Cannabis may have a reputation for getting people high, but the cannabis plant has a variety of uses. That's especially true when it comes to hemp.
Hemp is one of the world's most versatile materials, with applications for everything from paper to manufacturing, personal care products to textiles, and food and beverages to medicine.
What is hemp?
According to the 2018 Farm Bill, the US government defines hemp as cannabis with no more than 0.3% THC. The Farm Bill removed hemp from the federal list of controlled substances, reclassifying it as an agricultural commodity. This bill also legalized the production of hemp along with the production, transport, and sale of hemp-derived products.
How hemp has been used throughout history
Hemp was only legalized recently in the US. In decades prior this versatile and useful plant was illegal to grow or produce. But hemp production was not only legal, but encouraged, at other points in US history.
Hemp production was a staple in American agriculture from the early 1600s to the late 1800s, when the plant was used in the manufacture of a variety of materials, including rope, clothing, and sails for ships. In fact, hemp was considered so valuable and necessary that it was used as legal tender in multiple states (including Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania). In 1619 the Assembly of Virginia passed legislation requiring every farmer to grow hemp. It wasn't until after the Civil War, when cotton and other imported materials gained prominence, that hemp lost its status as the country's go-to agricultural commodity.
Outside of the US hemp's history stretches back much further than the 1600s. Hemp was used as a textile fiber as far back as 8000 B.C. in ancient Mesopotamia, making it a likely contender for the first plant cultivated for textiles. China has been continuously cultivating hemp for more than 6000 years. The Chinese were also the first to discover hemp's potential for making paper and produce the world's first paper material (likely used for wrapping and packing) sometime in the second century B.C.
Hemp was also an important commodity in Europe during the Middle Ages, when it was used to create clothing and ropes for ships, thanks to its durability in salt water. Hemp was so valuable that in 1535 King Henry VIII decreed that all landowners in the United Kingdom must sow at least one quarter of an acre with hemp or face a steep fine.
Thanks to its durability and sustainability, hemp was also widely used as a construction material. One of the earliest examples of hemp in architecture is a 6th century hemp mortar bridge built in what's now France.
Clearly, hemp has quite the background as a valued commodity with a history that dates back thousands of years. But how is the plant being used today?
How hemp is used in modern society
Today, more than 30 countries grow hemp as an agricultural commodity, including the United States, and the plant has a wide variety of uses and applications across different industries.
Hemp continues to be used in modern-day society in many of the same ways it was used in ancient civilizations. Hemp is still used as a building material, and it's gaining popularity thanks to its sustainability. Hemp has a lower environmental impact than other building materials and is actually carbon-negative, absorbing carbon while it grows and once it's in place in a building. This makes it a go-to in today's eco-conscious building market. The first hemp house, using hemp-composite bricks imported from the UK, was built in North Carolina in 2010, and an estimated 50 homes have been constructed since, using hemp as a building material. The fiber is also still used to create clothing, textiles, and paper products.
One of hemp's most notable uses, particularly in the United States, is in the booming CBD industry. CBD products have been a staple at dispensaries for years, but once hemp was legalized, hemp-derived CBD officially went mainstream. The non-intoxicating cannabinoid now shows up in everything from tinctures to personal care products (like lotions and bath bombs) to baked goods and drinks.
There are, however, a number of restrictions on CBD. While hemp, and hemp-derived CBD, is legal on the federal level, most states have strict regulations on how it can be manufactured, marketed, packaged, and sold. Restrictions are particularly strict when it comes to consumption, most notably in the food, beverage, and nutritional supplement categories. The federal government, via the FDA, says CBD isn't allowed in any of these applications.
While these restrictions present some challenges to the CBD market, they certainly haven't stunted its growth. Recent projections estimate the CBD industry will be worth a whopping $20 billion by the year 2024. So, while there are a number of questions surrounding future regulation of hemp-derived CBD, the industry is booming.
Hemp is here to stay
It's nearly impossible to cover the multiple ways hemp is used in modern society. According to the Federation of American Scientists, “the global market for hemp consists of more than 25,000 products in nine submarkets: agriculture, textiles, recycling, automotive, furniture, food and beverages, paper, construction materials, and personal care.” But one thing is for sure, hemp — and its many uses — are here to stay.