Hemp is an incredibly valuable plant with a complicated and shadowy history, a plant that has been grown by humans for thousands of years for its fibers, seeds, and medicinal properties. It has gone from being a medicine of emperors and queens to a dangerous narcotic in the eyes of the United States government, so how did it end up a ubiquitous ingredient in health foods available on the shelves of every grocery store across the country in 2019?
What Is Hemp?
Hemp, often referred to as industrial hemp, is a non-psychoactive varietal of the Cannabis Sativa plant. Hemp is rich in phytonutrients, including cannabinoids, flavonoids, and terpenes.
Read below to find out more about its history, its properties, and the long road to legalization for this beneficial plant.
Cannabinoids – Cannabinoids are the chemical compounds that set Cannabis Sativa apart. A diverse class of chemical compounds, they are the naturally occurring counterpart to chemicals produced by a very important system in the human body, the Endogenous Cannabinoid System (named after the plant which led to its discovery.) “Endocannabinoid” refers to cannabinoids that occur naturally in the body, while “phytocannabinoid” refers to those that occur naturally in plants. CBD and THC are both cannabinoids.
Flavonoids – Flavonoids are phytonutrients found most commonly in fruits and vegetables. These powerful antioxidants support the immune system and have anti-inflammatory properties. Flavonoids are associated with the health benefits of diets rich in fruits and vegetables.
Terpenes – Terpenes have anti-inflammatory properties, and behave very similarly to cannabinoids in the body. They are also responsible for the distinct smell that hemp and other cannabis plants have.
When contained in full-spectrum hemp oil, terpenes contribute to a compounding nutritional effect called ‘the entourage effect’, in which the benefits provided by the cannabinoids are increased by the presence of other nutrients contained in the plant.
Hemp is differentiated from the psychoactive form of cannabis, marijuana, by its very low levels of THC. To be considered industrial hemp, a plant must contain less than .3% of the cannabinoid THC. Also a varietal of Cannabis Sativa, marijuana generally contains the same number of cannabinoids as hemp but is grown for the psychoactive properties of THC and has no specified limit or quantity of THC.
What Is Hemp Used For?
Hemp is an incredibly diverse plant that is used to make anything from food, to textiles, to rope, to dietary supplements, to body care.
Full-Spectrum Hemp Oil – Full-spectrum hemp oil (not to be confused with hemp seed oil) is a tincture made from the stems and leaves of the hemp plant, capturing hemp’s valuable cannabinoids and phytonutrients. While some hemp oils are made with the primary purpose of capturing cannabinoids (specifically CBD) whole plant full-spectrum oil is made using the entire hemp plant and contains all of its phytonutrients including flavonoids and terpenes as well as cannabinoids. The result is a tincture with a powerhouse of phytonutrients.
Food – Hemp seeds have been used as a food source for thousands of years. They are an excellent source of protein, rich in omegas and high in unsaturated fatty acids and can be found in many health food products. From hemp milk to hemp cereal, to hulled hemp seeds, hemp is on the rise.
Clothing – Fibers from hemp have been used to make cloth and rope for millennia, and in the 21st century even big clothing companies have begun to sell clothing made from hemp. Hemp cloth is very similar to linen, with the added benefit of being hypoallergenic and non-irritating to the skin. It is also an environmentally friendly cloth, as hemp production takes significantly less water than other crops grown for textiles such as cotton.
Body Care – Hemp (mainly hemp seed oil) can be found in a range of body products from lotions to shampoos to soap. Hemp seed oil is used for its ability to moisturize and replenish the skin due to its high concentrations of essential fatty acids, including a balance of Omega 3 and Omega 6. Cannabinoids derived from hemp are also sometimes added to lotions and other body products for their soothing effect.
Plastic – Hemp is prolific and easy to grow which makes it a great option for producing bioplastics. Plastic made from hemp is recyclable, biodegradable, and has the potential to absorb carbon reducing the greenhouse effect. All in all a great alternative to petrochemical plastics.
Where Does Hemp Come From?
China is currently the top producer of hemp worldwide, growing nearly 70% of the world’s hemp as of 2019. However, since the United States legalized hemp cultivation in 2018, domestic hemp production has skyrocketed. The United States now ranks as the third-biggest producer of hemp in the world, just below Canada and above France and Chile. The vast majority of hemp in the United States is grown for the production of CBD, however, as hemp production increases we can expect to see more hemp grown for textiles and other purposes.
Historically hemp has been grown all over the world for nearly as long as humans have been farming and is even thought to have been what is known as a ‘camp follower’ during the period that humans were nomadic. Hemp was a valuable plant for early humans because it was easy to grow and the entire plant was usable. It is also adaptable to a wide range of soil conditions and climate and is very easy to grow with a high yield per acre.
Why Did Hemp Become Illegal In The United States?
To understand why hemp was criminalized in the United States it is essential to understand the history of THC heavy strains of Cannabis Sativa and the racially motivated policies surrounding its reputation. During prohibition in the United States, strains of cannabis high in THC began to be used recreationally, taking the place of alcohol. This, coupled with the fact that cannabis tinctures often contained opium or cocaine as well as cannabis, began to give cannabis a negative reputation as a narcotic.
When prohibition ended in 1930, the director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics Harry J. Anslinger began a campaign targeting cannabis as just that – a narcotic. Films such as Reefer Madness were produced to influence public opinion and gain support for “anti-marijuana” laws. Anslinger was also responsible for popularizing the designation “marijuana” as opposed to hemp or cannabis, as a part of his campaign, with the intention of creating a negative association with Mexican Americans.
Cannabis had some defenders including Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor of New York City at the time. La Guardia commissioned a study that showed no negative effects from cannabis usage, no indication that it was addictive, or that it was a problem among New York City youth. In spite of any evidence to the contrary, Anslinger remained firmly committed to his campaign.
What Was The Marihuana Act Of 1937?
Congress enacted the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 thanks to Harry Anslinger’s highly successful campaign against marijuana, which placed a tax on the sale of cannabis. The Marihuana Act enforced heavy taxes on every side of hemp production, making it much less economically viable to import or produce hemp in the United States resulting in a severe reduction in hemp production in the United States. Following the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 cannabis was also removed from the United States Pharmacopoeia in 1942.
What Is The Controlled Substances Act & What Does It Have To Do With Hemp?
The Controlled Substance Act was a federal statute that to this day regulates the importation, production, possession, use, and distribution of drugs, from pharmaceuticals to substances such as cannabis and LSD.
President Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act into law in 1970 as a part of his “war on drugs.” This act designated all forms of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug, the most restrictive classification a drug could receive. No differentiation was made between the varying forms of cannabis, and as a result, hemp production and use became as restricted as that of marijuana. Schedule 1 classification was reserved for drugs that were considered highly dangerous and which were determined to have no accepted medical use. Cannabis shared this classification with heroin and hallucinogens such as LSD and was classified in a higher category than cocaine, which was classified as a Schedule 2 drug.
This act ignored and prohibited the therapeutic use of cannabinoids in medicine and effectively prohibited research and production of all types of cannabis including non-psychoactive forms, completely disregarding the distinction between cannabis and hemp which would go almost entirely unrecognized for the next forty-plus years. It also contributed to the existing social stigma around cannabis as a dangerous substance and a gateway drug to other substances.
How Was Hemp Historically Viewed In The United States?
Hemp was an early agricultural product of the colonies and was a highly valued crop for almost three hundred years. When the Jamestown colony of Virginia was established, colonists were required to grow hemp to help reduce Britain’s reliance on outside sources. Despite its lower cash value for the colonists, the government often imposed mandatory hemp cultivation and by 1630 most colonists’ clothing was made from hemp.
Hemp’s position as a valuable crop in the United States would last well into the 20th century. In 1735 Massachusetts residents were even allowed to pay their taxes in hemp and in 1850 Hemp was added to the United States Pharmacopoeia in 1850, meaning that it was a legally recognized drug used for medicinal purposes.
What Changed Public Opinion About Hemp And Cannabis?
As the benefits of cannabinoids began to be more widely understood and acknowledged and the fear and misinformation stirred up by the War on Drugs lessened, public opinion and legislation began to change. By the 1990s the severity of the Substance 1 classification of cannabis began to be questioned more and more loudly, as did the call for growing industrial hemp again within the United States.
Views on marijuana also began to shift at this time. In the 1990s five states and D.C. passed medical marijuana laws, and in the 2000s eight additional states joined them. As of 2019, a total of 33 states and D.C. had legalized the medical use of marijuana.
What Is The 2014 Farm Bill And What Does It Have To Do With Hemp?
2014 Farm Bill began the process of once again legalizing hemp in the United States. The bill allowed institutions of higher education and state agriculture departments to grow hemp under a pilot program. It also defined the THC threshold which would define industrial hemp as under .3%.
What Is The 2018 Farm Bill?
The 2018 Farm Bill expanded on the work done by the 2014 Farm Bill, most importantly removing hemp from the controlled substances act. This allowed farmers across the United States to grow hemp agriculturally, rather than the few select groups which the 2014 Bill had opened it up to.
The 2018 Farm Bill also allows for the transportation of hemp across state lines. While there continue to be restrictions on growing hemp (for example, if your hemp goes above the THC threshold even marginally your crops are no longer considered hemp) the 2018 Farm Bill essentially put hemp back into the category it belonged: an agricultural crop.
Since the 2018 Farm Bill was passed, hemp production increased by more than 300% and is expected to continue growing.
When Were The Medicinal Properties Of Hemp Discovered?
In 2800 BCE Chinese Emperor Shen Nung listed cannabis (i.e. hemp) in his pharmacopeia, using it to treat rheumatism and poor memory. Several hundred years later hemp was recorded as being used to treat dysentery and fever in India and by 1,500 BCE its usage is recorded in Persia, France, Germany, and Greece. In 1649 the English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper wrote about using the seeds, roots, and the whole plant to treat inflammation and joint pain.
Cannabis was introduced to the western world in the early 19th century by Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy. O’Shaughnessy discovered the medical uses of cannabis while living in India and introduced it into Western medicine. He had used it to successfully treat pain in rheumatism as well as several significant incidents in which he used it to treat convulsions or seizures.
From this time forward, tinctures containing the plant became common in Europe and the United States (it’s even rumored that Queen Victoria herself used a tincture to reduce pain from menstrual cramps.) During this period, cannabinoids had not been individually identified and so the tinctures were probably made from hemp or cannabis that included both CBD and THC in equal parts.
What Research Has Been Conducted On The Medicinal Properties Of Hemp?
The properties of hemp have been the subject of research for hundreds of years. Cannabinoids were first identified in 1898 when researchers Dunstan and Henry managed to isolate a cannabinoid (or cannabinol as they called it) within hemp oil, but it would be almost a hundred years before additional research would further uncover what cannabinoids are and the role they play in a very important system in the human body.
In 1940 THC was synthesized for the first time in the United States in the laboratories of R. Adams and from that time on, researchers examined the effects of isolated cannabinoids on rats and mice in their laboratories. Although some researchers did not believe they existed, speculation that there were cannabinoid receptors in the body propelled much of the research in the latter half of the 20th century.
In the mid-1980s Allyn Howlett and William Devane provided conclusive evidence that cannabinoid receptors do indeed exist. In 1988 they identified that the brain has specialized receptors for cannabinoids. In 1990 the first receptor Cb1 (the receptor for THC) was identified in the brain, and 1993 the next cannabinoid receptor Cb2 (or as we know it, the receptor for CBD) was identified and found to be throughout the immune system and peripheral nervous system.
These cannabinoid receptors and the chemicals endocannabinoids produced by the body, constitute the ‘Endocannabinoid System’ (ECS for short.) Through continued research following these discoveries, scientists have become increasingly knowledgeable about how cannabinoids affect our bodies and the role that the ECS plays in regulating our systems.
Research has shown that the ECS may play an essential role in certain diseases and conditions such as multiple sclerosis, cancer, post-traumatic stress disorders, some intestinal and cardiovascular diseases, excitotoxicity and traumatic head injury, and application of cannabinoids could provide a reduction in the severity of symptoms or slow down disease progression. Extensive research on CBD as a treatment for epilepsy has also been conducted, and the FDA recently approved the first CBD prescription drug Epidiolex for the treatment of two forms of epilepsy.
Why Don’t We Know More About The Properties Of Hemp & Cannabinoids?
Following the enactment of the Controlled Substances Act, scientific research on hemp or cannabis was fairly limited and a significant portion of the research that did happen was subsidized by NIDA (the National Institute on Drug Abuse) and devoted to researching negative effects of cannabis and THC.
Due to the restrictions of the CSA on growing Cannabis Sativa (cannabis for research purposes was available only through the NIDA Drug Supply Program) the quality of the hemp and marijuana plants used for research at this time was also very low and often included using plants that were moldy or were stored improperly which limited researchers’ ability to ascertain accurate results.
What Is Next For Hemp?
With the legalization of industrial hemp production and an ever-expanding market, research on the properties of hemp is an important next step as is an increased public understanding, education, and regulation around hemp products that contain CBD. Economic growth through hemp production continues to be explored and developed in the United States and we can expect to see market share continue to grow as the United States vies with Canada and China for the top spot in hemp production.
Barriers to research on cannabinoids are slowly but surely coming down as hemp becomes widely available and more and more studies on the therapeutic effects of CBD and THC receive funding. The legalization of hemp production not only opened it up as a consumer product; it also means that researchers can finally get their hands on quality hemp for research as well as sustainability studies and studies around hemp farming practices.
Research initiatives such as The UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative are committed to filling the gap of scientific knowledge surrounding cannabis, particularly its potential for therapeutic uses on the body, brain, and mind as well as societal impacts, while initiatives such as the New York State Industrial Hemp Research Initiative are focused on economic development and growth through hemp. New York State alone has committed $10 million in funding to this research with the goal not only of increasing the economic viability of hemp but also providing education.
Companies are also addressing sustainability and farming practices such as the initiative to research regenerative organic hemp farming announced by Charlotte’s Web in partnership with the Rodale Institute & Natural Care in July of 2019.
With almost limitless applications and possibilities the renewed interest, production (and legal status!) of hemp makes this an incredibly exciting time. There are still many questions regarding hemp and its properties that need to be answered, particularly its medical applications, however preliminary studies of the medical benefits of cannabinoids are opening up new possibilities for difficult to treat chronic illnesses, pain relief, and general wellness. Whether you’re looking for new clothes, health benefits, or a more sustainable plastic hemp has a lot to offer. It is an unquestionably beneficial plant whose applications we can only expect to see grow in the coming years.