The hemp industry has witnessed tremendous growth in the United States over the last several years thanks to the passing of the 2018 Farm Bill, which created legal distinctions between hemp and its psychoactive sister plant marijuana. However, many people still mistake hemp for psychoactive cannabis despite the vast differences between these plants. While both hemp and marijuana are members of the cannabis family of plants, they have very different properties and applications.
It’s essential for Americans to understand the differences between hemp and marijuana. As the legislation surrounding both varieties of the cannabis plant continue to evolve, the public should know the differences between these plants so officials can make more informed decisions based on their constituents’ beliefs, expand access to hemp-based products, and encourage ethical business practices.
Active Substances Found in Hemp and Cannabis
Hemp and cannabis (marijauna) may both originate from the cannabis genus of plants, but they have very different chemical properties. The two chemicals that come into discussion most often when discussing these plants are cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC is the psychoactive substance that gives marijuana its mind-altering properties when smoked or consumed. CBD causes no psychoactive effects, but it does hold medicinal potential as a natural anti-inflammatory, anti-anxiety treatment, and painkiller.
When discussing different species of the cannabis family of plants, “hemp” applies to varieties grown with less than 0.3% THC concentration by dry weight, far below the threshold of being capable of causing any psychoactive effects if consumed. CBD content can vary greatly, but low-THC hemp strains tend to be very high in CBD content, making them ideal for growers selling their crops to the CBD product industry.
Applications of Hemp
Another key difference between hemp and cannabis is the number of applications that hemp offers, whereas the only real application of psychoactive cannabis is consumption for psychoactive effects and some limited medical uses. Medical marijuana laws have evolved significantly across the United States for many years, but access to medical research and human trials remain limited due to marijuana’s continued classification as a Schedule I narcotic at the federal level. Additionally, medical researchers continue to doubt the medical efficacy of THC-rich cannabis due to the number of medical issues it may exacerbate, including mental health disorders, diminished pulmonary functions, and eating disorders.
By comparison, hemp not only offers medical and wellness-focused applications through CBD oil cultivation but also more than 50,000 other uses due to the fact that hemp is the strongest natural fiber. Throughout history, hemp has been used in textile manufacturing to create highly durable cloth, bags, sails for ships, and industrial products such as rope, canvas, carpeting, netting, and molded parts. Hemp fiber is also perfect for paper product manufacturing and as raw material for cardboard, newsprint, and product packaging.
Hemp fiber also makes a very reliable ingredient for the manufacturing of composite materials. The applications for these materials ranges from insulation to fiberboards and even automotive parts. Hemp oil is also a popular ingredient in many wellness-focused products, skincare products, and a wide range of soaps, shampoos, lotions, and other self-care products. These applications, in combination with products derived from CBD oil, make hemp one of the most versatile crops in human history and capable of providing a wide range of consumer benefits and financial opportunities.
Cannabis plants that contain THC concentration higher than 0.3% by dry weight qualify as psychoactive cannabis, commonly referred to as marijuana. When smoked in dry leaf form or refined into THC-rich food products, cannabis produces psychoactive effects including euphoria, drowsiness, Marijuana is also notorious for causing increased appetite, diminished decision-making abilities, and a host of other potential effects that vary from person to person. While some users report minimal disruption to their everyday activities after consuming cannabis, others feel as though they cannot function normally.
Ultimately, the main defining characteristic that separates hemp from cannabis is the THC content of the plant. Unfortunately, this fact contributes to much of the uncertainty surrounding these varieties of the cannabis family of plants and many people continue to conflate the two.
Differences in Cannabis and Hemp Cultivation Tactics
Although hemp and high-THC cannabis may appear almost identical to the untrained eye, these two different plants have very different traits and require different growing techniques. This is due to the fact that male and female cannabis plants have very different properties. The pollination produced by male cannabis plants will inhibit THC production of female plants. In cannabis cultivation operations intended to produce high-THC plants, only female plants are grown. All growth sites require careful monitoring so any developing male plants can be quickly removed so their pollen does not negatively influence THC production among the nearby female plants.
By comparison, hemp cultivation requires growing male and female plants closely together. High THC concentration is not the aim of hemp growth and keeping male and female plants close helps to boost the intended benefits of hemp crops. Keeping male and female plants close enables easy wind pollination, leading to higher crop yields. Increased growth effectively crowds out any weeds attempting to root near the crop, and increased pollination boosts seed development. Female cannabis plants grown for high THC content tend to be short and bushy while hemp stalks are very tall.
CBD Oil from Hemp vs CBD Oil from Cannabis
CBD oil from hemp and CBD oil from cannabis plants are chemically identical, so many people mistakenly believe that they are completely the same. Although it may be confusing for some, the reality is that the two types of oil are very different in the eyes of US law. The 2018 Farm Bill allowed for the legal cultivation of hemp for CBD product manufacturing and the production of hemp seeds for CBD oil extraction, but only from hemp plants.
The CBD oil derived from cannabis plants may have the same type of CBD as oil derived from hemp, but it is likely to also contain a high concentration of THC. Anything with THC concentration above 0.3% is subject to stricter regulation and may be illegal in many areas of the United States depending on state law. Additionally, some consumers wish to take advantage of the properties of CBD oil without the psychoactive effects of THC. The only way for CBD oil made from cannabis to have equivalent THC levels to oil derived from hemp is to thin the oil down synthetically, which diminishes the quality of the product and reduces CBD content.
CBD oil products include topical creams and lotions, tinctures, specialized oil for use with vaping devices, hair care products, oil concentrates, and edible food and beverage products. It is essential for consumers to know the difference between CBD oil derived from hemp and oil derived from cannabis; products made with the latter could be illegal in some parts of the country and lead to legal problems. Any CBD oil with THC concentration above 0.3% is illegal at the federal level.
Hemp and Cannabis: Differences in Uses for the Parts of These Plants
The physical components of cannabis and hemp plants lend themselves to very different uses. Due to the different growing techniques used for both, the resulting plants are very structurally different. Shorter and bushier cannabis plants are only truly prized for their flowers or “buds,” the rest are used as composting material in most growing operations. By comparison, virtually every part of the hemp plant offers some type of practical use, resulting in a plant that creates almost no waste while offering significant benefits for the land on which is grows.
Hemp stalks contain fibers used for textile manufacturing and the creation of molded parts, composites, and countless other products. The leaves of the hemp plant are used in the creation of CBD-based medicines, as composting material, and for animal bedding in some cases. The roots of the hemp plant are also great for composting and for medicinal purposes, but they also offer another benefit: erosion prevention. The roots of the hemp plant can grow up to nine feet deep in some cases and are incredibly strong, helping to hold the soil together and preventing it from washing away.
Arguably the most valuable part of the hemp plant is the seeds. Not only are hemp seeds cultivated for sale to grow more hemp in other parts of the world, but they are also the best source for CBD oil, sterilized hemp nuts for food product manufacturing, and seedcake for hemp flour production and use as animal feed.
Hemp and Cannabis in the Future of the United States
Hemp was one of the first cash crops of the American colonies, helping to establish the New World as a powerhouse for agriculture and manufacturing. However, attitudes toward hemp and cannabis shifted dramatically in the early 20th century, and the common conflation of hemp and cannabis led to restrictive laws that effectively hamstrung the hemp industry. As the truth comes to light, more United States legislators are moving away from outdated ways of thinking concerning hemp, recognizing how hemp and sustainability could go hand in hand, and cannabis laws are seeing something of a renaissance as well.
Although cannabis carried potential for abuse as a psychoactive substance, some research suggests that THC-rich cannabis may offer relief from symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety disorders, and nausea caused by cancer treatment and other complex medical interventions.
Time will tell whether attitudes will change and new laws will follow accordingly concerning THC-rich cannabis, but the fact that hemp causes no psychoactive effects while providing countless economic and environmental benefits is absolute. Hopefully, as more people start to understand the differences between these plants, hemp laws across the United States will continue to relax and consumers will have greater access to a wide variety of hemp-based products that cause minimal environmental impact.
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