by Alex Hudson/ Drug Information Center Coordinator
Q: I disagree with our government’s restriction on the use of hemp for commercial products (clothing, cosmetics, etc.). Can you explain how hemp differs from the cannabis plant that is smoked?”

A: What a timely question dear reader. On August 21, the California legislature passed a bill permissing farmers to grow industrial hemp (more on what that means later) and on September 29 the Governor terminated the bill by veto. Why would the legislature even pass such a bill? Why would the governor disapprove? Let’s start with some hemp basics.

The term hemp refers to the non-drug uses of the plant Cannabis sativa. This plant comes in several varieties. Industrial hemp, the plant grown for cultivation of its fiber and seeds, is extremely low in the chemical THC which when smoked produces the “high.” While the average marijuana plant contains anywhere from 5-20% THC, industrial hemp plants typically have no more than 1% THC.

There is another chemical beside the THC in cannabis plants called cannabidiol (CBD). The CBD chemical acts as an anti-psychoactive (aka buzz-kill). Industrial hemp plants have a higher percentage of CBD to THC. So even if you did your hands on some buds from an industrial hemp plant (with 1% THC), no matter how much you smoked you wouldn’t be able to get high. Needless to say, this would be a big waste of $20.

The cultivation of the two plants differs significantly. Industrial Hemp is bred for its main stalk, and so it is designed to eliminate as many branches as possible. The result is a tall skinny plant with few leaves. These plants need very little space between them to grow and are better if cultivated before they bud.
Regular ole’ marijuana, on the other hand, is a mammoth plant that requires up to six feet of space to grow. It is bred to have as many branches as possible. The more branches, the more buds. The more buds, the more dub sacs you can sell at drum circles.
In the same way that you might not bake a cake unless it was delicious, why grow cannabis if you can’t get the…desired effect. Well, it turns out that hemp is a virtual wunderkind of the botanical world. The seeds have all kinds of crazy nutritious vitamins and nutrients that really does a body good. The fiber of the plant itself is one of the strongest natural fibers and can be used to make paper, cloth, and rope. The hollow stalk of the plant (the “hurd”) is twice as absorbent as wood shavings and in the United Kingdom—where hemp is legal to grow­­­­—many household rodents sleep in special little hemp habitats. Cute!

The for real deal is found in the oil. Hemp seed oil is an excellent moisturizer and cleanser of the skin. The oil contains many essential fatty acids which are very nutritious and have some sweet health benefits, they are often found in salad dressings or on its own, but shouldn’t be cooked if you care about your taste buds. Products containing hemp oil will not taste or smell like marijuana.

The oil can also be used to make a biodiesel fuel to run engines. That’s right, you could drive around in an environmentally friendly hemp powered car. Just think of the bumper-sticker possibilities!
There is another kind of oil derived from the cannabis plant. It is called cannabis flower essential oil and is NOT the same as hemp seed oil. The flower oil is made from cannabis buds and contains THC. This oil is used in the infamous marijuana flavored lollipops and other products which have the scent of marijuana. The US government considers this oil ‘marijuana’ and it is not legal in the US, whereas hemp oil derived from the hurds and seeds is considered legal.

So you may be asking yourself where all this hemp stuff comes from. Technically, hemp is legal to grow in the United States. Emphasis on the “technically” here though, because in order to proceed without a fear of the Man creepin’, you need to get a permit from the DEA. They tend to be less than enthusiastic about distributing these permits. The California law was going to be the first state law in the nation to exempt hemp farmers from the permit process. Most of the hemp used in products sold in the United States comes from abroad, mostly from China and Eastern Europe.

I hope this clears some confusion about the very special hemp plant. I got no answers about why the government chooses its positions vis a vis. Well, at least none that I want to print here. Maybe Google might know.