For more than 80 years, the hemp plant was prohibited and conflated with its THC-rich cousin. Though they are both from the Cannabaceae family, hemp and marijuana were historically used for very different things. Industrial hemp is non-intoxicating, has a long history with humans and has been used for millennia for textiles, paper, food and much more. Cannabis also has a long relationship with humans and is used for less hands-on applications such as medicine, ritual, and enjoyment.
It wasn't until 2018 that hemp and marijuana became legally distinct in the US with the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, finally defining hemp as separate from marijuana and allowing for its cultivation and distribution.
Judging by the size of the US cannabidiol (CBD) market and the rapid ascent of cannabis concentrates, consumers are showing an eagerness to try new industry offerings. Now that hemp is legal, that includes smokable CBD bud or “hemp bud” — also called hemp flower or CBD flower.
What's the difference between cannabis-derived CBD and hemp? Do hemp buds have CBD?
If getting high is what you're looking for, you won't find it with hemp flower. Hemp plants are bred for industrial purposes and to contain very little intoxicating THC. And if a medicinal level of CBD is what you're after, hemp buds are not usually CBD-rich and not a very efficient way to get the cannabinoid.
However, CBD derived from high-THC cannabis is much more likely to have higher levels of CBD and terpenes, the aromatic compounds responsible for cannabis's distinct scent and flavor profiles. Cannabis-derived CBD offers much more medicinal benefit than hemp-derived CBD and shouldn't get you high, provided it remains below the federally legal limit of 0.3% THC.
One of the purposes of the Farm Bill was to differentiate non-intoxicating industrial hemp from THC-laden marijuana, and that demarcation has landed at 0.3%THC. Anything above that is considered marijuana and remains federally illegal.
That's the line that “hemp buds,” aka CBD flowers, are walking.
The growing demand for hemp and CBD products
Smokable hemp buds have been somewhat controversial with states and law enforcement because of their similar smell and appearance to THC products, and currently there is no technology available for law enforcement to discern whether a product is legal without sending it off to a lab for testing.
But that hasn't stopped a burgeoning smokable hemp flower market. Market researchers at Nielsen found that the smokable hemp market — including categories such as CBD flower, hemp-CBD prerolls and other inhalables — reached $70 million to 80 million in sales in 2020. Separately, smokable-hemp CBD flower and CBD pre-rolls were valued between $35 million and $40 million. The Nielsen report expects the market size to dramatically increase, anticipating a smokable hemp market valued between $300 million and 400 million by 2025.
CBD is an ongoing consumer trend, because of its anti-inflammatory and ameliorative properties, that has found its way into such products as intimate lubricants, tinctures, shampoos and — more recently — smokable hemp CBD buds. And this market surge shows no signs of abating. Cannabis research firm Grand View Research reported that the global CBD market was valued at USD $4.6 billion in 2018 and is expected to reach $9.69 billion by 2025.
Are hemp buds legal? Navigating hemp's legal landscape.
This growth, however, does not reflect how the CBD industry somehow manages to flourish in the current landscape of patchwork cannabis legality. For example, in New York, it is legal to possess CBD as long as it is not smokable, while in Idaho, CBD is completely illegal in any form. Several states have already moved to either severely restrict or outright ban smokable hemp, including Texas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Indiana, and Iowa.
Federally legal hemp does not automatically confer state legality. In fact, the Farm Bill essentially left discretion to the states, leaving them to decide whether CBD is legal within their borders, creating confusion for consumers and farmers alike.
On its own, CBD was not made explicitly legal by the Farm Bill, creating an oversight vacuum that leaves consumers with few guidelines about which CBD hemp buds — or any CBD, for that matter — is safe to consume. As it stands, there is no federal oversight about packaging, labeling, and retail sales for hemp buds, leaving it to individual cannabis firms to follow their own state guidelines.
It's also clear that policymakers are far behind market and consumer demand, though there have been some moves. The Hemp and Hemp-Derived CBD Consumer Protection and Market Stabilization Act was introduced in Congress. If passed, it would allow hemp and hemp-derived CBD to be marketed and sold as dietary supplements, but it doesn't address smokable CBD and hemp.
Are hemp buds for you?
Hemp buds are becoming easier to find and are often found in smoke shops and CBD stores — even in states where cannabis is not legal. However, it's a buyer beware market. Just like with CBD, it is important to know what you're getting. Because there is not yet any government regulation on this segment of the market, companies are under no obligation to create a product that is safe to consume or tested for toxicants and contaminants. Make sure to purchase from licensed dispensaries where you can talk to a customer service representative, see cannabinoid profiles, and easily find lab results.
Featured image by Gina Coleman/Weedmaps