What is Hemp? A Look at the History and Many Uses of Hemp

avatar WeedWeek / Apr 23, 2020

Hemp has been used by human beings for thousands of years, in a variety of different ways. From the sails of ocean-going ships to rope, paper, clothing, and more, hemp, which derives from the fibers of the cannabis sativa plant, is an extraordinarily versatile and durable material.

Due in part to marijuana’s illegality, hemp isn’t as widely used as it was several hundred years ago. With cannabis use legalized recreationally in 11 states, and with medical programmes  in dozens more, minds are starting to change and hemp is generating interest once again. 

Before getting into the many practical uses, first let’s discuss what hemp is.

What is Hemp? 

Hemp is a strong, durable fiber extracted from the cannabis sativa plant. It was one of the first materials to be used as a woven fabric approximately 10,000 years ago. It consists of all of the parts of the plant, including the stalk and seeds, that have negligible amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical compound in marijuana that gets recreational users high. 

While hemp only has trace levels of THC, it can be a source of CBD, a chemical compound of cannabis that has many medicinal uses. 

Is Hemp a Drug?

Hemp is not a drug. It is a naturally occurring fiber that has numerous practical and industrial uses. Advocates argue it is a less expensive and more environmentally sustainable material than wood-based products, and it can be used to make paper, textiles, biofuel, building material and other uses.

Can You Smoke Hemp? 

Truth is, you can smoke almost anything if you want to, but just because it can be rolled up and smoked doesn’t make it a good idea. Hemp doesn’t have the THC levels that recreational cannabis users desire. And while CBD can be found in the plant, smoking it is not the recommended application of medicine; instead the plant is processed into  hemp oils, creams, balms, or hemp seeds in food.

What is Hemp Used For?

The plant’s versatility suggests that it will only become more useful as we learn more about it. From a food source rich in protein, a durable textile, building material, biofuel and more, its adaptability across industries is truly impressive.

Food

Hemp seeds have a subtle, nutty flavor and can be used in products ranging from plant-based milks and cheeses, oils, protein powders, and much more. The oil can be used as a substitute for cooking oil and used in place of butter and margarine.

Nutrition

Hemp seeds are highly nutritious. They are high in protein, omega-3 and omega-6 acids, and are full of  a variety of vitamins and minerals that have some people going as far to call the seeds a superfood.

The seeds are packed with arginine, which produces nitric oxide. Nitric oxide helps to relax blood vessels, making them dilate. This uptick in nitric oxide can help lower blood pressure and improve the general flow of blood throughout the body and heart. Studies are being performed to see whether hemp seeds can reduce the risk of heart disease, the number one killer worldwide of preventable and reversible illnesses. 

Another suggested health benefit includes improvements in digestion due to high levels of dietary fiber. The high levels of fatty acids in the seeds are known to improve skin, hair, and nails.

Fiber

The plant’s most common use is as a fiber. It is strong, durable, and can be grown quickly and sustainably. The fiber can be used for rope, food, bioplastics, biofuel, clothing, paper, building materials, jewelry, and more. It has potential applications across many industries, not only as a stronger alternative to cotton and other textiles, but also as a more sustainable substitute for the paper industry, which has a huge carbon footprint and is destructive to the environment. 

Hemp as a Building Material

Hempcrete is a material made from the plant that can be used to construct homes and buildings. It can replace concrete blocks and is also a practical alternative for roofs, floors, and insulation.

One Kentucky-based company has started growing hemp in high quantities and turning it into wood for building materials. They will transform the fibers into flooring and blocks. With a density 15% that of concrete, hempcrete can even float on water, meaning it needs to be used with a solid embedded structure. The process of replacing building materials with hemp alternatives could have a positive impact on the environment and is a lighter alternative for builders, making construction projects go faster and decreasing the risk of injuries.

Hemp Paper

For thousands of years, hemp was used to make paper. The Chinese were the first to do this, introducing paper made fully from the plant back in 150 BC. It wasn’t until the 19th century that paper manufacturing switched to wood pulp. 

The paper industry has long been equipped to produce paper from wood. Transitioning to the machinery and processes required to produce paper from hemp would require extensive retrofitting. These challenges and others mean we are not yet at a point where hemp paper could replace paper made from wood pulp. However, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a possibility in the future. 

At present, hemp paper is mainly used for stationary, art paper, teabags, and of course rolling papers. Many weed smokers enjoy a joint that is 100% derived from the cannabis plant.

Hemp Biofuel

Hemp can also be used as a renewable source of fuel. Bioethanol and biodiesel are two different kinds of biofuels that can be made from the plant. Despite the excitement surrounding the idea, we are still a long way away from a world where hemp biofuel (or any other biofuel) takes significant market share from the fossil fuel industry.

What is Hemp Used for Medically?

Hemp can be used to treat a wide variety of different health issues. It has been used as a medicine for thousands of years, beginning in China.

Many studies are currently in progress to confirm the medical benefits of CBD found in hemp. While the evidence remains anecdotal, many users believe CBD can help with symptoms ranging from joint pain and arthritis to fibromyalgia and multiple sclerosis.

What’s the Difference Between Hemp and Marijuana? 

According to the U.S. government, the only difference is hemp contains less than 0.3% THC. There are quite a few differences between the plants even thought many people falsely incorrectly believe they are the same thing. 

Harvesting and Usage

Without the goal of maximizing THC content for consumption, hemp is grown, harvested and processed differently from marijuana. Comparing the two is a bit like comparing popcorn and corn syrup. They come from the same plant but they are completely different products grown and processed  in completely different ways.

Legality of Hemp and Marijuana

Another major difference between hemp and marijuana involves. In the U.S., hemp cultivation, manufacturing, and distribution was legalized in the 2018 Farm Bill. Marijuana, on the other hand, remains federally illegal even though it has been legalized for recreational use in 11 states and medicinal use in more than 30 states. Cannabis users should know the laws in their jurisdiction; There are still places in the U.S. that will jail you for having trace amounts of marijuana.

Cultivation

Hemp grows best in climates with warm weather and soil that is rich in organic material. It typically takes between three and four months to grow before it is harvested. The crop grows best in relatively consistent climate conditions.

Harvesting

How hemp is harvested depends on the purpose of a particular crop. If a crop will be used to process CBD oil, the process will be far different than a crop used for an industrial purpose like textiles or biofuels.

Hemp being grown for CBD extraction uses much more space and the plants are generally tended to on an individual basis to ensure quality. For this purpose, farmers will typically grow 1,500 plants per acre. For industrial uses, a farmer can grow hundreds of thousands of plants per acre. He will harvest the crops in a similar fashion to a farmer harvesting crops like wheat or corn. 

Diseases

Like any other crop, hemp farmers need to be careful about diseases that can wipe out their crop.  Overall, hemp is considered a highly resilient crop, though it is vulnerable to numerous diseases. 

Though they can all be a threat, the plant is more susceptible to fungal diseases than bacterial, viral, or parasitic blights. The types of diseases vary greatly depending on climate, region, and proximity to other crops. 

Environmental Impact

Hemp is a highly sustainable and eco-friendly crop for a variety of reasons.  

Because it doesn’t require pesticides to be cultivated at scale, the soil does not absorb chemicals that poison the water table, and eventually local waterways and oceans. Compared with cotton, for example, hemp crops require far less water and can be grown in a shorter period of time.

Processing

The process of separating the hemp fibers from the cannabis plant stem is done with a process called retting. It uses water to break down the cellular tissues of a plant’s stem, pulling the fibers away in bulk.

If the plant is being processed for use as a clothing fiber, the process will be different from hemp that is destined to be used in construction projects or as biofuel When used as clothing, specific fibers will be used from the cannabis plant to ensure a softer textile. For construction projects, on the other hand, all parts of the plant will be used in the formation of blocks and other materials.

Hemp Producers

With hemp newly legal, American production exploded in 2019. Farmers planted more than 288,000 acres of the crop, more than 10 times as much as in 2018. That number is expected to keep rising.

In the U.S., the legalization of CBD has driven the demand, and thus, the industrial cultivation. But the US isn’t the only place that is seeing a rush to embrace the crop. 

The top five countries in terms of production are the US, China, Colombia, Canada, and South Korea. China is seen to be a leader in hemp innovation and production, growing approximately half of the world’s legal supply.

Conclusion

The versatility and sustainability of hemp, along with changes in law and public opinion, mean that it will likely have a larger role in the cannabis  industry in the years to come. 

It has also become an increasingly important resource as people demand more sustainable business practices, in a world that is increasingly vulnerable to climate change. Combined with a general positive shift in the public perception of cannabis, hemp will only grow in popularity. As more countries with strong economies open up restrictions and legalize the commercialization of hemp, it’s likely we will see more follow suit. 

It’s only a matter of time before cannabis, in general, has widespread acceptance and as more people and countries embrace the plant, hemp’s place in the world will only become more significant.

 

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