Hemp Is Cannabis
The Billion Dollar Crop, It's Misunderstood History, And It's Potential Today
Hemp is a cultivar variety of the cannabis sativa plant species. It is one of the fastest growing crops on the planet, and is recognizable by its thin, slender, and tall stature (some strains can reach upwards of 20 feet). Similar to it’s many thousand strain cousin in the medical cannabis plant (whose many cultivar varieties belong to cannabis indica, cannabis sativa, and cannabis ruderalis), hemp produces flowers and trichomes carrying cannabinoids, though potency and concentrations are typically much lower especially where THC is concerned, and unlike medical cannabis, it is grown primarily for its fibrous stalk, immensely useful pulp, and it’s seeds rather than it’s bud and cannabinoid content.
It is a plant that has been with humanity for more than 10,000 years and is one of the first to be spun into useable fiber. Throughout history, various parts of the world, and in many cultures, it has been processed and refined into everyday goods such as paper, textiles, clothing, food, medicine, biodegradable plastics, biofuel, animal feed, building material, fiber, cordage, and more.
Hemp is one of the first crops humanity cultivated in mass. Earliest dated hemp use goes back as far as 8000 BCE in parts of Asia and old Mesopotamia (modern day Turkey), but anthropologists and historians argue and suggest that hemp was cultivated even further back. Carl Sagan, in his book “Dragons of Eden,” even suggests that hemp may have been one of the first crops human civilizations ever planted. The plant’s versatile use combined with its ability to be rapidly mass produced made it a staple crop to grow for many of history’s people. Both US Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp on their plantations and it was only recently with the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 that hemp was removed from mass production in this country.
Congress and most Americans at the time didn’t even know they were effectively banning hemp from agricultural production with the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937.
It is believed by many historians now that economics and politics are of the primary reasons hemp was put into prohibition. Essentially, a small but very powerful group of rich individuals including William Randolph Hearst, who owned newspapers and paper mills, politically and economically powerful Secretary of Treasury Andrew Mellon, and Federal Bureau of Narcotics Drug Czar Harry Anslinger, were successful in convincing the general public of a “marihuana” menace to society throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s. Congress, having to act under pressure but lacking sufficient knowledge and education into what exactly marihuana and hemp were, passed a tax law that effectively banned the production of both hemp and cannabis medicines.
It comes as no surprise that the industries of alcohol, tobacco, chemical companies who were beginning to produce opiate and synthetic drugs, cotton, plastics, lumber, and more stood to gain in billions if not trillions since the enacting of prohibition.
To add to the irony of this, an article written in 1937 right before the passing of the tax act, titled Billion Dollar Crop was later published in Popular Mechanics in 1938. In it, many of the versatile usages of hemp were listed, the introduction of the decorticator machine which would allow farmers to more efficiently process hemp fields was discussed, and then economy experts predicted how it would massively benefit our society. Sadly the political powers that were of the time and the rich influence of some powerful industries paved the way for a very different future.
Despite all the strong efforts into demonizing and banning the cannabis plant, the United States Department of Agriculture actually released a short film, “Hemp For Victory” in 1942, in order to encourage farmers across America to grow the hemp plant for the wartime effort. The US Navy and the rest of the army needed hemp for cord and other reasons. The film, which is a little over 14 minutes, goes into great detail as to why the military needed farmers to grow hemp, as well as provided detailed methods on how to efficiently grow and harvest the plant. This was essentially a double standard by the US Government, and as strange as this all is, it’s actually true. You can watch the whole documentary by clicking the link above!
Despite the release of this film however, after the war, prohibition remained in effect and even stepped up a notch in the 1970s with Nixon’s infamous War on Drugs, invariably hurting would be hemp farmers and killing any possible industries that could benefit from the plant.
A Bajillion Practical Uses
Considering hemp as a rapidly growing renewable resource that can be used for a ton of things beneficial to society, it really is mind-boggling that this plant was put into prohibition in the first place. When bad political policy inevitably changes for the better, and it will, humanity will once again find amazing ways to incorporate this crop into our lives. Even with the current prohibition still in effect, and even against local restrictions where they are, hemp entrepreneurs and industrialists continue to develop and evolve their crafts and products. Technological advancements with cannabis have never stopped and are hungrily waiting for the renaissance day when society finally understands how much of a boon to the world this plant is. Over the next few sections, we’ll examine some of the most significant products possible from hemp.
There are 3 primary components to the industrial hemp plant and these include: the outer fiber, the inner hurd and pulp, and the seeds which can actually be pressed in order to produce oil. All 3 of these can be used and combined in order to develop a wide list of products that can resemble concrete, plastics, and wood materials! Hemp building materials include but are not limited to: fiberboards, wallboards, roofing, insulation, plastic materials strong enough for piping, insulation, paneling, bricks, and even hempcrete! It is actually possible to build an entire home from hemp materials!
Did you know that hemp fiber, when harvested properly, is actually stronger than steel? Go ahead, look it up. It can literally hold nearly twice the weight that steel can before it cracks and breaks and it can bend and mend almost six times better! Plus, it can actually be more readily available than steel itself! Just a few of its potential uses that the plant can be woven and shaped into are shown in the above image. In fact, many modern construction experts are already screaming for more regular usage of hemp where building projects are concerned.
Hempcrete is a fire resistant, mold resistant, pest resistant, rot resistant, as well as a carbon negative building material that can be rapidly grown and manufactured. It is also a breathable material, one that can store and release warm air for insulation, which allows the building to maintain an optimal temperature. It also hardens over time, and lasts longer than homes and buildings made from wood. By combining hemp shivs and limestone, architects and builders have available to them an immensely useful material that is actually superior in many ways to conventional concrete! An excellent clip from National Geographic discussing hempcrete can be found here.
Cloth & Fabric
Hemp cloth and fabric are actually not new to society, and humanity has been utilizing it for clothing, paper, rope, ship sails, canvas, holding sacks and bags, and much much more for thousands of years. Some of the most important nuances of hemp deserve discussion.
As a fabric, hemp has been tested at being 8x stronger and more durable than cotton fabric. It is more cost effective water-wise and chemical-wise to grow than cotton, requires less labor to harvest and refine, does not require toxic chemicals to process, and hemp as a strong eco-friendly fabric already has extensive historical usage due to its versatile superiority over other cloths.
Hemp material has also been known to possess hypo-allergenic and UV resistant properties! What this essentially means is that hemp fabric can literally fight off infections such as staph, and bacteria similar to how true indigo fabrics are. Being able to be woven into thicker and more resilient fibers and cords than cotton, hemp cloth is also an effective protectant from the sun and it’s UV rays. As a breathable material, it also makes for a great choice of clothing during hot weathers and humid climates.
While some may openly criticize the coarse feel of hemp, know that it can also be woven with other more pleasing fabrics in order to create hybrid materials that may actually be superior in feel and utility to what clothes current fashion designers are familiar with. Indeed, the world of hemp fabric is destined to see a reemergence and renaissance that could easily take the world by storm!
Hemp as a food comes from both the direct product or byproduct of its seed. Scientists and researchers have found it to be one of the most nutritious superfoods currently known to humanity and this is due to the fact that it possesses a great balance of omega-3 and omega-6, has a healthy assortment of essential fatty acids, is packed with protein, and is also gluten, soy, and wheat free. Lesser known is the fact that hempseed also contains a significant amount of the protein edestin - a compound needed by us to produce essential antibodies.
Hemp food products are already available and come in a few primary forms: raw whole hemp seeds are a popular item that contains protein, vitamins, and minerals that are beneficial to any diet and is sought after primarily for its high fiber content.
Shelled hemp seed, where the skin and shell of the seed are removed, is actually a more popular choice among health geeks and may be easier to utilize and incorporate into more recipes than it’s raw whole seed alternative. It is considered to be better tasting and digestible than soy protein, and can also be refined into hemp milk and even ice cream!
Hemp oil, which can be produced by pressing the hemp seed, represents another versatile and healthy byproduct from the hemp plant. It can be used as a topping for salads, vegetables, and other dishes, or even be used a substitute replacement for butters or any other types of cooking oil.
Last but not least as a food supplement, hemp protein extract or protein powder can be seen as an alternative to conventional protein consumption. It is cholesterol free, is plant based and can be eaten by vegetarians and vegans, and last but not least, actually be utilized as an ingredient in brewing beer and other alcohol spirits!
Biodiesel and biofuels come from the oils and fats of plants and vegetables and are not a new topic of discussion where worldwide sustainability is concerned. In fact, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Dr Rudolf Diesel, the inventor of the diesel engine, demonstrated numerous motors that could be run on peanut and vegetable oil. Hemp seed oil, which can be mass produced with relative ease, can also be utilized in BioDiesel Engines that could be used for our cars and various other vehicles, as well as generators for our homes! The hemp plant, being immensely versatile, is actually capable of producing two types of fuel: hemp biodiesel as well as ethanol/methanol. BioFuels are far less toxic and burn cleaner than petroleum based oils, and virtually eliminate the possibility of contributing to acid rain. The clean burning properties of biodiesel also means cleaner running engines with much less wear and tear. Even lesser known is the fact that hemp biodiesel and other biofuels will already run in any conventional, unmodified diesel engine meaning the societal switch to biofuels is much much easier to do and closer than you may think!
Cannabis and hemp based medicines have been with humanity for thousands of years. The earliest record of its medical usage comes from the Chinese emperor Shennong around 2700 BCE, and its versatility and powerful therapeutic properties have been helping people all over the world throughout multiple cultures and civilizations. The plant was smoked, combined with milk to make bhang, combined with wine, used as an anaesthetic, utilized to stop an Assyrian prince’s seizures, the roots boiled into a potion to help with inflammation and gout, tinctures were made and used for Queen Victoria’s menstrual cramps, medical manuals in both China and Greece were written about the many uses of cannabis, speculation suggests that Jesus’ healing holy anointing oil was made from cannabis oil, the knight and medical doctor Sir William O’Shaughnessy introduced cannabis as a medicine to the Western World, Novascotian farmer Rick Simpson discovered a cancer killing oil by extracting it from the hemp plant, and the list goes on.
There was a time in both Europe and America when pharmaceutical companies were manufacturing and producing cannabis based medicines from both cannabis indica and cannabis sativa varieties (the hemp plant included). Parke-Davis, Eli Lilly, Grimault & Company, and more were regular distributors of cannabis tinctures, pills, and even cigarettes! Some so called snake oil salesmen throughout America during the 1800s to the early 1900s may actually have been trying to sell highly effective cannabis oil.
It really wasn’t until the 1920s and 1930s when pharmaceutical and chemical companies began manufacturing opiate and synthetic drugs, that cannabis began to decline as a medicine in Western Pharmacopeia. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 and prohibition dealt a heavy blow to the plant’s place in society, and it’s banning has arguably set the medical world back decades by not having this herbal wonder available for research and for patients who may have needed it in the past. Consider all of the individuals that suffered from countless ailments and symptoms since the 1930s, and remember that effective non-lethal cannabis based medications could have made a significant difference in healing them and providing them quality of life. With that said, the future of medicine will no doubt have a lot to be gained from the social acceptance and normalization of this plant.
There is an unfortunate amount of confusion where hemp derived CBD is concerned. There is a misconception that hemp CBD is different and less superior to medical cannabis CBD and this is a false statement that continues to be debated by stoners and less knowledgeable cannabis enthusiasts.
Here’s the real answer:
As a chemical molecule, hemp CBD, cannabis CBD, and even synthetic CBD share all of the same molecular structures, with the same number of carbons, and yes the same list of therapeutic characteristics. So no, pure CBD from the medical cannabis plant is not superior to CBD from the hemp plant - from a molecular standpoint, they are the same.
Now, pure isolate CBD that is not accompanied by other cannabinoids such as THC, CBGA, CBN, and what not, whether it is derived from hemp, medical cannabis, or is synthesized in a lab will never be as effective or potent as CBD that has other accompanying cannabinoids. This is discussed in the Entourage Effect (see chapter 3) and essentially means that in order to receive the full effects of CBD, there must be other cannabinoids present for it to work properly.
Hemp plants do indeed produce CBD with other cannabinoids so they can be viable sources of medicine for patients. However, medical cannabis strains do produce much higher concentrations of all cannabinoids as well as terpenoids, and from a volume perspective of producing medicine, this is where medical cannabis is superior. Remember that hemp is bred and grown primarily for its stalk, hurd, pulp, fiber, and even seeds, not for their flowers - concentrations of cannabinoids in the hemp plant are much lower compared to the many strains of medical cannabis.
One other factor to consider with hemp based CBD medicines - if such medications are produced with other cannabinoids, then again they are viable options for patients and individuals looking for sources of CBD. However, consumers should consider where the hemp plants are grown and if they are grown with clean regulated practices. When it comes to the conversation of cultivating medicine for people, the highest standards of cleanliness and safety should be adhered to when growing the plant whether it be medical cannabis or hemp. If the medicine a patient is consuming comes from badly grown hemp, or if the hemp is imported from a country that does not regulate how their crops are grown, then the quality of the medicine at hand is in question.
No doubt, there will be a place down the road for both medical cannabis derived medicines as well as hemp derived medicines. However, proper education and awareness regarding this topic needs to be stressed and provided to consumers and would be patients.
Natural Biodegradable Plastics
Nearly all of the plastic on earth has been made from toxic petrochemical methods that extract cellulose from petroleum oil. Most, if not all of these plastics take centuries to break down and plastic pollution presents a significantly dangerous challenge to humanity in the immediate years to come. It is estimated that roughly 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year killing countless marine wildlife and jeopardizing a large fraction of the world’s food supply. True horror tales like the “pacific garbage patch” continue to worsen and the world’s landfills have already reached sizes of several hundred to even several thousand acres (the largest in Apex Regional, Las Vegas, Nevada is 2,200 acres of non-biodegradable trash)!
There are solutions to this and future made plastics can actually be derived from plant cellulose. Little known fact is that hemp actually happens to be the greatest cellulose producing crop on the planet (hemp hurds can produce up to 85% cellulose)! Plant based plastics can be made to be either durable and long lasting or quickly biodegradable in the case of disposable items. Modern scientific advancements in plant plastics are currently limited though very real, and various new techniques include: combining hemp hurd with cornstarch to make strong but biodegradable materials that can be molded into virtually anything; the development of hemp-plastic resin known as hempstone; and even hemp plastic composites that are less expensive to develop but of the same grade and quality as fiberglass materials - all of these are undergoing continued research in countries outside of the restriction heavy United States.
“Anything trees can do, hemp can do better,” has been a mantra of hemp supporters for decades now, and the statement is not too far from being true. The big topic of conversation here where trees are concerned are lumber for either building material, which we covered earlier, or paper which is still an essential part of everyday life. Cell phones, tablets, laptop computers, and even services such as Kindle and Amazon may have significantly reduced our dependence on paper cut from trees, but the fact remains that humanity still needs paper.
Experts, cannabis historians, and especially hippies argue that we should have been using hemp paper all along. The Declaration of Independence was written on hemp, and these individuals all share the same speculation that it was William Randolph Hearst’s fault that we missed out on taking advantage of hemp paper - he invested millions if not billions into the lumber industries for his newspapers and he stood to lose his fortunes if he and other paper mills had to compete with the emerging industrial supercrop, the hemp plant.
Times have indeed changed however, and as you the reader along with the rest of the world learn more and more about what the hemp plant can really do for the human race, we can all collectively work towards correcting irrational fears spawned by the 1930s reefer madness era. Like Jack proposed, humanity may never have to cut another tree down for the purposes of lumber once it begins to re-incorporate hemp into world industries.
Cultivating hemp is relatively easy and while processing limitations once held mass manufacturing back prior to it’s banning in the 1930s, modern technological advances have since surpassed the decorticator (which would have helped hemp become the billion dollar crop it could have been), which means that farmers are already enjoying the ability to help produce cutting edge hemp products in places where there aren’t such harsh restrictions on growing the plant. The demand, however, is growing, and there will be opportunities for farmers all over the world to bring a renaissance to hemp.
Some of the important nuances of cultivating hemp deserve pointing out and they are all attractive reasons for society to revive production with this plant.
Hemp is a fast crop and only takes 4 months to grow! Compare this to trees which take many years to grow. What trees can do, hemp can do as well, and this obviously helps to limit or even potentially halt deforestation.
Can be grown in relatively rugged climates. Unlike sensitive varieties of medical cannabis, hemp can actually be grown in a variety of locations and climates including many places in the northern hemisphere such as Canada, parts of Europe, and even parts of Russia.
No pesticides needed. This drastically limits the amount of chemicals that find their way not only into plants of all kind, but also the precious soil that needs to be kept healthy for future crops.
Hemp can even help clean heavy metals and radiation from soil! Yes you are reading this correctly. Hemp can actually be planted in soils saturated with heavy metals, or even soils polluted with radiation, and throughout the lifespan of that crop, help clean out and sequester the contaminants. Experiments with growing hemp in radioactive Chernobyl are underway and demonstrate that this superplant can actually help to decontaminate it in a process called phytoremediation (the utilization of plants to remediate and clean up pollution)!
Can be grown with clean organic, renewable, and sustainable practices. Regenerative farming is a growing practice of interest in the agricultural world, and organic techniques that involve combining vermicropping with recycling plant material into the soil such as no-till living soil systems make it entirely possible to cultivate hemp while at the same time helping to regenerate and even improve the earth!
The bandwagon is already here, unfortunately the United States and most parts of the world are being held back by their own ignorance and bad political policies.
The United States is currently sourcing hemp products from outside America and currently, China is the world’s biggest producer of hemp stalks, producing nearly half of the world’s legal supply and even owning more than half of the world patents on cannabis and hemp. Their industry is estimated to be worth just over $200 million. While that number may not sound like a lot comparatively to other giant industries, there are a few things to remember when looking at this: 1) The United States currently imports a significant chunk of hemp from China, Canada, and Russia when it could be growing its own, 2) the world perception of hemp is still in the dark about the ticking time bomb that hemp proverbially represents, and both of these mean 3) that there is a screaming opportunity worldwide to capitalize on a global hemp industry. Until then, like many of the renewable industries and technologies currently available to the world, hemp and those who support the plant wait anxiously for proper recognition and acceptance.
Written by Danny Gagaoin
Cannabis Education and Research Director
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