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.