On days like 420, the arguments for and against legalizing weed are loud and clear. Our news feeds get flooded with 420-friendly hashtags, tweets, and photos. News outlets remind us which celebrities stand behind recreational weed use, and which politicians don't. (Hint: It's everyone but Bernie Sanders.) And hey, some of us might actually partake in a few 420 festivities.
While we spend a lot of time arguing over the pros and cons of marijuana legalization, we can't forget about cannabis' less potent strain: hemp. This plant has the potential to produce food, fuel, textiles, building materials, papers, and plastics. And it could be the answer to creating a sustainable fuel and agriculture industry.
What Is Hemp?
Hemp is actually the common name for the entire genus Cannabis, including the variety we know as marijuana. To keep things simple, we'll refer to hemp as the crop used for commercial purposes; we'll refer to marijuana as the drug used for recreational purposes.
Unlike marijuana, hemp can't get you high. It contains about 0.3% or less of THC, the psychoactive chemical that causes weed's euphoria. Marijuana, on the other hand, can contain 6% to 20% THC.
A Short History Of Hemp
Hemp is one of the earliest domesticated plants in the the world. It originated from western Asia and India; now it grows in more than 30 countries, including Canada, China, Chile, and Europe. Hemp fibers have been used for centuries to make rope and sails for ships, cloth for fabric, pulp for paper, and more recently, biodegradable plastic.
Until the Civil War, hemp was manufactured to produce 90% of the world's paper supply. It was even grown by our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington!
Clearly, hemp is ingrained in our history. But the US also has a love-hate relationship with the plant. While the US consumes more hemp-related products than any other country, we're also only industrialized country that makes hemp illegal.
So, hemp is legal to import but illegal to produce. If we're so desperate to find a sustainable way to boost agricultural output, why do we still criminalize the crop that can save our economy?
Why Is Hemp Illegal?
Under the Controlled Substances Act, all strains of Cannabis are illegal in the US. Since the federal government makes no distinction between marijuana and industrial hemp, hemp is technically classified as a Schedule 1 drug — which means you could get arrested, fined, or imprisoned for using or possessing it.
However, the tide is slowly turning in favor of a domestic hemp industry. In 2014, President Obama signed the Farm Bill to authorize colleges, universities, and state agriculture departments to grow hemp crops for research. Last year, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act was reintroduced to amend the Controlled Substances Act to exclude industrial hemp (i.e. Cannabis with a THC level of 0.3% or less) from the definition of marijuana.
At the state level, Washington, California, Oregon, and 17 other states have legalized the hemp crop for non-recreational use. However, unless the Industrial Hemp Farming Act gets passed, farmers who grow crops in these states could get charged with a federal offense.
The Benefits Of Hemp
If industrial hemp gets legalized in the US, it could be processed for fabrics, food, and even fuel. Here's how hemp can be used to increase economic output and reduce our impact on the natural environment.
Hemp seeds contain a protein that can substitute baking flour and soy products.
Corn and algae can be converted to biofuel, and so can hemp. Oil from the plant's seed and stalk can be used to produce non-toxic, biodegradable biodiesel and bioethanol.
Used For Housing
The Cannabis plant's inner core is THC free and can be combined with lime to produce concrete-like blocks for insulation in buildings.
Replaces Wasteful Products
Hemp can be produced to create a biodegradable, non-polluting version of tree-based paper, cosmetics, plastics, paint, varnish, detergent, and ink.
Can Be Recycled
Hemp paper lasts hundreds of years without degrading, and it can be recycled five more times than tree-based paper.
Grows In Most Climates
Hemp uses less water and can grow in mild to hot climates. Unlike timber, which takes years to grow, hemp is ready for harvesting after 120 days, and it can be planted one to three times a season.
Requires Little To No Pesticides
Few insects and fungal diseases exist among hemp crops, so they don't rely on as many toxic pesticides to survive.
Hemp's long tap root can reach water where other plants can't, so it can be cultivated in drought or flood-prone regions worldwide. Also, because hemp can grow on most types of farming land, it can reduce the need to clear large tracts of land for tree farming and logging.
Boosts The US Economy
Canada rakes in almost $1 billion from hemp production. Considering only 1% of Americans are farmers, hemp crops can revive America's struggling farming industry.
What's The Future Of The Hemp Plant?
Legalizing weed is a highly polarized issue between Democrats and Republicans. Not so with legalizing hemp. Because it can't be used as a psychoactive drug, both parties see it as a chance to introduce an industry that can sustainably boost agricultural output and domestic trade.
As the world's suitable farmland and natural resources continue to diminish, the world needs a way to quickly produce food and energy in a wide range of climates. Could hemp be the answer to our growing need for a practical source of food, fuel, and materials? It's up to Congress to decide. Unless hemp is legalized and produced on a massive scale, it won’t be anything more than a pipe dream.