The hemp plant , also known as Cannabis, is harvested for its fibers, seed, seed meal and seed oil. As a variety of the plant species cannabis sativa L. and due to its distinctive leaf shape, hemp is frequently confused with marijuana. Although both plants are from the species cannabis, hemp contains virtually no THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), the active ingredient in marijuana. Hemp cannot be used as a drug because it produces virtually only trace amounts of THC, where marijuana produces between 5 - 20 % THC.
Hemp is the only plant that contains all of the Essential Fatty Acids (EFA's) required by humans. The body does not generate these EFA's and so must ingest them. EFA's clear cholesterol from arteries, supports the immune system efficiency and provide necessary brain nourishment. Hempseeds provide the oils for creating food out of Hemp, including: food grade oil, raw seeds, roasted seeds and flour. At a volume level of 81%, hemp oil is the richest known source of EFA's. It's quite high in some essential amino acids, including gamma linoleic acid (GLA), a very rare nutrient also found in mother's milk.
Hemp has provided almost every single human society in history with many of its needs. For example, the word "canvas" is derived from the Dutch pronunciation of the Greek word "Kannabis". Etymologists trace "Kannabis" back to the early Sumerian/Babylonian word "K(a)N(a)B(a)" , one of the longest surviving root words in human language. In modern times, industrial hemp has been used for industrial purposes including paper, textiles, biodegradable plastics, construction, health food, and fuel.
Hemp is grown for industrial use in Europe, Canada, France, and China. While more hemp is exported to the United States than to any other country, the United States Government does not consistently distinguish between marijuana and the non-psychoactive Cannabis used for industrial and commercial purposes. Some of the important historical facts about hemp include:
- Hemp has been grown for at least the last 12,000 years for fiber (textiles and paper) and food. It has been effectively prohibited in the United States since the 1950s.
- George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew hemp. Ben Franklin owned a mill that made hemp paper. Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper.
- When US sources of "Manila hemp" (not true hemp) was cut off by the Japanese in WWII, the US Army and US Department of Agriculture promoted the "Hemp for Victory" campaign to grow hemp in the US.
- Because of its importance for sails (the word "canvass" is rooted in "cannabis") and rope for ships, hemp was a required crop in the American colonies.
- Henry Ford experimented with hemp to build car bodies. He wanted to build and fuel cars from farm products.
- BMW is experimenting with hemp materials in automobiles as part of an effort to make cars more recyclable.
- Much of the birdseed sold in the US has hemp seed (it's sterilized before importation), the hulls of which contain about 25% protein.
- Hemp oil once greased machines. Most paints, resins, shellacs, and varnishes used to be made out of linseed (from flax) and hemp oils.
- Rudolph Diesel designed his engine to run on hemp oil.
- Kimberly Clark (on the Fortune 500) has a mill in France which produces hemp paper preferred for bibles because it lasts a very long time and doesn't yellow.
- Construction products such as medium density fiberboard, oriented strand board, and even beams, studs and posts could be made out of hemp. Hemp's long fibers create products that are stronger and/or lighter than those made from wood.
- The products that can be made from hemp number over 25,000.
The Science of Hemp
- Industrial hemp is bred to maximize fiber, seed and/or oil, while marijuana varieties seek to maximize THC (delta 9 tetrahydrocannabinol, the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana).
- If hemp does pollinate any nearby marijuana, genetically, the result will always be lower-THC marijuana, not higher-THC hemp.
- Hemp fibers are longer, stronger, more absorbent and more mildew-resistant than cotton.
- Fabrics made of at least one-half hemp block the sun's UV rays more effectively than other fabrics.
- Many of the varieties of hemp that were grown in North America have been lost. Seed banks weren't maintained. New genetic breeding will be necessary using both foreign and domestic "ditchweed," strains of hemp that went feral after cultivation ended. Various state national guard units often spend their weekends trying to eradicate this hemp, in the mistaken belief they are helping stop drug use.
- A 1938 Popular Mechanics described hemp as a "New Billion Dollar Crop." That's back when a billion was real money.
- Hemp can be made in to a variety of fabrics, including linen quality.
Hemp and the Law
- The US Drug Enforcement Agency classifies all C. sativa varieties as "marijuana." While it is theoretically possible to get permission from the government to grow hemp, DEA would require that the field be secured by fence, razor wire, dogs, guards, and lights, making it cost-prohibitive.
- The US State Department must certify each year that a foreign nation is cooperating in the war on drugs. The European Union subsidizes its farmers to grow industrial hemp. Those nations are not on this list, because the State Department can tell the difference between hemp and marijuana.
- Hemp was grown commercially (with increasing governmental interference) in the United States until the 1950s. It was doomed by the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which placed an extremely high tax on marijuana and made it effectively impossible to grow industrial hemp. While Congress expressly expected the continued production of industrial hemp, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics lumped industrial hemp with marijuana, as it's successor the US Drug Enforcement Administration, does to this day.
- Over 30 industrialized democracies do distinguish hemp from marijuana. International treaties regarding marijuana make an exception for industrial hemp.
- Canada now again allows the growing of hemp.
Hemp and Ecology
- Hemp growers cannot hide marijuana plants in their fields. Marijuana is grown widely spaced to maximize leaves. Hemp is grown in tightly-spaced rows to maximize stalk and is usually harvested before it goes to seed.
- Hemp can be made into fine quality paper. The long fibers in hemp allow such paper to be recycled several times more than wood-based paper.
- Because of its low lignin content, hemp can be pulped using less chemicals than with wood. Its natural brightness can obviate the need to use chlorine bleach, which means no extremely toxic dioxin being dumped into streams. A kinder and gentler chemistry using hydrogen peroxide rather than chlorine dioxide is possible with hemp fibers.
- Hemp grows well in a variety of climates and soil types. It is naturally resistant to most pests, precluding the need for pesticides. It grows tightly spaced, out-competing any weeds, so herbicides are not necessary. It also leaves a weed-free field for a following crop.
- Hemp can displace cotton which is usually grown with massive amounts of chemicals harmful to people and the environment. 50% of all the world's pesticides are sprayed on cotton.
- Hemp can displace wood fiber and save forests for watershed, wildlife habitat, recreation and oxygen production, carbon sequestration (reduces global warming), and other values.
- Hemp can yield 3-8 dry tons of fiber per acre. This is four times what an average forest can yield.