Before there was plastic and aluminum, or even paper, there was hemp. It is one of the strongest, most versatile and relatively inexpensive natural materials on the planet. Humans have been cultivating hemp longer than almost any other crop, and we discover new uses for hemp even today.
Unfortunately, federal prohibition of cannabis means hemp’s miniscule amount of THC is considered dangerous by the U.S. government, and it is listed as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act. America imports about half a billion dollars worth of hemp products each year, a crop that can be easily grown in many agricultural zones all over the country. “We are the only industrialized nations not to allow it,” said Joseph Yost of the Virginia state legislature and a supporter of legalizing industrial hemp.
With more states supporting cannabis legalization, there could be room for hemp in the nation’s economy. The environmental benefits of using hemp in place of other materials cannot be ignored, nor can the health benefits of the plant.
CBD and beyond
While natural hemp has a very low amount of THC, it does contain cannabidiol (CBD), which is the non-psychoactive cannabinoid that is sought after by medical cannabis patients. While many strains of cannabis contain more concentrated amounts of both THC and CBD, hemp is a cheaper source of CBD due to its hardiness as a crop.
By moving away using wood for paper products and building materials, hemp could slow down or possibly stop deforestation, a direct threat to the environment. Trees used for lumber and paper products take a lifetime to mature, but hemp needs four months in order to be ready for harvest and put to industrial use. Within a 20-year time period, an acre of hemp can produce as much paper as 4-10 acres of trees. Hemp is also particularly suited to thrive on carbon dioxide, and
Major advances in mixing hemp with other substances has led to the creation of a sustainable building material that also acts as an insulator. While not as strong as concrete, “hempcrete” is already being used in buildings in Europe as a construction material for applications like flooring, interior walls and insulation. Being able to use hempcrete and hemp-based building materials to replace other products like concrete, fiberglass insulation, and drywall would significantly reduce the carbon footprint of the construction industry. Hempcrete is also one of the few industrial materials that is carbon negative.
Hemp is one of the easiest crops to grow on an industrial and agricultural scale. It requires almost no pesticides, minimal water, and is adaptable to changing weather and climates. Soy is one of the most commonly grown crops in the U.S., but it can typically fetch $71 per acre. By comparison, industrial hemp nets roughly $250 per acre, and is a less-costly crop to grow. Farmers have been pressuring lawmakers to ease restrictions on growing industrial hemp, and they have an unlikely ally in Senator Mitch McConnell, who helped sponsor a farm bill in 2014 that allowed more states to grow hemp legally.
But there are still plenty of restrictions on growing hemp in the United States, which has kept hemp from contributing to the nation’s economy. Perhaps cannabis legalization will help make hemp free and legal, benefiting several industries as well as our plan
As cannabis legalization creeps forward, consumers are enjoying a use for the plant that defies unkempt stoner stereotypes: cannabis beauty products.
“Weed, because of its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties is great for the skin,” says Aspen-based medical marijuana doctor Wendy Zaharko, M.D., noting the importance of endocannabinoid system homeostasis. Even mainstream medical professionals are touting appearance-enhancing abilities (and no, we don’t mean a weed version of beer goggles).
“Cannabis is an antioxidant; it can help slow down the damage to skin cells from oxidation by free radicals, which prevents aging,”
says New York City-based dermatologist and RealSelf contributor Michele S. Green, MD.
“It is rich in supplements for healthy skin such as potassium, magnesium, iron and zinc which is beneficial for skin rashes, acne, and many other skin conditions.”
To achieve these benefits, companies are adding cannabis to traditional topical beauty products such as salves, lotions, and hair and skin oils.
Molly Peckler of Highly Devoted, cannabis-friendly date coaching, swears by hemp products to treat her breakouts. “I started suffering from hormonal acne right around the time I turned 30, and I came across the Hemp Blemish Salve from Uncle Harry’s Natural Products. Unlike other acne treatments I had tried; the hemp salve didn’t irritate my skin or dry me out too much. Now when I feel a pimple coming on, I reach for the hemp salve rather than the salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide,” says Peckler.
Like Uncle Harry’s Natural Products, most of these beauty products are currently typically created out of hemp, marijuana’s more industrial sister in the cannabis species. The Body Shop has a reasonably-priced hemp body care line, as does Marley Natural. Moon Rore, who makes hair oil, body butter, and lip treatments, differentiates itself by opting for CBD oil from hemp extract. (Moon Rore also charges each of their items with crystals, for an extra magical kick). “I noticed that there are a lot of hemp oils in everything, but there’s not a lot of people utilizing the CBD oil,” says Moon Rore founder Maggie Murphy.
If beauty manufacturers want their product to be available nationwide, they are forced to opt for hemp products rather than whole plant cannabis. While cannabidiol (CBD) is found in hemp, as Project CBD reports, hemp oils contain far less cannabidiol than cannabis, and lack medicinal terpenes and crucial secondary cannabinoids like THC, CBN and CGB. It is CBD that is responsible for the anti-inflammatory effects, an important role in skin care, and an effect that works better if cannabinoids and terpenoids are working together, due to the entourage effect.
Some skin care companies, such as Cannabis Basics, create both cannabis and hemp-only lines, so a hemp version of their product is available for purchase everywhere, but those in legal states can still enjoy the beauty benefits of whole plant cannabis. For those in such states, another wonderful cannabis-based beauty brands is Kush Creams.
Even the real-deal cannabis oil products are non-psychoactive when used on your body, as they bind to the CB2 receptors needed to produce the therapeutic effects but do not enter the bloodstream, and CB2 receptors are mostly located outside of the brain and central nervous system. As much of legalization opponents’ cannabis fears stem from the high produced by the THC in cannabis, non-psychoactive beauty products could fight stigma as well as pimples.
“When you take the high out of the equation, but the medicinal and therapeutic benefits are still strong, cannabis changes from an illicit drug to a medicine. That’s how you change hearts and minds in the general public. Once you’ve personally experienced the positive effects, you’ll be more comfortable talking about it with the people in your life,”
While psychoactive cannabis, also known as marijuana, and hemp are both the same species (cannabis), the differences in their economic, medicinal, and utilitarian impacts is vast.
Cannabis, when applied to medical patients and recreational consumers, is a substance with two relatively specific purposes: Fighting disease/improving health and psychoactive euphoria/anxiety relief. Hemp, on the contrary, offers its use for more than 5,000 substances and applications. While cannabis provides medicinal and lifestyle benefits mostly via its flowers (although whole plant therapy is becoming more popular), it is the seeds and stalk fiber of hemp that are of value.
To qualify as hemp in the United States and Canada, a specific strain of cannabis must contain no more than 0.3 percent of the most commonly known psychoactive cannabinoid, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Many European nations further limit the THC content of hemp to only 0.2 percent. These standards, while completely arbitrary, illustrate the stigma associated with the psychoactive effect provided by THC, especially among conservative policymakers.
Food, Fiber, and Foundations
Hemp, which has natural anti-bacterial characteristics, is a valuable resource because it features long, very strong fibers that can be processed into a variety of materials, from clothing and canvas to drapes, foundation blocks, and furniture. In fact, the term “canvas” was derived from “cannabis.”
In terms of food, there are many forms of hemp that add considerable nutritional value to the diet of humans. Hemp seeds and hemp seed oil are considered “superfoods” because they feature an almost perfect ratio of the essential fatty acids omega 3 and omega 6 and contain all important amino acids (which form proteins and serve other critical functions). Like all plant-based food, hemp and hemp seed oil are easier to digest than animal proteins.
It should be noted that consuming foods rich in hemp or hemp seed oil won’t cause one to fail a drug test. Because hemp contains almost no THC, those who consume large quantities will never test positive for cannabis — unless they have been consuming medicinal or recreational marijuana that contains larger amounts of this psychoactive molecule.
Hemp, when used for clothing, is superior to cotton in many ways. From the cultivation of hemp and cotton to the quality and durability of the clothing derived from them, hemp is better than cotton in nearly every way. First, cotton, which has been used to create clothing for at least 7,000 years, demands large amounts of pesticides that have a detrimental effect on the environment and raise the cost of products derived from the plant. Hemp, on the contrary, requires only half the land to grow the same tonnage of finished textile and considerably less water than cotton.
In addition, one must consider the value that is derived from clothing produced from both plants. Hemp clothing is more durable and wears out more slowly than cotton, meaning that consumers spend less in the long run because their shirts and jeans simply last longer. In addition, hemp maintains its strength after it becomes wet, making it better than cotton for industrial and commercial applications, including use as tarps, rope, or sails.
Hemp is also used to create building materials. Because of its natural anti-bacterial properties and its ability to regulate both temperature and humidity, compressed hemp can be used to create foundation timbers. One product that is gaining popularity is Hempcrete, a building material derived from the woody interior of industrial hemp. When mixed with lime and water, the hemp produces a strong, resilient, and relatively weather-proof building material. Hempcrete is superior to wood because it does not fall prey to common issues of decay.
Hempcrete is also fireproof and immune to the threat of termites. It is quickly gaining popularity throughout Europe and the United States as a viable, long-term building material for both commercial and residential developments that offers many environmental advantages over traditional materials like wood, concrete, and steel.
Hemp for All Plastics
Hemp plastics might sound new age, but have existed for nearly a century. In fact, in 1941, Henry Ford used hemp-and-sisal cellulose plastic to create automotive body panels (doors and fenders). Twenty years earlier, Ford had also wanted to fuel his vehicles with hemp oil, but Rockefeller ensured that gasoline and diesel fuel derived from petroleum became the fuel of choice for a mobile America. Major advantages of hemp plastics include the fact that they are biodegradable and also much stronger than steel panels.
This brings up an entirely unique use for hemp: Fuel. Although it isn’t explored in this article, the use of the hemp stalk and seed oil for both nutrition and fuel is significant and, if embraced by companies and governments, would be a true game changer. In a nutshell, two types of fuel can be derived from hemp: Biodiesel, made from hemp seed oil, and ethanol/methanol, created from the fermented stalk. Enough hemp production could, theoretically, fuel the entire heating and transportation needs of the nation.
The vast majority of plastics manufactured today are derived from petroleum, which are not biodegradable. However, instead of drilling for oil, all plastics could be derived from the hemp plant. These bio-based plastics, which are made from the stalk of the herb and involve none of the oil or seeds, are competitive with similar plastic products created from petroleum due to their rigidity and high heat tolerance. Most hemp plastics are naturally flame retardant and can be five times stiffer and nearly three times stronger than polypropylene.
Readers learned above why hemp is superior to cotton for textiles and clothing. About 39 percent of all clothing in the world is made from cotton, while the vast majority, 58 percent, is manufactured with synthetic materials like polyester and rayon, all of which are derived from petroleum and are basically non-rigid plastics in which humans cloak themselves daily.
Limited hemp use has begun by major manufacturers. Automakers such as Audi, General Motors, Ford, Mercedes, BMW, and Honda have utilized compressed hemp door panels, dashboards, trunks, and headliners, among other auto parts. Readers may have hemp door panels sitting in their driveway and simply not know it. This is just one example of an industry that is experimenting with or beginning to adopt processed hemp in manufacturing.
Teens Will Get High on Hemp
Those who oppose hemp gardens or farms in their community because they fear adventurous teenagers will sneak into the fields to smoke it are grossly mistaken. Because hemp must be grown from a strain of cannabis that necessarily yields less than 0.3 percent THC, intelligent humans will know — and those foolish enough to experiment will quickly learn — that hemp provides zero psychoactive effect or euphoria.
A rebellious teen could smoke an acre of hemp and never get “high,” instead developing only a headache. The molecule that causes that high, THC, simply is not present. Teens, arguably more social and networked than adults, would naturally avoid hemp fields, instead seeking THC-rich strains of cannabis from their friends or the black market.
Hemp Farmers Will Hide Cannabis
Another myth that violates the laws of biology and science is that hemp farmers will go rogue and hide regular cannabis plants within their hemp fields, far from the eyes of law enforcement. The reality is that the pollen from hemp would wreck the medical efficacy and psychoactive effect of commercial cannabis. Rather than embracing cannabis, hemp farmers want strains containing more than the legal limit for hemp nowhere near their fields. Similarly, outdoor cannabis cultivators have a healthy disdain for fields of hemp, which threaten to pollinate their high-THC cannabis, severely reducing its psychoactive content and destroying its commercial value.
More Research is Necessary
Nearly 80 years of cannabis and hemp prohibition has prevented research into the medical, nutritional, environmental, and economic benefits of hemp as compared to traditional plants like cotton and wood and synthetic products derived from petroleum. Until help farming is allowed nationwide and the plant is respected for the tremendous resource that it is, society will continue to leverage less efficient and environmentally damaging plants and substances.
There’s seemingly no end to the medical efficacy delivered by the cannabis plant for myriad diseases and conditions. However, the ultra-low THC cousin of cannabis, hemp, is rapidly gaining favor among farmers, consumers, and even traditionally conservative members of Congress.
GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is among the American politicians who are currently pushing to legalize and regulate hemp farming in the United States.
The $500 billion 2014 federal Farm Bill allows for limited hemp cultivation. It permits universities and state agriculture agencies to grow the crop without interference by the federal government and the Drug Enforcement Agency. States and universities can also conduct research into hemp, an area that has largely been neglected since the prohibition of cannabis began in the United States in 1937. However, the law applies only to those states where it is legal to grow industrial hemp.
Industrial hemp cultivation is legal in thirteen states, including California, Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia. Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, New York, and Utah allow agricultural and academic research of hemp, but no commercial cultivation. Kentucky, Colorado, and Oregon are among the leaders in the fledgling hemp farming industry that is currently being reborn in the U.S.
Brief Hemp History
Hemp has played an important role in America and has been used in everything from the sails of the boats that carried Christopher Columbus to the new world to the first flag created by Betsy Ross. In addition, it was used in World War II to make ropes for the Navy and parachutes.
Hemp was one of the first domesticated crops used by humans. It has been used for literally thousands of purposes for more than 12,000 years — and very possibly much longer. Spaniards originally brought hemp to the Western Hemisphere, where it was cultivated in Chile starting in about 1545. In 1607, “hempe” was grown by native Americans in the area of Richmond, Virginia. In 1613, it was found growing along the upper Potomac River.
Shortly thereafter, in 1619, the Jamestown Colony in Virginia passed a law requiring farmers in the territory to plant hemp. Other laws requiring the cultivation of hemp were enacted in Massachusetts (1631), Connecticut (1632), and in the Chesapeake Colonies into the middle of the 18th century. Hemp was even legal tender in most of the American colonies from 1631 until the early 1800s. For more than 200 years, citizens could pay their taxes with hemp.
Many are familiar with the fact that the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp and that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew the herb and praised it for its versatility and robustness. In 1794, Washington wrote: “Make the most you can of the Indian Hemp seed and sow it everywhere.” Other U.S. presidents that have grown hemp include James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, and Zachary Taylor.
“Hemp is of first necessity to the wealth & protection of the country.”
The quote by Thomas Jefferson, “Some of my finest hours have been spent on my back veranda, smoking hemp and observing as far as my eye can see,” is unfortunately, fictitious. While Jefferson and Washington grew hemp — and Washington even imported higher quality varieties from Asia — there is no solid evidence that either smoked it for euphoria.
The War of 1812 between Great Britain and a young United States was actually partially fought over hemp. In 1916, scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture first created paper from hemp.
During the mid to late 20th century, Russia was the world’s largest hemp producer. Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom resumed commercial production of hemp in the 1990s. Today, the world’s leading producer of hemp is China. Lower, but still significant, production occurs in Europe (France, Romania, and Hungary), Chile, and North Korea (ironically, psychoactive cannabis is also legal in North Korea, one of the world’s worst totalitarian regimes).
How Hemp Differs from Cannabis
In 1971, a Canadian researcher named Ernest Small published The Species Problem in Cannabis. He arbitrarily defined hemp as varieties of cannabis containing no more than 0.3 percent THC, the marijuana cannabinoid that delivers a psychoactive effect. Small’s definition of hemp has become a global standard, with governments and companies around the world defining hemp as cannabis that contains almost no THC.
While Canada and the United States have set a THC limit in hemp of 0.3 percent, many European countries define hemp as cannabis containing no more than 0.2 percent THC.
Most strains of cannabis contain 10-25 percent THC. Due to hemp’s very low THC content, it delivers no psychoactive euphoria. In fact, one could smoke a field of it and would end up with nothing more than a headache. Fears that hemp may corrupt youth by allowing them to steal hemp from farms and smoke it to get high are completely unfounded. Lacking euphoria and, along with it, the tremendous market value of its cousin cannabis, large hemp farms can exist without risk of theft or humans getting high off of it.
According to Dana Larsen, former editor of Cannabis Culture magazine and author of The Illustrated History of Cannabis in Canada, the arbitrary THC limit of hemp isn’t necessarily a good thing. He cites how Small, in his research, found that many strains of hemp that were best for use as fiber, oil, and birdseed also happened to contain moderate to high amounts of the psychoactive cannabinoid. Said Larsen:
“The worldwide 0.3 percent THC standard divider between marijuana and hemp is not based on which strains have the most agricultural benefit, nor is it based on an analysis of the THC level required for psychoactivity. It’s based on an arbitrary decision of a Canadian scientist growing cannabis in Ottawa.”
The uses of hemp far outnumber the space available to list them in this article. Categorically, hemp is one of the most efficient and versatile plants on the planet. It can even be used to create construction timbers and foundation blocks. A “bio-composite” product that is poured into building wall cavities and used to form construction blocks, called Hempcrete, serves as an insulator and moisture regulator, in addition to being resistant to mold and mildew (natural characteristics of hemp). Because Hempcrete lacks the brittleness of concrete, it doesn’t require expansion joints. It also is about one-eighth the weight of concrete.
Just a few amazing facts regarding hemp (Warning: After reading this list, most readers will be very frustrated at the sad state of hemp cultivation and research in the United States, especially for the past 80 years):
- Restores and nourishes the soil (most crops deplete the soil of nutrients).
- Requires less water than many other crops.
- Produces two to four times as much paper as trees (on an acre-by-acre basis).
- Provides a better quality paper than that produced from trees; it lasts hundreds of years without degrading, can be recycled more than paper from trees, and requires fewer toxic chemicals.
- Results in fiberboard that is stronger and lighter than that made from wood.
- Produces seed protein that is more nutritious and less expensive than that from soybeans.
- Requires no pesticides or herbicides.
- Produces three crops per year in southern climates of the U.S.
While cotton grows only in moderate climates and requires more water than hemp, the low-THC version of cannabis is frost tolerant, requires only moderate amounts of water, and can be grown in all 50 states. Cotton requires large quantities of pesticides and herbicides. In fact, 50% of the world’s pesticides and herbicides are used in the production of cotton. Hemp requires no pesticides, no herbicides, and only moderate amounts of fertilizer.
Despite the relatively pathetic state of hemp cultivation and research in the United States, the situation is improving relatively quickly. Many politicians and business leaders are now on board with the fact that hemp is better than alternatives, extremely economical, environmentally friendly, and not of risk to youth because it contains no THC.
As more and more states jump on the hemp bandwagon and federal laws allow for increasing levels of production, readers should keep an eye out for hemp products at their local Wal-Mart and Target. They’re coming.