Say the word hemp and you are bound to get mixed reactions.

Mostly confused with its psychedelic cousin, marijuana, industrial hemp is quite different and has multiple uses including textiles/clothing, paper, food, building materials and even fuel. Hemp is the longest and strongest plant fiber and is in fact so versatile that I think its best to wax lyrical about this wonder plant in a series of articles, with Part One providing a general overview of hemp vs. marijuana, its environmental benefits, some history and legality.

First things first – What is the Difference Between Industrial Hemp and Marijuana?

Both species are classified as C.sativa (there are hundreds of varieties) and are both members of the mulberry family (who knew?)

Industrial hemp however is not a drug crop. Its has less than 1% of THC (the stuff that gets you high) – usually as little as 0.05-0.3%, whereas marijuana has usually 3-20% THC. In fact, cross-pollination between hemp and marijuana actually decreases the drug content as hemp transfers the genes for low drug content. It would therefore not make sense for drug producers to “hide” marijuana plants inside industrial hemp fields, as is a common argument against hemp production.

Industrial hemp derives most of its usage from the stalks and seeds. It is therefore grown very close together, to promote height and stalk growth. Marijuana is grown in widely spaced areas to promote leaf growth –  and is shorter and more bushy in comparison.

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The Environmental Benefits of Growing Hemp

The widespread use of industrial hemp could result in many environmental benefits, including but not limited to:

  • less reliance on fossil fuels
  • more efficient use of energy
  • less long-term atmospheric build-up of carbon dioxide
  • soil redemption
  • forest conservation
  • agricultural pesticide, dioxin and other pollutant use reduction
  • landfill use reduction

Hemp is fast to grow, naturally resilient to pests and uses much less water (usually rain water not irrigation) to cultivate compared to conventional cotton for example. It actually improves soil quality due to its deep root system and can be used as a rotation crop for wheat, corn and soy.

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Historical and Industrial Facts 

  • Hemp has been grown for at least the last 12,000 years for textiles, paper and food.
  • There are over 25000 different types of products that can be made from hemp
  • George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew hemp, which was an important crop for the American colonies
  • Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper.
  • Henry Ford experimented with hemp to build car bodies. Today, BMW is doing the same as part of an effort to make cars more recyclable.
  • Rudolph Diesel – creator of the diesel engine – designed his engine to run on hemp oil.

Legality

If hemp is so wonderful, then why is it illegal to grow in so many countries, including the U.S – especially since hemp was grown commercially in the United States until the 1950s (?)

The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 dealt the main blow, which basically clumped industrial hemp with marijuana together and made hemp prohibitively expensive to grow. Many big industries such as cotton, paper, plastics and fossil fuels have all benefited from this hemp ban over the years.

Luckily there is renewed interest and education in industrial hemp globally, particularly as the environmental impact of conventionally grown crops and fossil fuels can no longer be ignored. Many industrialized nations have already legalized hemp including US neighbor Canada, which exports many hemp-based products (including Manitoba Harvest, whose brand philosophy and products I love, just saying:) into the US. Strangely enough hemp products are legal in the US – just illegal to grow – mostly. Some states have made the cultivation of industrial hemp legal — North Dakota, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Oregon, California, Montana, West Virginia and Vermont — although growth is limited due to resistance from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

Most of the information about hemp was obtained from the North American Industrial Hemp Council, which aims to re-establish and expand the use of industrial hemp in the US. You can read more about them here.

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I will leave you with one last weird and wonderful fact about hemp. Kimberley Clark, the US-based makers of Kleenex (and others) have used industrial hemp in France to make paper for Bibles, as hemp-based paper lasts longer and does not yellow…

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