For almost a century, people’s knowledge about cannabis has been synonymous with marijuana, a substance people use to get high—or higher. But, as unbelievable as it may sound, the non-psychotic version of marijuana i.e. hemp is among the longest-known domesticated products. For thousands of years, hemp has been used in textile, cordage, and paper industries.
The two cannabises are contrastingly different in their function, application, and cultivation. It is perhaps the century-old misinformation about Cannabis that has made it impossible for people to tell the difference between hemp and marijuana.
What is hemp?
Hemp, commonly known as industrial hemp, is a variety of the cannabis plant. Hemp cultivators grow this plant specifically for the industrial uses of the products that can be derived from it. It is typically found in the northern hemisphere. Hemp is among the very first plants that were spun into usable fiber about ten thousand years ago. Today, thanks to science and technology, hemp can be refined into a wide range of commercial items. These include paper, clothing, textiles, paint, biofuel, food, insulation, animal feed, and biodegradable plastic.
Hemp is primarily the non-psychoactive variety of the cannabis plant. That is because it contains less than 1% of THC—the psychotic component. Although hemp and cannabis as a drug (marijuana) both come from the same species of the cannabis plant, they are different strains with unique phytochemical composition and uses.
What is THC?
Tetrahydrocannabinol is one of the 113 identified cannabinoids in the cannabis plant. It is the principal psychoactive component of cannabis. When ingested into the human body, it interacts with the cannabinoid receptors of the endocannabinoid system of the body. This interaction sets off reactions which trigger the elated, euphoric, and paranoid behaviour in humans.
THC is present in high percentage in the marijuana variety of cannabis. This is the variety people smoke to get high. Hemp, however, is a different variety of the cannabis plant that contains less than 1% of THC. In fact, hemp is rich in another cannabinoid called cannabidiol (CBD) which does not have any psychoactive effects on the body. CBD, as a matter of fact, leaves medicinal effects on the human body and is being studied as the new alternative medicine for a number of medical conditions including depression, anxiety, cancer, epilepsy, chronic pain, etc.
Hemp vs Marijuana
Hemp and marijuana are both varieties of the same species of the cannabis plant, cannabis sativa. However, it is features like the chemical makeup, appearance, cultivation environment etc. that set them apart.
Hemp is primarily made up of the cannabinoid CBD. It does contain THC but in very low amounts (less than 1%; typically less than or equal to 0.3%). This decreases, or completely eliminates, the intoxicating effects of hemp.
Marijuana, on the other hand, hosts THC as the prime cannabinoid. This composition is what contributes to its extreme excitant effects on the body. An average batch of marijuana contains about 5-20% of THC content. Some premium marijuana may contain 25-30% of THC.
Owing to these chemical compositions, hemp and marijuana are grown for completely different purposes. The cultivation of marijuana focuses on recreational and some medicinal purposes. Hemp cultivation, however, is primarily for industrial purposes. Moreover, the different amounts of THC in both the varieties contribute heavily in determining the legality of each plant. Marijuana, because of high THC concentration is banned in most areas whereas hemp is typically legal based on multiple factors.
Even though most people are unable to identify, marijuana and hemp have very distinct appearances. In fact, hemp and marijuana can easily be differentiated by looking at their appearance, makeup, and natural adaptability. The two plants show noticeable and contrasting differences.
When you observe the leaves of the two plants, you will notice that marijuana leaves tend to be:
- A tight bud, or
- A nugget with organd hair.
Hemp leaves, on the other hand, are more likely to be skinnier leaves all of which are concentrated at the top. Some branches or leaves will exist just below the top part of the plant.
Observing the two plants from a distance tells us that marijuana looks like a short, fat bush whereas hemp is typically skinner and taller. Hemp plant can grow up to 20 ft. in height.
The environment in which hemp and marijuana are cultivated is contrastingly distinct as well. Marijuana requires a carefully controlled, humid, and warm atmosphere to grow properly. The typical growth cycle of marijuana is 60-90 days. Marijuana plants are typically grown 6 feet apart.
Hemp plant, however, does not require such a strict environment. In stark comparison in fact, hemp plants are grown closely together. They are typically 4 inches apart. More often than not, hemp cultivation occurs in large acre plots. It can grow in varied climates and its typical growth cycle is 108-120 days.
Marijuana and hemp plants are never grown together. If, in any way, a marijuana plant comes close to, or grows among, a hemp field, the hemp’s pollen will immediately ruin the marijuana crop thus diluting its psych activity.
Why are hemp and marijuana considered to be the same?
It can be confusing to understand that if hemp and marijuana are so contrastingly different, why are they considered to be synonymous to one another. It all began when because of the havoc that marijuana was creating, governments decided to ban the plant and anything associated with it.
For instance, in the United States, in the 1970s, the Controlled Substances Act was passed which grouped marijuana with all types of cannabis. Though it was unintentional, the world’s oldest domesticated crop, hemp, was banned. The result was not only the death of hemp but also its misconceived perception.
Is Hemp Legal?
Cannabis, in general, has had the attention and interest of many people all over the world. To an average person’s knowledge, cannabis is illegal in the world. But different jurisdictions take different stands. This is usually governed by the THC content of the cannabis variety. For instance, since hemp has less than 1% of THC levels, the majority of the countries have legalised the use of 0.2% of THC levels.
This, obviously, does not play well for marijuana because it has ridiculously high levels of THC. Marijuana is still illegal in most parts of the world.
In India, for instance, the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act banned the production and sale of cannabis flower and resin. But, it permitted the use of leaves and seeds. The National Policy on NDPS recognises cannabis as a source of biomass, high-value oil, and fibre. Therefore, cultivating cannabis for industrial purposes such as for horticultural use or for making industrial hemp is legal in the country. The government of India also encourages research and cultivation of cannabis with low THC content.
What are the uses of hemp?
Hemp is primarily and actively used for industrial purposes. Hemp was among the first plants to be spun into usable fiber about ten thousand years ago. It’s presence in the earliest innovations of mankind has been backed by archaeological evidence.
Fun fact: hemp was a major component in the 600-year-old Gutenberg Bible.
It’s one of the fastest growing plants in the world and can potentially be refined into multiple commercial items like clothing, textile, paper, paint, insulation, food, and animal feed, oils, and more. In the present scenario, hemp is being used all over the world to produce a wide range of hemp products.
Hemp as Food
Hemp seeds are a rich source of nutrition. They can be eaten raw, sprouted, ground into hemp meals, or made into dried sprout powder. The high nutritional value of hemp seeds comes from high levels of arginine and sulphur-rich protein fraction. The seeds also contain about 75% of salt-soluble globulins and about 25% of water-soluble albumin as the primary storage proteins.
A 100g serving of hemp can provide approximately 64% of the daily protein value. In addition to that, hemp seeds are rich in dietary fiber, B vitamins, and dietary minerals like magnesium, iron, zinc, and phosphorus.
Food-based hemp products
The research into hemp has led to the creation of several hemp-based edibles. After nutritionists and doctors identified the value of hemp seeds, they refined them into substances like:
- Hemp protein powder
- Hemp flour
- Hemp seed oil
- Hemp butter
- Hemp spread
- Hemp hot dogs
Hemp is not only an ideal solid food but makes a great beverage as well. Hemp seeds can be added to our drinks to make:
- Hemp tea
- Hemp coffee
- Hemp milk
- Hemp beer
- Hemp vodka
- Hemp smoothies
Hemp as Building Material
Hemp is employed in combination with lime to make concrete-like blocks to serve the purpose of insulating material in construction. These materials have been used in electronics, cars, and houses since the 20th century.
The industrial use of hemp has nurtured the development of hemp ropes and hemp concrete. These help in building eco-friendly homes. Developments in the uses of hemp have also pointed us towards solving one of the major problems of today—plastic. Hemp Plastic is a biodegradable plastic which is more sustainable than conventional plastic. It is also easy on the pocket and is currently used to make pens, sunglasses, cars, and some hemp-based craft items as well.
Hemp as Biofuel
The oil made from hemp seeds is used to make biodiesel and the complete fermentation of the plant yields alcohol fuel. Filtered hemp oil is used to power diesel engines. The biodiesels made from hemp are sometimes called hempoline. By fermenting the whole hemp plant, we can make alcohol fuel as well.
Producing vehicle fuel from hemp is easier and less complicated than the conventional biodiesel and biogas.
Hemp in CBD
The CBD industry has seen tremendous growth in the past few years. The natural, therapeutic benefits of CBD have led to a consistently increasing demand for CBD products. Since hemp is the primary source of CBD, the use of hemp has elevated more than ever before.
Hemp Clothing and Accessories
Hemp fiber is spun into making super comfortable and more eco-friendly hemp clothes. The line of hemp clothing includes the following products till date:
- Hemp shirts/t-shirts
- Hemp pants
- Hemp coats
- Hemp jeans
- Hemp beanies/hats
- hemp pocket squares
The accessories made from the hemp include:
- Hemp shoes
- Hemp sandals
- Hemp totes
- Hemp wallets
- Hemp ties
- Hemp sunglasses
Other hemp inventions
Hemp by-products are used to create an increasing number of usable products. The pulp obtained from the fibres of industrial hemp is used to make hemp paper in different varieties. Knotting hemp twines through the practice of macramé gives us hemp jewellery which includes hemp bracelets, necklaces, anklets, watches, etc.
Hemp is also employed to create animal bedding (e.g. for horses) or for horticultural mulch. Hemp rope, which was used in ancient times by sailing ships, is today used for industrial and construction purposes.
Hemp is also used as a mop crop to extract the impurities from the wastewater. These impurities include sewage effluent, excess amounts of phosphorous from chicken, and other similarly unwanted chemicals and substances. Hemp is also helping in cleaning the contaminants from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site.
Moreover, hemp crops are often grown densely together as a smother crop to kill tough weeds. In this way, hemp contributes to weed control. This technique helps farmers, to some extent, ignore the use of herbicides and gain organic certification.
Future of Hemp
Hemp has received its unfair share of criticism for almost 5 decades. Now, with the times and perceptions of the people changing, hemp is slowly rising to fame. Multiple industries are beginning to realise the potential this crop holds. It is sustainable and eco-friendly. It is also a vegan crop which is attracting the attention of many people throughout the world.
With its ease of cultivation and processing, it is becoming everyone’s new favourite substance. Industries are working towards maintaining this favouritism. Its major component, CBD, is being studied for its therapeutic effects. And now with the growing popularity of CBD all over the world and the practical uses that hemp provides in the pan-industry domain, the hemp industry is positioned to skyrocket further into the future.