What's the Fuss About? Q&A on Legalized Hemp.

Every year on Christmas Eve, my family has a Yankee Swap—if you don't know what that is, it's basically a random exchange of gifts in an order determined by pulling numbers out of a hat.

To keep things interesting, and avoid a gift pile full of scarves and maple syrup (we're New Englanders; it's a thing) we've started choosing themes for the swap. This year, one cousin chirped up with the idea of selecting materials and each person has to buy a gift made out of said substance. We all shouted out ideas—I may have cringed at the suggestion of plastic—and tossed them in a hat.

In went wood, ceramic, glass, and then... hemp.  

"Wait, hemp? What on Earth is hemp good for? Doesn't that mean marijuana? You can't give a gift made of that!"

All actual questions that were asked.

If you know much about hemp, you may be rolling your eyes right now. But for many of us, marijuana’s non-psychotropic (not mind- or behavior-altering) cousin is quite the mystery. From 1970 until the passing of the 2018 Farm Bill last December, the growing of hemp was illegal in the United States, in most cases. However, hemp has seen a recent rise in popularity of late, and the inclusion of hemp in the new bill was championed by Mitch McConnell and environmentalists alike.

I'll give you a second while you re-read that last sentence.  

Hemp is currently receiving a wide range of bipartisan support, but there's still a fair bit of confusion and misconception surrounding the plant.

While some folks claim hemp will save the world, others write it off as a useless product to make hippie bracelets. So here are six common questions about hemp to clear through a bit (though likely not all) of the haze.

Think you already know a lot about hemp? Take the quiz!

  1. Did hemp just pop up all of a sudden? Hemp has been around for a very, very long time—it was used to create rope in ancient China 5,000 years ago, and for many other purposes across the world. However, its legal history in the United States has made producing hemp complicated. Growing of the plant was first regulated in 1937, with the Marijuana Tax Act, which required the plant to be cultivated only by those who had specific stamps. In 1970, hemp, and the cultivation of any cannabis products, were officially banned under the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act. In 2014, some hemp was legalized to grow for research purposes only.  
  2. What's the difference between hemp and its stoner cousin? Hemp is a variety of the Cannabis sativa plant, the same plant that grows marijuana. To be classified as hemp, the plant legally cannot contain more than 0.3 percent THC—that's the property that gets you high. So it'd be nearly impossible to get stoned off of it.
  3. Why was it illegal in the first place? The easy answer is that hemp is so similar to marijuana that it got swept up in the fervor of the "war on drugs" during the Nixon administration. The longer story is more complicated and dates back to the end of prohibition, where many factors came into play. It's possible that hemp's reputation was intentionally slandered by those who had a financial interest in hemp competitors, such as William Randolph Hearst (paper) and the DuPont Corporation (nylon).
  4. What exactly is hemp used for? The better question is what can't it be used for. Hemp is a durable material that can be fashioned into everything from food and beer to clothing to beauty products. Hemp can also be used to make plastic, an alternative biofuel, cars, and an estimated 25,000 other products.
  5. Is it difficult to grow? Nope, hemp is a farmer's best friend. It's good for the soil, helping to remove toxins. It grows well with little fertilizer, no pesticides, and less water than many other crops. It's also extremely dense, which means it takes less valuable farmland. It's relatively profitable (Canadian farmers are reporting $300 per/acre profits). And it grows fast—that's where the name weed came from.
  6. So I've heard it's good for combating climate change. Why's that? While not a silver bullet for climate, hemp is one of many possible agricultural solutions for a variety of reasons. Hemp actually absorbs more CO2 than trees, needs less water than plants like cotton, and can also be used to make a sustainable biofuel.

So is legalized hemp a game changer in American agriculture?

It's difficult to say. Right now, the market is not particularly high, and in countries where hemp has been always been legal, it hasn't exactly replaced other staple crops. However, there is still research on hemp happening across the world and nation. As climate change leads to drier growing conditions, and population growth increases the demand for food, clothes, and other materials, hemp could present itself as a potential solution. One thing is for sure—this probably won't be the last time you hear about it.

And I can't wait to see which of those 25,000 potential hemp-made products show up in the gift pile next December 24.

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