Since the 1930s, hemp, once a widely grown and important crop in the United States has been considered a controlled substance due to its similarity with the cannabis plant grown for marijuana use. Although hemp used for industrial production, is in fact the cannabis plant, the same one that produces marijuana, there is an important difference – the THC produced in the plant.
THC is the main intoxicating ingredient in marijuana. Hemp cultivated for industrial purposes has much lower levels of THC than that grown for marijuana and cannot cause a drug induced high. It can however, be used to make over 25,000 different products ranging from textiles, to foods, to body care products, to building supplies.
Hemp has a long history of being cultivated as a source of fiber throughout the world. Historically it has served as a significant crop for textile purposes and is thought to have been under continuous cultivation in China for over 6,000 years. Not only was hemp used for clothing and paper, but it was an essential product for making rope for ships because of its strength and salt resistance. Often times, especially during periods of war, farmers were required to grow hemp in order to ensure that these items could be made.
The history of hemp in the United States is no different. It is believed that hemp was grown here, long before Europeans arrived and after their arrival, hemp was grown in every state at one time or another. In 1619 Virginia passed legislation requiring that every farmer grow hemp.
However, as time went on, cotton grew in popularity due to it being a less labor intensive crop, and upon the invention of the cotton gin in the late 1700s hemp production declined significantly. By the late 1930s, with the invention of hemp processing equipment, hemp was posed to make a comeback.
The February 1938 issue of Popular Mechanics predicted that hemp was on the verge of becoming “the billion-dollar crop.” However, shortly after, largely due to political and social issues including lobbying pressure from synthetic textile companies such as DuPont who saw hemp as a threat to their businesses, the U.S. government banned hemp production. At this time, there was no way to test plants for THC levels and all cannabis became considered a narcotic. The United States continued to use hemp, but relied on imports from countries such as China, the Philippines, and later Canada to meet it’s needs.
In recent years, industrial hemp production in the United States has seen renewed interest. It is now possible to test for THC levels, to ensure that crops are being grown legally, and hemp could once again be a profitable agricultural commodity.
This became more of a reality with the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill at the end of December when hemp was officially differentiated from marijuana and cultivation of hemp became legalized on a broad scale, not just in pilot research projects as had been previously approved through the USDA and individual state departments of agriculture.
The 2018 Farm Bill allows hemp-derived products across state lines for commercial or other purposes and puts no restrictions on the sale, transport, or procession of hemp-derived products as long as they are produced in a legal manner. It is important to note, that although this has now made hemp a mainstream commodity crop, there are still state and federal regulations that must be followed when growing it.
Going forward, regulation of hemp growing will be shared by individual states as well as the federal government. Each state must submit a plan to license and regulate hemp and have it approved by the USDA before hemp can be grown. For states who do not develop their own plan the USDA will develop a regulatory program and growers in those states will have to apply for licenses and comply with the federally run program.
Additionally, the Farm Bill outlines what will be considered illegal according to federal hemp law including growing plants with a THC level of greater than 0.3 percent, and cultivating without a license.
Photo: A field of industrial hemp (courtesy Hemp Industry Association).