis plant, including hemp varieties.
Later the word “marijuana” was mainly applied to smokable plants containing high levels of THC. Considering the racist connotations of the term, most activists and herb connoisseurs choose to call the plant by its scientific name “cannabis” or the neutral term “weed” instead. However, many hemp farmers still refer to high-THC cannabis strains as “marijuana” to make it easier for the public to understand the distinction between non-intoxicating hemp and more psychoactive cannabis strains.
What Hemp Products Are Legal in the United States?
The Farm Bill not only legalized hemp plants but also set the stage for the manufacture and sale of a wide range of hemp-derived products, like CBD oils, CBG extracts, and delta-8 vape cartridges. As long as the products have been extracted from legal hemp plants and contain less than .3% delta-9 THC, they are permitted by U.S. federal law.
However, state lawmakers have the right to adopt stricter regulations. Several states prohibit the possession or sale of some types of hemp products. We suggest that you consult your local laws to verify the legality of hemp flower and hemp extracts in your area before you make a purchase.
How Do Farmers Grow Hemp?
In the past, hemp growing was a strictly outdoor affair using methods similar to the production of any other crop. Now that hemp is being grown for its flowers instead of strictly for fiber, cultivation methods have become much more sophisticated.
While pollination isn’t a concern for industrial hemp, separating the males from the females is critical to ensure a potent and seedless hemp flower crop. Most food-grade hemp producers only plant feminized seeds from carefully selected genetic backgrounds.
Many companies grow their premium hemp flower strains indoors, where they can strictly control environmental factors and optimize trichome production. Trichomes are the crystalline glands on hemp flowers that contain all the beneficial cannabinoids and terpenes. Instead of using machines, flower growers harvest and trim their plants by hand to enhance the appearance, flavor, and potency of their buds.
The Future of Hemp Farming
We’re only at the beginning of the Hemp Renaissance, and consumers will see the industry evolve rapidly in upcoming years. More advanced breeding and harvesting techniques combined with medical research will produce hemp flowers featuring a wide range of other beneficial cannabinoids.
The hemp industry will slowly emerge from the current “Wild West” state, and government authorities will pass stricter regulations regarding quality and safety. Furthermore, we can expect the hemp industry to make a solid contribution to the fight against climate change and environmental destruction. Contemporary hemp farmers are increasingly switching to sustainable, organic growing methods to protect both the health of their customers and the planet.