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What Is Hemp? Definitions And History

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You’ve probably heard of hemp in one form or another. Whether it’s being used to create clothing, consumed as a foodstuff, made into bathing products, or even used as a building material, hemp has quite the reputation.

However, this reputation is also sometimes marred with confusion, because you might know hemp by another name: Cannabis Sativa.

Most of the confusion surrounding hemp stems from its association with its infamous cousin, marijuana.

Though hemp and marijuana are technically both cannabis plants, they are distinctly different from one another and don’t serve the same purposes at all. 

You’re probably familiar with marijuana as a recreational drug. Marijuana contains the psychoactive component known as THC, which produces the characteristic marijuana “high.”

Hemp, although technically the same species of plant, is a variety of cannabis which contains extremely low concentrations of THC. Legally, the 2018 Farm Bill defined hemp as Cannabis Sativa plants which contain 0.3% or less THC -- a minuscule amount which is not concentrated enough to produce any form of intoxication. Contrast this to the 15-30% THC content found in many marijuana plants and it becomes clear how dramatic the difference is!

The Long History of Hemp

Long history of hemp


Humanity’s relationship with hemp began over 10,000 years ago. We find evidence of hemp cultivation across the ancient world, from China and Japan to India, Ancient Egypt, and Europe.

Being put to use by such a diverse range of ancient cultures is no coincidence. Hemp was considered an essential crop for thousands of years. Why? Simple: it has thousands of uses.

Our ancestors used hemp was as one of the first plants to be spun into useful fibers for ropes and textiles. Perhaps even earlier, hemp seed became an important part of some ancient diets. 

Today hemp seed is still used as a food source, processed into hemp protein powders, pressed into hemp seed oil, or blended into hemp milk. 

Hemp seed oils and extracts can be found in skincare products, soaps, shampoos, lotions, and cosmetic products. It can even be used to make paints and art supplies. 

Throughout human history, access to hemp products has played a pivotal role. Hemp provided the raw materials to create the sails and rigging which helped carry explorers and merchants across vast oceans, woven into nets to catch fish and animals, even been made into carpets and bedding.

Serving as an important material in the lives of countless people, hemp has provided fibers for clothing and paper since ancient times. In modern usage, hemp has been transformed into building materials, biodegradable plastics, and biofuels.

In fact, in the 1930s, Henry Ford (of Ford Motor Company fame) envisioned a car built and fueled by hemp. He even produced a prototype of such a vehicle, with a frame reinforced by hemp. 

However, this dream -- and many other hopes for the potential of hemp -- were squashed in 1937 when the United States passed the Marijuana Tax Act into law.

This bill made it illegal to cultivate or possess any form of Cannabis plant. While ostensibly aimed at preventing recreational usage of marijuana, this also impacted hemp, as the law did not allow any provisions for growing industrial hemp. As a result, it became nearly impossible to farm hemp in the United States.

During the Second World War, this restriction was relaxed to allow for the production of hemp for canvas, rope, and other essential war materials. Despite this obvious recognition of the incredible usefulness of hemp, the prohibition was reinstated at the end of the war.

Unfortunately, this was a state of affairs which would exist until 2018. Doubling down on this effort, the United Nations implemented a convention in 1961 which also banned all cannabis production, spreading this prohibition internationally. 

It wasn’t until the signing of the 2018 Farm Bill that the United States recognized the difference between hemp and marijuana. With hemp now being defined as cannabis plants containing 0.3% or less THC, farmers are finally free once again to plant this incredibly useful crop.

Hemp as a Source of CBD

Hemp Source


Recently, hemp has found an altogether more modern usage. It is now the primary source of a compound known as cannabidiol, more commonly referred to as CBD.

Hemp plants that have been bred and selected for their high CBD content can be processed to extract this valuable cannabinoid, which is then made into multiple CBD products.

CBD’s popularity has created a whole new perspective on hemp. After the 2018 Farm Bill was signed into law, farmers in the United States more than quadrupled the amount of land used to farm hemp, with as much as 128,320 acres being devoted to cultivating hemp.

Most of that hemp will ultimately be used to create CBD products. And as the world becomes increasingly aware of the many benefits CBD has to offer, this number is likely to increase.

A New Era of Hemp

new era of hemp


With hemp back in the spotlight in a big way, we’re likely to see a lot more from this humble plant. After all, it’s incredibly easy to grow and has a myriad of uses. It can help furnish your apartment, fuel your car, be turned into packaging plastics, create ropes and canvas, and be put to literally thousands of other uses.

As modern lawmakers awaken to the incredible wealth of possibilities behind hemp -- and becoming increasingly aware of the distinct difference between hemp and marijuana -- we are likely to see a lot more hemp products in our day to day lives.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is hemp a drug?

Hemp is technically a drug, Cannabis and industrial hemp both derive from the species Cannabis sativa and contain the psychoactive component THC.

What exactly is hemp?

Hemp is a plant of the family Cannabaceae cultivated for its fibre or its edible seeds.

Is hemp the same as CBD?

Hemp seed oil and CBD oil both derive from the cannabis plant. CBD oil comes from the flowers, leaves, and stems, while hemp seed oil uses extract from the seeds of the cannabis plant.

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