What is Hemp?

As cannabis grows more popular and recreational marijuana becomes increasingly legal, many are left wondering: what is hemp? Don't fret, we will explain it in this article!

Cannabis was made illegal amid the War on Drugs in the '70s, during which it was deemed that cannabis had "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse."

The United States' demonization of cannabis was then spread throughout the world, and the criminalization of cannabis followed. Today, cannabis remains illegal in most countries on the planet.

Many people know cannabis as the green plant that gets users high upon consumption, the same plant popularized in the Cheech and Chong films, Pineapple Express, Friday, and many other stoner films.

However, the name 'cannabis' actually refers to a family of plants, also known as 'Cannabis Sativa' under which the hemp and marijuana plants belong.

The plant that gets users high is actually marijuana, referred to by many as ganja, reefer, weed, pot, kush, sticky, and many more names.

Hemp, on the other hand, is a non-psychoactive plant that is used to create foods such as hemp seeds, oils, soups, and beverages, as well as textiles and materials like concrete and plastics.

And so, while marijuana has some capacity for misuse given its psychoactive effects, hemp is much safer for use and consumption given its low THC content, which renders it non-intoxicating.

The History of Hemp

The hemp plant has been literally interwoven into history for thousands of years, with the earliest records of hemp usage tracing back to 8,000 BC in Taiwan, where hemp cords were discovered in pottery.

Hemp has been so intertwined with human life that the American Astronomer and Astrophysicist Carl Sagan even thought to himself that "it would be wryly interesting if in human history the cultivation of marijuana led generally to the invention of agriculture and thereby society."

Traces of hemp cloth have also been found by Archaeologists, spanning back to Mesopotamia (now Iran and Iraq) close to six thousand years ago.

In 6,000 BC records show hemp seeds and oil were also used as a food source in China, and in 4,000 BC textiles made from hemp have also been found in the same region.

Hemp use was seemingly exclusive to China and parts of the Middle East, with the Chinese using the plant to create the first documented hemp-based paper in 200 BC. Hemp isn't believed to have appeared in Europe until roughly 1,200 BC, and in the Americas, it wasn't until the 1600s when the plant became an agricultural crop.

However, hemp's breakout role was undoubtedly the time it was used as paper to create one of the most expensive books ever written: The Gutenberg Bible.

As one of the first books produced with Gutenberg's printing press, the hemp-based book is considered the beginning of popular books printed on hemp and is worth over $25 million.

Not only that, but hemp was the second most commonly used material in making boats, and as such, three of Christopher Columbus' boats had hemp sails and ropes when he first arrived in America.

The founding fathers also took a liking to the plant, with George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson all being avid hemp farmers. Thomas Jefferson is said to have had one of the very first patents in the United States for his hemp threshing machine.

And finally, the first two drafts of the Declaration of Independence were also written on hemp paper!

The Rise of CBD

Hemp has since made a resurgence as of late, having been made legal in the U.S. following the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, which allowed farmers to cultivate hemp crops for sale and distribution across the country.

According to the FDA:

"In December of 2018, the 2018 Farm Bill was signed into law. It removed hemp, defined as cannabis (Cannabis sativa L.) and derivatives of cannabis with extremely low concentrations of the psychoactive compound delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) (no more than 0.3 percent THC on a dry weight basis), from the definition of marijuana in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA)."

This legalization of hemp gave rise to a new industry in the U.S., the CBD industry. While tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the active compound in cannabis that gets users high, cannabidiol (CBD) is a non-psychoactive compound that comes with many of the same medicinal benefits as marijuana.

Importantly, CBD can be harvested from hemp plants, allowing for the proliferation of hemp-derived CBD across many parts of the world that allow for hemp cultivation.

Now, CBD has drawn the attention of celebrities such as Martha Stewart, Whoopi Goldberg, Willie Nelson, and many others, with the global CBD market projected to be worth tens of billions in the coming years.

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Louis O'Neill
Louis O'Neill

Louis is a writer based in Sydney with a focus on social and political issues. Having interviewed local politicians and entrepreneurs, Louis now focuses on cannabis culture, legislation & reform.