“Can I give you something to try?” a friend asked me a few months back. He passed me a black opaque baggie—in it was a nug of what looked and smelled like perfectly passable, well-trimmed weed. It wasn’t chronic. That much was obvious from the look and smell of it, but it could have been mids.
“This is hot hemp, isn’t it?” I instantly asked while snatching it out of his hand to inspect. I had heard plugs use the term to describe hemp that wouldn’t qualify as such under legal restrictions, due to elevated THC numbers, though it also had too low THC to qualify as any kind of decent weed.
“Just try it. I’m curious to see if you’ll get high,” he said.
I went home, went to sleep, and fired it up the next morning with a clear head—my last THC-loaded smoke was at least 10 hours prior. I flicked my lighter, toasted the top of the nug in my bowl, inhaled, exhaled, sat back, and waited. I felt nothing. I repeated the ritual. Still, not much. Then, after about five or so minutes, I felt a little glow. Not quite a buzz, but a mild sedating effect without a significant head change. I felt, to use a scientifically accurate term, really chill. This was hemp, I decided. Probably, it was hemp that had a little bit more THC than it was supposed to.
It sucks that my poor friend spent cold, hard cash expecting to cop THC-laden weed but ended up with hemp instead. It reveals issues in both the legal and legacy (read: non-legal or black) markets that I’ll get into later. But, mostly, it points to the rise in popularity of smokable hemp—that is, CBD-rich cannabis flower that clocks in at lower than 0.3% THC, per government regulations.
“I started smoking CBD hemp to help during the pandemic. It helps with anxiety and muscle pain,” says Joaquin Vasquez, who works for a federal energy company that performs random drug testing. He also edits a digital magazine called Jeawok. “I can’t consume THC due to work and this keeps me from going back to cigarettes,” he adds.
Vasquez is part of a growing number of cannabis consumers who, for a variety of reasons, are seeking out smokable hemp.
“Our customers fall into a certain number of—categories—I’ll call them,” says Dad Grass founder and CEO Ben Starmer. Dad Grass makes premium hand-rolled, CBD-rich hemp joints. “One is the former smoker that maybe stopped smoking because they have a family or they have a new life. That, for whatever reason, they don’t feel comfortable smoking anymore. THC started to have a negative effect on them—they got too stoned out, anxious, or paranoid. That’s probably our biggest segment,” he says.
The other categories, Starmer says, include people who have never tried weed or tried it once and had a bad experience. “They’ve heard about CBD, feel that THC isn’t for them, but they’re curious about the good properties they’ve heard CBD has and they’re curious,” he says.
“Then, there’s a more conservative segment that doesn’t really fuck with weed at all,” he says. They find CBD helpful for anxiety, pain, and inflammation. For this population, Starmer says, the focus is mainly medicinal. Normally, they might use CBD as a tincture, topical or oil, but since smoking is so effective for quick absorption into the bloodstream, now those kinds of users have another easily-accessed ingestion method with the greater availability of smokable CBD.
Finally, Starmer says, there’s the current stoner who just can’t be smoking weed with high THC during the day. “They still really enjoy smoking and find valuable the effects of smoking CBD throughout the day. That’s one of the that’s been one of the interesting ones because, you know, we have a lot of avid smokers in our community that we worried would just laugh this off. And it’s been the opposite effect,” Starmer explains. I consider myself part of this segment—remember the last Cannabitch, when I waxed poetic on Lady Jay’s CBG pre-rolled joints? Those are hemp cigarettes, my dear readers. It’s just that those particular plants were bred specifically to have high CBG, rather than just CBD (the company also sells CBD smokes, too).
The Farm Bill changed everything
So, why are we just hearing about smokable hemp in the mainstream now? Hemp has been around, quite literally, forever. Its industrial use is well-woven into our societal fabric (no pun intended) and, thanks to 2018’s Farm Bill, it’s now legal to grow and sell in the United States. But, aside from idiot teenagers cutting hemp twine from their chokers and throwing it in a bowl to see if it will get them lit or not, most people have never thought to smoke hemp. “Why would I?” the thought seems to have been. It’s not like it’s going to get anyone high.
And, yet, that’s the beauty of it. “It isn’t just recreation. It’s a bit of enhancement and relaxation while being able to continue to be responsible,” Starmer says. “You can access the other cannabinoids in the cannabis plant while still keeping a clear head. [Smoking CBD from hemp flower] leaves you feeling slightly euphoric, smiling, and relaxed.”
Starmer has owned the Dad Grass URL for at least five years, indicating some foresight that the smokable market would move in this direction. Interestingly enough, Starmer says that, though the idea from Dad Grass had been in his head all of his adult life after discovering his own pastor dad smoked bad weed to get by around the time he started college, the initial goal was to produce joints with around 8-12% THC. That would fall in the category of the “mids” I was referring to earlier—it’ll give you a little buzz, but it won’t produce any kind of high akin to the 20-30% THC bombs we are seeing in cannabis flowers sold in dispensaries today. They were all-in on the idea and had even entered the expensive and laborious permitting process, deciding to link up with Flow Kana for their pre-roll production.
The Farm Bill changed that for Dad Grass. Last November, Starmer was passed a sample from a hemp farm that his business partner and Dad Grass co-founder, Joshua Katz, worked with—they smoked it, discovered the chill, and decided to bow out of their THC business goals to go with hemp, instead. It produced just the effect they were looking for, so why bother with THC at all?
It’s a business decision that Brian Ciuchta of Lakeside, California’s High Ranch Farm agrees with, as well. Prior to COVID, he was successfully growing and selling microgreens to San Diego’s restaurants and catering outfits. Sensing his farm was about to go belly-up after demand sharply declined, he pivoted entirely to hemp, a crop he already had in the works after attending a hemp conference last year. Now, he’s about to release his first line of hemp flower, which includes pre-rolled CBD-rich joints. CBG-rich hemp strains have already been planted, and he plans on debuting those later this year.
What is the difference between hemp and cannabis?
Ciuchta is focused on consumer education, which he thinks will only boost the smokable hemp market as a whole. He also sees a different market binary—rather than just weed that will get a person high or not, it is also about how a person ingests CBD.
“When I talk about it, I tell people what hemp is and how it’s actually different from marijuana and how it’s a completely different industry,” he says. “I think it’s only a matter of time before that starts to sink into people’s minds and they’ll start to kind of recognize hemp as a household name and start to naturally pair that with CBD,” he says.
In the United States, the legal difference between hemp and what’s deemed marijuana hinges on the level of THC in the plant. They both are the cannabis plant—it just depends on its chemical composition whether or not it’s classified as hemp or marijuana.
“THC and CBD have an inverse relationship,” Ciuchta explains. The higher the THC in plants, typically, the lower the CBD content. So, the hemp industry is the exact opposite of the cannabis industry in that it is shooting for a low THC content with a higher CBD content. Ciuchta says that smoking hemp flower is like how one would feel hours after smoking marijuana high in THC—you’re not so high anymore, but rather kind of mellow.
“We like to say that when you smoke hemp flower, you get that after effect without the initial high,” Ciuchta adds.
Beyond the immediate feeling, though, Ciuchta says there are additional benefits to smoking hemp flower over taking a CBD supplement. Most people look for CBD extracts—the tinctures, drops, edibles, et cetera. I have actually had multiple people ask me what CBD even is. Does it come from a plant? Ciuchta says he has heard that, too, which is why he is passionate about getting consumers to realize the CBD-plant connection.
“We’re basically cutting out the middlemen—there’s no extraction going on. We are just taking the raw flower and using it as Mother Nature intended,” he says. He adds that another benefit to smoking CBD-rich hemp flower is that the smoker accesses the full spectrum of the entire plant—all the different cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids. This wouldn’t be possible with hemp-derived CBD supplements.
Both Starmer and Ciuchta are focused on creating the best product possible. For Starmer, that means sourcing from farms that have sustainable environmental processes (Dad Grass sources from Hudson Hemp in New York state) and sun-grown hemp. For Ciuchta and High Ranch Farm, that means growing his hemp in indoor facilities—the kind that are normally reserved for cultivating high-THC chronic.
This way, Ciuchta is able to control the growing environment. Considering that hemp plants are tested to ensure a lack of THC content while they are still in the ground, it’s important to have hands on every step of the process.
“That climate control is important for the grow. You can have 100 acres of outdoor hemp and, let’s say, a heatwave comes in, that climate change can push the THC levels up to where it’s now technically illegal, above 0.3%. By law, you would have to destroy it. Obviously, some people do not destroy it and turn around and sell it on the black market,” he says.
I thought back to the time my friend’s “hot hemp” appeared in my hands and realized that is why it suddenly appeared in my plug network. I never had to look out for hemp in the supply before, why now? It is because smokable hemp is now more of a “thing.” Ciuchta agrees, attributing this to the struggles of a brand new market and detailing other dishonest business practices that are commonly heard of in both the cannabis and hemp industries.
He says that a lot of farmers started growing hemp for biomass, which they would then ship to an extraction facility so the hemp could be processed that into an isolated distillate—the stuff that makes up various CBD products many of you likely already own. This hemp glut flooded the market, leaving farmers sitting on product that they expected to sell.
“Now they have to figure out how to get rid of it and how to try and make a profit on it,” Ciuchta says. For many desperate farmers, that answer is the black market.
There are other issues of dishonesty in the hemp industry, Ciuchta says. “I think because they’re still hashing out the regulations and the testing procedures and such that a lot of stuff is kind of sneaking by,” he says, referring to government agencies and their inability to accurately regulate all aspects of the production process. “For instance, I know right now that I could order several pounds of hemp grown in Oregon or Colorado and get it shipped to me as hemp. And I can sell it without having any sort of testing done or any type of real regulation here because there’s no law written about that. So, people are passing that off as their own product.”
“And another way people can sneak around it is to have a batch tested, and then they get the lab result that shows a legal test. But who’s to say that they’re actually sending the same product that correlates to that test?” he asks. “I think there are a lot of people that are just in it for the money and who don’t necessarily care much about the consumer,” he says, adding that High Ranch Farm batches everything and checks THC levels at multiple points in their production processes.
Starmer and Ciuchta have both hinged their livelihoods on the market for high-quality, responsibly-grown, and well-cured smokable hemp. They are both confident that the proof is in the product—they hand roll bud-only and neither includes trim, stems, or seeds. Both say their premium hemp flower smells, tastes, and smokes just like the dank weed many of us are used to smoking, only without the high.
Ciuchta prides himself on not just how his hemp is grown, but also how it is finished. “You can grow really nice flower,” he says, “but you can screw it up in the last month if you don’t properly dry and cure it.” He says that his hemp is cured in optimal conditions—no flash drying because they want to make sure all chlorophyll is leached out of the plant, allowing the hemp’s terpenes and flavonoids to shine and producing a smooth, clean smoke.
So, the next time someone asks if you’re smoking “just” hemp? If we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic, I’d say let them try some of yours, but instead, maybe consider keeping an extra joint or bud on hand so a newbie can inspect or try smoking hemp for themselves. On several fronts, this is the new puff-puff-pass.
High Ranch Farms will be releasing its pre-rolls and flower around San Diego dispensaries in the coming weeks and their website will be operational within the next week. Dad Grass can be found online. Both can ship their products anywhere in the United States—hemp is fully legal!
I wrote about the benefits of combining weed and yoga for Yoga Journal
I was featured in Alfa Charlie’s “Behind the Mask” series, which asks San Diego small business owners how they’re faring during COVID. PS, they designed my logo! Check em out.
I was a guest on the Golden West podcast, where I talk all things wine and weed
Speaking of hemp!
You can shop at Goldleaf using this link for a 20% off discount anywhere on the site. After writing this Cannabitch, I like their hemp print. I get a kickback if you buy, just so you know.
Next week: an essay from writer Andrea Aliseda about Mexican identity and consuming cannabis as well as my thoughts on the concept of intoxication and the language we use to describe it. Please consider paying to subscribe! Thank you for being here.