For almost a century, people’s knowledge about cannabis has been synonymous with marijuana, a substance people use to get high—or higher. But,cannabis has a non-psychotic plant species called hemp which is essentially the longest-known domesticated products. For thousands of years, hemp has been used in textile, cordage, and paper industries.
The two cannabis plants 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 the two varieties.
What is hemp?
Industrial hemp is a variety of the cannabis plant. Hemp cultivators grow this plant specifically for the industrial uses of its derivative products. It typically grows 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, this plant can be refined into a wide range of commercial items. These include paper, clothing, textiles, paint, biofuel, food, insulation, animal feed, and biodegradable plastic.
It contains less than 1% of THC—the psychotic component. Although hemp and marijuana belong to the same cannabis family, they are different strains with unique phytochemical composition and uses.
What is THC?
Tetrahydrocannabinol is one of the 113 cannabinoids present 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 of the plant that people smoke to get high. Hemp, however, is a different variety of the cannabis plant that contains less than 1% of THC. In fact, it is rich in another cannabinoid 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.
What is the difference between Hemp & Marijuana?
Both the plants are 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.
The major component in hemp is 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, its intoxicating effects.
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, the agenda behind cultivating these two plants is completely different. 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 the difference, the two plants have very distinct appearances. In fact, a close look at their appearance, makeup, and natural adaptability can help differentiate them.
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 concentrate 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. It can grow up to 20 ft. in height.
The two plants grow in contrastingly different environments. Marijuana requires a carefully controlled, humid, and warm atmosphere to grow properly. The typical growth cycle of marijuana is 60-90 days. Cultivators typically grow marijuana plants about 6 feet apart.
Hemp plant, however, does not require such a strict environment. They are typically 4 inches apart. More often than not, its cultivation occurs in large acre plots. It can grow in varied climates and its typical growth cycle is 108-120 days.
The two 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 the synonymity of the two plants if they are so contrastingly different. 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, the Controlled Substances Act of the United States, groups all types of cannabis together imposing a band on hemp. This not only led to the death of hemp but also its misconceived perception.
What is the legal status of Hemp?
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 the hemp plant 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 is hemp used for?
This plant is primarily and actively used for industrial purposes. It is among the first plants to be spun into usable fibre about ten thousand years ago. Archaeological evidence backs the presence of the plant in the earliest innovations of mankind.
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.
Hemp seeds are a rich source of nutrition. They can be eaten raw, sprouted, ground into meals, or made into dried sprout powder. The high nutritional value of the 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 these seeds can provide approximately 64% of the daily protein value. In addition to that, they are rich in dietary fibre, B vitamins, and dietary minerals like magnesium, iron, zinc, and phosphorus.
Research into the same has led to the creation of several hemp-based edibles. After nutritionists and doctors identified the seeds’ value, they refined them into substances like protein powder, flour, seed oil, butter, spread, and hot dogs.
In addition to being an ideal solid food, it makes a great beverage as well. We can also add these seeds to our drinks to make hemp tea, coffee, milk, beer, vodka, and smoothies.
As Building Material
The combination of hemp and lime yields 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 the plant has nurtured the development of ropes and concrete that help in building eco-friendly homes. Developments in the uses of the plant 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 can make pens, sunglasses, cars, and some craft items as well.
The oil made from hemp seeds can produce biodiesel and alcohol fuel. Filtered hemp oil can power diesel engines. These biodiesels are sometimes called hempoline. By fermenting the whole plant, we can make alcohol fuel as well.
Producing vehicle fuel from the plant is easier and less complicated than conventional biodiesel and biogas.
As a source of 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.
As Clothing and Accessories
Hemp fibre is used to make super comfortable and more eco-friendly clothes. This line of sustainable clothing includes shirts, t-shirt, pants, coats, jeans, beanies, hats, pocket squares etc.
The accessories made from the plant include shoes, sandals, totes, wallets, ties, sunglasses, dreamcatchers, etc.
Hemp by-products create an increasing number of usable products. The pulp from the fibres of the plant makes paper in different varieties. Knotting hemp twines through the practice of macramé gives us hemp jewellery which includes bracelets, necklaces, anklets, watches, etc.
It can also 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 a mop crop that extracts impurities from 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, cultivators grow hemp crops 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.
What is the 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 its pan-industry practical uses, hemp’s future looks promising.