Hemp is one of the oldest domesticated crops known here on Earth. It’s been used for everything from textiles to oil for thousands of years, and it’s certainly made a comeback in modern times.
To give you an idea of how old hemp actually is, the Columbia History of the World that was first published in 1972 by John A. Garratty states that the oldest relic of human industry is simply a scrap of hemp fabric—dating back to 8,000 BC.
Of course, today, hemp is less recognized as an industrial textile and more conflated with the other forms of cannabis. This is especially true when the topics of CBD and THC come up.
So, what exactly is hemp and what separates it from the more recreational forms of cannabis?
In this guide, we’re going to cover everything you need to know about this versatile and seemingly magical plant, including its history and potential for the future.
Let’s dive in.
Table of Contents
What Exactly Is Hemp?
You’ll often hear hemp being referred to as the “non-psychoactive” or “non-intoxicating” variety of the cannabis plant. This is true. However, there’s a bit more to the non-psychoactive part, which we’ll be covering in another section of this guide.
You also may have read or heard hemp being designated as the “male species” of the cannabis plant while marijuana is designated as the “female species.” This is not true. Hemp and marijuana have genetically distinct traits that contribute to their chemical properties, and both have male and female species within each variety. We’ll also be covering this a little later.
So, what exactly is it that makes hemp hemp?
Well, the simple explanation is that it’s a variety of cannabis that can be used for both industrial and medicinal purposes—without getting anybody high.
Let’s break down the science:
Hemp Classification and Taxonomy
We obviously can’t talk about hemp without talking about the Cannabis Sativa plant in general—because hemp is cannabis and this is precisely where everyone gets confused.
Cannabis is actually a genus of the family Cannabaceae, also sometimes referred to as the hemp family (from the order Rosales). Cannabaceae is essentially a small family of herbaceous flowering plants and some trees. Within this family, there are about 11 genera and over 170 species .
However, not all genera and species are related to cannabis in a way that makes them noteworthy, except for the fact that they all share the characteristic of being erect or climbing plants.
There are also several species of hemp that involve a little more scientific taxonomy—names of which you’ve likely heard in passing—but we’ll talk more about that later.
Specifically, when we talk about hemp we are talking about the variety of cannabis better known as Cannabis Sativa L. The “L” refers to the plants’ Linnaeus, or its designated cultivar (also known as its variety).
In other words, the hemp used to make the products and textiles we’re familiar with today has a chemical structure that’s very specific in regards to its species.
It should also be noted that the species that come from the Cannabis Sativa L. variety contain very little to no THC. Hence, the reason why hemp can’t get you high. It’s also a heartier variety in terms of girth and fibers, which is why it’s favored for industrial purposes.
Hemp Plant Characteristics
Looking at the hemp variety, you’ll see that it’s an erect herb that’s stout, bushy, and aromatic. It has slender cane-like stalks that are mostly hollow except at its base and very tip.
Its leaves take on a palm-like shape, which you can probably already picture, as these leaves have been a universal symbol for cannabis that’s printed virtually everywhere.
Hemp also flowers greenish-yellow flowers in conjunction with spike-like clusters. These flowers are essentially what gives each plant its sex, and they’re referred to as pistillate and staminate . These flowers and their clusters are what allow the male plants to pollinate the female plants.
Additionally, hemp (and all other cannabis varieties) are thermophilic and heliotropic, which means they love the warmth and the sun, respectively. Without the appropriate temperatures and enough sunlight, the hemp’s bio-mass, or heartiness, will be significantly reduced, as will its seed production and pollination capabilities.
Why Is it Called Hemp?
Interestingly enough, hemp gets thrown around as if it were a slang term like bud, weed, dope, chronic, and so on.
However, hemp is not a colloquialism and is instead a linguistic cognate that transcended the old Proto-Indo-European classifications of languages to the Germanic and other groups until the word “hemp” stuck.
In other words, what started out as the oldest attested Greek form κάνναβις (kánnabis) evolved thanks to Grimm’s law  where “k” changes to “h”, Germanically turning the word into hanapiz.
Of course, this is where the linguistics become scientifically ambiguous, as hanapiz was said to have been adapted into the Old English word hænep or henep. Other cognates include the Danish and Norwegian hamp, the Saterland Frisian hoamp, the German hanf, the Swedish hampa, and the Icelandic hampur.
Hence the word hemp.
Other origins for the word cannabis also include the Assyrian qunnabu, which refers to the oils, fibers, and medicines produced from the plant without regard to the separate varieties. Therefore, it can be said that way back when, there wasn’t as much of a prevalent emphasis between the hemp and marijuana varieties as there is today.
Etymologically speaking, the evolution and interchangeable use of “cannabis” and “hemp” terminology are what contribute to the general confusion people have when distinguishing between what can get you high and what you can make a t-shirt out of.
Moreover, given the linguistic history of cannabis, it could be said that all cannabis is hemp, but obviously, not all hemp is marijuana.
Of course, today we put great emphasis on the distinction between the two varieties as a means to separate the legal from the still somewhat illegal, as well as the medicinal properties and other forms of usage.
Where Does Hemp Originate From?
While hemp and cannabis, in general, have a somewhat elusive history, all historical texts and notes point to a Central Asian origin (modern-day China and Taiwan). Of course, depending on its noted usage, some sources will claim cultivation started in Japan during the Jomon Period, while others might point to the Egyptians or elsewhere.
Either way, it should be noted that while hemp made its way around during the Middle Ages thanks to trade routes and exploration, it’s still said to have existed on nearly every continent.
However, when we talk about hemp cultivation, the most common origin story settles on the steppes of Central Asia (which includes the Asian subcontinent of India) where hemp was first cultivated and used by the Chinese as a food source for both animals and humans .
Little is known about how the Chinese happened upon the plant, but its fibers became so universal and indispensable that by 2000 BC it became one of the “5 sacred grains.” It would also later become known as one of the “5 sacred plants” in India, otherwise called sacred grass—although, in India, Himalayan hemp aka marijuana, is what they’re really referring to.
For a continuous 6,000 years, the Chinese successfully cultivated and harvested hemp as its largest agricultural crop and industrial fiber. Aside from food, they used it to make clothing, paper, fuel, oil, and building materials.
The Chinese would later export their hemp to Japan, where it’s still used today to dress both Buddhist monks and Sumo wrestlers.
It is believed that hemp made its way to Europe in 1200 BC, and from there it spread throughout Africa and the rest of the ancient world.
Around 600 AD, hemp cultivation techniques were actually recorded in detail by Qi Min Yao Shu in the ancient Confucian text The Essential Arts for the People. This is one of the first texts to mention crop rotation as well as the use of “potash fertilizer”, which is a farming technique still practiced today.
Hemp’s Modern History in a Nutshell
Up until the 1800s, hemp was used in the new world for the production of paper and other textiles. It was such an essential crop, having an incredible economic and social value as it supplied much of the food and fiber needed throughout the world, that in 1533 King Henry VIII would fine farmers for not growing industrial hemp .
By the 1700s, the governing law over farmers of the American colonies was to essentially grow as much hemp as possible.
Up until the 1920s, the majority of all clothing and textiles were made from hemp, allowing it to play a major role in the early development of North America and its economy. However, it was the industrial revolution that began in the mid-1700s which would later give way to the famous mechanical cotton gin.
Since hemp harvesting was very labor-intensive, it was easily overshadowed by cotton, despite being the superior fiber in every conceivable way, as it was easier to process thanks to the new machine. This was despite the fact that in 1917, George W. Schlichten innovated and patented a new machine known as the decorticator that could separate the hemp fibers from its internal woody core—also known as hurds.
This machine reduced labor costs while increasing fiber yield. Yet, somehow, Schlichten and his machines seemed to disappear into thin air.
So did hemp, with time and politics.
The Legalities of Hemp
The cannabis industry accomplished a huge win with the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, aka the 2018 Farm Bill .
Once the bill was passed, hemp was officially declassified as a Schedule I controlled substance and is now a 100% legal agricultural commodity to grow as an industrial crop—to a certain extent.
However, being that hemp is intricately intertwined with marijuana, both symbolically and etymologically, it’s gone through quite a history of criminalization and decriminalization, and then again.
But how did hemp go from being such an essential crop to an illegal substance?
The short answer here is Richard Nixon and his “War on Drugs.”
The War on Drugs and Cannabis
Anslinger was a government official serving as the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics under several presidents, including Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy.
This bureau would also serve as a precursor for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which would also come full circle during Nixon’s reign.
Anslinger had worked his way up the ranks from pursuing wrongful death claims to playing his part during the prohibition era chasing rum runners down in the Bahamas. In the 1930s, Anslinger was appointed to his federal position by president Hoover, which was around the time that prohibition ended.
Harry J. Anslinger: The Undeniable Racist
While Anslinger didn’t generally take issue with cannabis, we now know as we reflect on America’s history that the early 1900s saw a shift in social attitudes towards cannabis which mostly stemmed from racism and its associated fears.
Anslinger, himself, was undeniably racist. Not to mention, the end of prohibition also brought on the potential end of his federal position as there was little use of narcotics such as cocaine and heroin at the time to keep him in business.
Therefore, marijuana became his golden ticket to securing the future of his new position.
He easily propagandized race, music, and drug use, turning the three separate concepts into one destructive weapon. He was even quoted saying “Most [marijuana smokers] are Negros, Hispanics, and Filipinos, and entertainers.” Ultimately, he claimed that it was the effects of cannabis that caused “Darkies to think they’re as good as white men” and “women to seek out sexual relations” .
Anslinger began to seek out crimes that were committed while high, implying in his reports that it was the “jungle beat jazz” music in conjunction with the intoxicating effects of cannabis that created a murderous mix. He also conflated this concept with those who partied along the Mexican border, aka Mexican immigrants.
The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937
Anslinger had presented a number of cases where violent crimes were “committed while high” to Congress.
Strangely enough, the case that sealed the deal was that of Victor Licata, an Italian man who murdered his family. Basically, Anslinger consulted with roughly 30 doctors to “prove” that marijuana intoxication was the cause. While 29 of them wholeheartedly disagreed, he took the weak word of the 30th doctor and somehow used that to unleash fear onto the general public.
Sadly, it worked, and what’s worse is that this Italian American’s story became overshadowed by the Spanish word “marihuana” (marijuana)—thanks to Anslinger taking it to the newspapers—in order to conjure up a grand anti-Mexican attitude.
The result was the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, which made cannabis illegal—including industrial hemp—and birthed a series of other aggressive laws geared towards marijuana and people of color. This would include the Boggs Act of 1951 and the Narcotics Control Act, which would enhance penalties associated with cannabis of all varieties .
While Anslinger’s federal reign came to an end in 1962, Nixon would carry on an equally racist legacy using reefer madness as a proponent to perpetuate fear among white people while also using the War on Drugs to create an image that linked people of color to not only cannabis but hard drugs and violence as well as maintaining the illegal status of cannabis .
Of course, big pharma had a hand in all of this—but that’s a story for another day.
Ultimately, hemp was criminalized and made illegal simply because it was “guilty by association.” As the War on Drugs raged on through the early 1990s, each government administration failed to distinguish between hemp and marijuana.
Essentially, hemp cultivation as a separate entity wasn’t truly recognized until the 2000s.
Hemp Vs. Marijuana
By now you know from reading through this guide that there are two significant varieties of cannabis: Hemp and marijuana.
The designation of variety is intrinsically important to understand, as they aren’t separate species nor are they separate genders.
So, what exactly is it that separates the two on a biological and physiological level?
Let’s take a closer look:
As mentioned earlier, hemp comes from Cannabis Sativa L.
Its physical and chemical composition is what makes it different from marijuana, as well as non-intoxicating. Not only does hemp make for a more robust yield fiber-wise, but internally, it contains higher concentrations of cannabidiol (CBD).
Incidentally, hemp contains only trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Legally speaking, on the federal level, hemp and hemp products can only contain up to 0.03% THC, which is not nearly enough to have the same intoxicating effects as marijuana .
Despite not producing intoxicating effects, the CBD in hemp is still a psychoactive substance .
However, most of what you read about CBD will refer to it as a “non-psychoactive cannabinoid.” This is simply not true. It’s also not a bad thing.
Psychoactive simply refers to the effects a substance can have on the brain. Since CBD interacts with the body in a way that allows it to alter an individual’s mental state, i.e., to calm anxiety, it’s still regarded as psychoactive—but it will not get you high or intoxicate you in any way.
Aside from its industrial uses, hemp also lends itself as a therapeutic alternative to a variety of health conditions thanks to the pharmacokinetic benefits of CBD .
Marijuana, on the other hand, is the variety of cannabis that’s latent with THC—precisely 5%-35% or more.
THC is 100% psychoactive and intoxicating, hence the infamous high it produces. Of course, the intoxication you would get from marijuana isn’t the same as the intoxication that alcohol or other drugs produce, which are more commonly known to be addictive substances.
There are two common misconceptions about marijuana. The first is that it can be addictive and the second is that it has no industrial purpose.
Generally speaking, marijuana technically isn’t an addictive substance. However, it can lead to dependency and withdrawal among certain groups of individuals . This is especially true for said individuals when the substance is used at an abusive rate.
Fortunately, there’s no such thing as a THC overdose.
Additionally, marijuana does produce usable fibers within its cane-like stalk that can be used to make textiles. The amount, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily enough to bother with industrial use, especially in regards to the way it’s grown to produce more concentrated flowers.
Ultimately, it’s the cannabinoid composition that distinguishes hemp from marijuana. Other factors that come into play are their growing cycles, adaptability, and use.
The Many Uses of Hemp
You’ve likely heard a lot about the various uses of hemp, especially when it comes to textiles and fabrics, and more.
Here’s an overview of all the things hemp is used for:
CBD and CBD Products
CBD has certainly taken over the health and wellness world in more ways than one. CBD (cannabidiol) is one of over a hundred phytocannabinoids that exist in the cannabis plant, and as mentioned above, is most concentrated in the hemp variety.
CBD comes with a laundry list of benefits in terms of easing the symptoms of certain health conditions  including anxiety, depression, PTSD, chronic pain and inflammation, seizures and epilepsy, and much, much more.
The various CBD products also range from smokeables, edibles, oils, and topical applications. You can even find CBD products on the market for pets.
Hemp Oil and Other Related Products
Hemp oil, also known as hemp seed oil, is essentially like any other versatile oil on the market. It’s obtained by pressing the hemp seeds to expel the oil, and when left unrefined it’ll have a dark green color (or a light green color when refined).
Generally speaking, hemp oil has a nutty flavor, but the darker the color, the more “grassy” its flavor will be. Nutritionally speaking, hemp oil contains three polyunsaturated fats: linoleic acid, alpha-linolenic acid, and gamma-linolenic acid, with an excellent ratio of its omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids being 3:1.
It also contains several antioxidant properties; vitamins, minerals, and protein.
Thanks to these ingredients, hemp oil can make a healthy addition to your diet (in moderation) as well as topical products for hair, skin, and nails.
Aside from health and skincare products, hemp oil can also be used as a varnish or finishing oil on wooden surfaces and more.
Hemp Seeds and Nutrition
The hemp seeds can also be safely eaten and they contain much more protein compared to pressed hemp oil. The seeds, also referred to as hemp hearts, can be roasted or left raw, and used as an addition to granola or other toppings, or they can be ground up and used as a protein additive or even a flour substitute.
As whole seeds, they’re technically a nut—which can also be eaten raw. Therefore, aside from oil, they can also be made into hemp nut milk and used for various milk substitutions, such as in cheese or butter.
Between the omega fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, hemp seeds and their variations can make a very healthy addition to your overall diet.
In terms of the rest of the plant, such as in the stalk and its fibers, the industrial applications for hemp are virtually endless.
Industrial hemp can easily be used (and is mostly used) for the following:
- Fuel (biofuel and ethanol)
- Fiberboard, cardboard, and filters
- Chemical absorbent
- Concrete (hempcrete)
- Rope or netting
- Fabric for clothing, bags, canvas, and shoes
Part of what makes industrial hemp so special is that it’s sustainable, it’s beneficial to the soil in which it grows, and it’s strong, flexible, and fire-resistant as a building material, and it’s beneficial to the environment.
Hemp Oil Vs. CBD Oil
Another commonplace for confusion is when terms like hemp oil and CBD oil are used interchangeably.
Hemp oil and CBD oil are not the same things in any context.
However, a lot of companies out there, especially beauty and skincare brands, like to leverage the use of hemp oil to trick unknowing consumers into thinking that they’re buying products containing CBD.
So, what’s the difference?
First, there’s the fact that hemp oil is actually hemp seed oil, and it comes from the seed of the plant. Hemp seeds contain 0% CBD or any other cannabinoids for that matter. The same holds true for marijuana seeds.
CBD is mostly found in the plant’s flowers (or buds). It’s also found in the leaves and stalks of the plant.
Second, there’s the extraction method. Hemp seeds are typically cold-pressed or expeller-pressed to release the oil while CBD is extracted through various methods to release the cannabinoid from the rest of the plant.
Additionally, since CBD contains traces of THC or higher amounts of THC where hybrid products are legal, the products containing them will mostly be sold at dispensaries and CBD stores.
Of course, you can find CBD oil in regular stores now, but it’ll be strictly labeled as a CBD product—not hemp oil. Although, some products may be labeled as “CBD Hemp Oil” which usually specifies that hemp oil is being used as a carrier oil for the CBD. Or, it comes from a company that doesn’t fully understand what they’re selling.
It’s important to keep in mind that CBD is still largely underregulated as it’s not yet FDA-approved and therefore can only be marketed as a dietary supplement or wellness supplement. However, its popularity has a lot of different companies trying to corner their fair share of the market—which is why there are so many subpar and miss-marketed hemp products on the shelves right now.
So, if you’re interested in CBD products, be sure to only purchase them from a reputable brand that’s transparent about their methods, sources (organically grown and extracted in the USA), and other ingredients, and have an easily accessible certificate of analysis (COA) .
What Are the Different Species of Hemp and Which Is Best?
You’ve likely heard the terms sativa and indica get thrown around in regards to the types of cannabis out there and their effects on the body.
Sativas and indicas are actually species of the cannabis plant, not “types” or “varieties,” and both species exist within the hemp and marijuana varieties of the plant. There’s also a third species that exists in both varieties, and it’s referred to as ruderalis.
These are their distinctions:
Cannabis Sativa is arguably the most commonly grown species of cannabis, primarily because they have shorter vegetative periods compared to indicas and are easier to grow outdoors.
Sativa plants are known to grow incredibly tall, often more than 15 feet in length. They don’t grow too thick, and their leaves are notably more narrow and long. They also take a lot longer to flower compared to indicas but handle light and climate changes much better.
Lastly, sativas are generally well known for their uplifting, creative, and energetic effects—which is even true for individuals who smoke CBD flowers. This is what makes sativa-dominant strains of both cannabis varieties a favorable option for people who have mood disorders or need an energy boost.
Of course, indicas were later discovered in India, leading scholars and historians to believe that indicas were the first and more dominant species of the plant due to cannabis’s origin story. This is especially true since indicas tend to have more potent effects compared to their sativa counterparts.
In terms of cultivation, indicas grow much shorter, rarely reaching beyond six feet, and they grow much bushier with round and robust leaves.
Due to their density, they’re more vulnerable to growing mold in humid conditions, making them more suitable for indoor cultivation. Indicas also flower much faster than sativas, and can be manipulated into flowering much easier simply by adjusting their light cycles.
Their effects are also more sedative, making them ideal for those who want to address anxiety and stress, muscle spasms and soreness, insomnia, pain, and more.
Ruderalis is the least mentioned species of cannabis as it’s an incredibly short plant that only reaches about two feet in height and is exceptionally bushy.
Having said that, it is an extremely durable species that flowers fast and early, and is thought to be attributed to having adapted to harsh and cold climates.
Ruderalis is commonly used to crossbreed to produce auto-flowering strains  as it helps speed up the flowering cycles and is generally low maintenance when it comes to cultivation.
However, when grown by itself, it doesn’t produce any intoxicating effects.
Which of the Three Species Is Best?
When it comes to consuming hemp for its CBD content and wellness benefits, what’s best really comes down to your individual needs. As mentioned, sativas are known to be more energizing, while indicas are more relaxing—and ruderalis is only used for crossbreeding purposes.
As for industrial hemp cultivation, it’s more common for farmers to grow the cannabis sativa species as it’s known to grow taller, offering more fiber in its stalks, and it’s more resistant to pests and mold.
The Future of Hemp
With an attained value of $4.7 billion in 2020 and projections for the hemp industry to reach upwards of $14.6 billion by 2026, it can easily be said that the future of hemp is shining bright .
There’s also a rising demand within the pharmaceutical industry as the scientific and medical community double down on clinical trials and research regarding CBD’s efficacy as an alternative treatment to a wide range of debilitating conditions.
Moreover, hemp may just hold the key to a more sustainable future that could also help offset carbon emissions and make a positive impact on the climbing climate crisis.
Industrial hemp alone has been scientifically shown to absorb more CO2 per hectare of land compared to any forest of trees or any other commercial crop. This means that acre for acre, industrial hemp releases more oxygen compared to any other tree, and alone is responsible for the high amounts of oxygen currently being released into the air .
It’s also known to enrich the soil that it’s grown in rather than deplete it, and it can be used to create more sustainable and “cleaner” materials for virtually all applications.
As of right now, hemp is still considered to be a specialty crop. However, as hemp biomass prices continue to stabilize throughout this year, more and more farmers are looking to add this specialty crop to their rotation as they’ll be able to more precisely predict their potential revenue.
With that said, hemp is here to stay, and it may very well be the long-term solution we’re looking for in terms of a cleaner and healthier planet.
- FDA Regulation of Cannabis and Cannabis-Derived Productshttps://www.fda.gov › news-events › public-health-focus
Katie DeVoe is an in-demand educator, speaker, and thought leader in the hemp space. Over the last 12 years, she has started multiple, successful CBD businesses and been a guest speaker at numerous hemp and CBD conferences.