What Is Hemp?

Hemp is a powerful plant, and a powerfully misunderstood one. Many people confuse hemp with marijuana, and while they hail from the same plant—cannabis—they’re very different from each other.

In fact, hemp has a wide range of commercial applications, as a component in building materials to clothing and textiles. It’s also the source of CBD oil.  

Keep reading to learn all about hemp, and how it’s used in different products.

What is hemp?

Hemp refers to the non-psychoactive varieties of the Cannabis Sativa plant, which are grown for industrial purposes. Unlike marijuana (which hemp is often confused with), hemp contains 0.3% THC or less, and therefore has no psychoactive effects or ability to get you “high.” This is the main distinction between hemp and marijuana (although there are others, which you can read more about in a section below).

You may also see it referred to as industrial hemp, because it is primarily grown for commercial purposes across a wide range of industries. Different parts of the hemp plant are used to create fabrics, paper, automotive parts, furniture, construction materials, food and beverages, personal care products, and more.

In 2016, hemp-based products represented a $688 million industry in just the U.S. alone.

hemp industry product sales

What is hemp used for?

When it comes to usefulness, hemp is a bountiful plant. Various parts of the plant can be cultivated for different things. Here’s a look at some of

Food and beverages

Hemp seeds are often found in food products, where they are hulled and eaten raw as granola or oatmeal, ground up into protein powder, or used to make hemp milk. Hemp seed protein is a lot like the protein in our own blood, which makes it easy for us to digest. The seeds can also be pressed into hemp seed oil. This food additive contains healthy fatty acids without saturated fat.

Skincare products

Besides food, hemp seed oil is often found as an ingredient in various personal and skincare products. Items may include soaps, body wash, shampoos, lip balms, and cosmetics.

Clothing and apparel

The bast, or fiber, of the hemp stalk is durable and often woven into textiles. Clothing made from hemp isn’t as soft as cotton, but it tends to be longer-lasting due to its durability. Cotton also requires more fertilizer and pesticides to grow, so hemp-based clothing can be better for the environment.

Paper products

The hurd, or pulp, of the hemp stalk, is often used in paper products, including printing paper, newspapers, cardboard and packaging. Hemp fiber can also be used to create these paper products.

Construction materials

Due to their strength, hemp stalks are often used in construction materials like fiberboard and insulation. Hempcrete is a special material derived from hemp that acts similar to concrete. The hurd of hemp stalks can also be used as a fiberglass substitute, or in stucco and mortar.

CBD oil

As the main source of CBD, hemp has enjoyed a recent renaissance as patients, health practitioners, and scientists uncover the many health benefits of CBD. CBD oil is extracted from the flower and buds of the hemp plant. CBD can be used to help treat anxiety, seizures, arthritis pain, nausea and vomiting, and much more.

More uses for hemp

These are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to modern uses for hemp. For an idea of just how useful this plant is, take a look at the chart below:

modern commercial uses for industrial hemp

As you can see, hemp can be used to create a variety of products. Some other applications of hemp include the following:

  • Hemp pulp can also make biodegradable plastic products and mulch.
  • The hemp leaves can also be used in mulch, or in animal bedding.
  • Hemp seed oil is found in paint and ink supplies.
  • Hemp fibers are often used in technical textiles like canvas, netting, rope, and more. (Fun fact: The word canvas shares a common root with cannabis.)
  • Most recently, researchers have found that hemp seed oil and stalks can be used as biofuels.

A quick history of hemp

The hemp industry goes back as far as the earliest traces of civilization. It was one of the first plants humans ever cultivated, back in the days of ancient Egypt and east Asia. In fact, hemp fiber was involved in early paper products and printing from the start, and helped form the paper that the Gutenberg Bible was printed on.

Hemp is a favorite among farmers because it grows well in most climates and it requires very little fertilizer or pesticide (since it’s naturally pest-resistant). Hemp also treats the soil well. As it grows, leaves drop off the plant and enrich the soil. Hemp can be grown in the same soil for decades at a time. This makes it cheaper for farmers to grow, and better for the environment.

While its industrial applications only continue to grow (the current count is over 25,000), hemp’s reputation was initially tarnished when cannabis and marijuana got mixed up together in the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. It wasn’t criminalized at this point, but the taxes made it prohibitively expensive for farmers to grow.

Under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, all forms of cannabis—both hemp and marijuana—were classified together as a Schedule I drug, which criminalized hemp and made it illegal to grow in the U.S. Even though hemp has no psychoactive properties, because all forms of cannabis were defined similarly, CBD and other elements of hemp were classified as controlled substances on the same level as marijuana. This accounts for the criminalization and legislative confusion over the innocent plant.

Thankfully, due to the 2018 Farm Bill, industrial hemp and CBD is now legal nationwide on a federal level. Most states have started industrial hemp pilot programs to fund farmers and support the growth and cultivation of hemp for commercial purposes and scientific research.

Is hemp the same thing as marijuana?

In a word, no. Hemp and marijuana are two distinct strains of the Cannabis plant. The largest difference between the two is that marijuana contains up to 30% THC, the psychoactive ingredient of cannabis that gets you high, while hemp does not. Hemp contains 0.3% THC or less, so you will not get high from using it. Instead, the primary ingredient in hemp is CBD, or cannabidiol.

Due to their differing THC content, hemp and marijuana are also legalized to different extents. Currently, marijuana is only legal for recreational use in ten states and Washington D.C., and in  over thirty states for medical use. Hemp, on the other hand, is legal at a federal level and in most states, as long as they have an industrial hemp program that supports farmers cultivating the crop.

It’s legal to purchase products containing hemp, and you likely already own or use products that have hemp in them as an ingredient. The specific laws about using, selling, or cultivating hemp can differ from state to sate.

Hemp and marijuana also look different visually. Marijuana has a bushier appearance, with wider leaves and thicker buds. Hemp, on the other hand, is an overall taller and skinnier plant, with thinner leaves concentrated toward the top.

Finally, hemp and marijuana differ in how they’re used. Marijuana is primarily used for medical and recreational purposes, while hemp is used for a wide range of commercial products, including construction, paper, food, textiles, skincare, and more. Although, CBD also comes from hemp, and it’s gaining favor among those who use it for medical purposes. CBD provides many of the same health benefits that marijuana provides, but without the psychoactive effects.