I’ve been tempted to write about this one for a while. I get asked about it all the time, and there seems to be so much confusion concerning it.
Hemp is the same species as marijuana (Cannabis sativa), but it doesn’t accumulate the chemical THC that is responsible for the hallucinogenic effects. It is being promoted largely because the plant also contains chemicals with therapeutic properties. The major one in question is called cannabidiol or CBD for short.
This CBD oil is extracted from the flowers of the plant. It has been prescribed to treat seizures, inflammation, anxiety and insomnia. Many cancer patients swear by it to help control nausea from chemotherapy. Evidence for control of epileptic seizures is overwhelming, but other claims appear to require more study.
CBD oil is not the only reason many agriculture institutions are recommending planting hemp. The plant produces high-grade fiber for making rope, cloth and paper. Hemp fiber is strong, supple, absorbent and durable. There are types better suited to oil and others better suited for fiber.
All hemps have a greater cellulose to lignin ratio than most plant fibers. Lignin is the chemical that gives plant stems their woodiness and stiffness. The low lignin content makes hemp cloth comfortable to wear.
Hemp cloth is coarse fibered. This makes it somewhat unattractive for garments, though clothes made from hemp are durable and keep increasing in comfort with every use, much like leather. The original Betsy Ross flag was made of hemp. Hemp paper absorbs ink uniformly and it degrades far less than conventional wood fiber paper.
Hemp also can produce more pounds of fiber per acre per year than any other commonly used plant. Furthermore, when oil is pressed from the seeds, the hemp meal can be a very useful livestock feed component.
As I see it, the biggest problems with hemp are public perception and the difficulty separating it from drug marijuana. In the field, there’s no way to distinguish pot from industrial hemp. They both look and smell the same. Unless a quick field THC test was developed, law enforcement people would have a difficult time enforcing current drug laws.
As far as hemp farmers are concerned, there is also a risk. Crops must be tested for their THC content. If samples are taken back to the lab and found to have a concentration of greater than 0.3 percent THC, the entire crop must be destroyed. This could be a risky business.
I expect hemp production to spike dramatically in the next few years. I also expect conflict regarding hemp vs marijuana legal issues. Some farmers might be forced to destroy crops. Still, other folks might try to play the game of disguise and plant both.
Companies are already trying to harness the novelty of hemp products. Expect to find hemp in common nutritional supplements. Hemp seeds might become as popular as poppy seeds, flax seeds or sesame seeds, and you soon could find them on hamburger buns. Whatever the case we certainly have not heard the last about industrial hemp.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.