Hemp has been harvested for thousands of years. In fact, some might argue that it may just be the first agricultural crop to ever have been used. After all, its textile use dates back to 8,000 BC. Today, hemp is one of the most versatile plants in the world because it can be made into so many different products. From goods like food, clothing, rope, ink, and even plastics, hemp has many uses but unfortunately, remains an under-utilized resource.
Despite the overwhelming benefits of hemp, the United States banned it in the 20th century. In the early 1900s with the rise of smoking dried marijuana flower, hemp was lumped into the restriction because it's technically the same plant. However, there is almost no THC in hemp, so it doesn’t induce psychoactive effects when ingested. Still, despite this logic, the ban stood firm.
For decades, federal law did not differentiate hemp from cannabis, all of which were effectively made illegal in 1937 under the Marijuana Tax Act and formally made illegal in 1970 under the Controlled Substances Act.
Fast forward to today, the passing of the 2018 Farm Bill has opened up new opportunities for hemp use once again. However, we now face challenges as we have nearly a century to catch up on integrating hemp into manufacturing processes and innovative products. The potential applications of hemp appear powerful. Experts and farmers argue that there could be key clean energy applications including creating biofuel, which uses hemp biomass to produce fuel.But there are still many hurdles to overcome. The Farm Bill, while a positive step in the right direction, does not create a completely free system for farmers and businesses to grow hemp. There are many restrictions including:
- Hemp cannot contain more than 0.3 percent of THC
- Any cannabis plant containing more than 0.3 percent THC would face no legal protection
- Under section 10113 of the Farm Bill, state departments of agriculture must consult with the state’s governor to devise a plan to be submitted to the Secretary of the USDA. That state’s plan can only happen once it’s approved by the Secretary of the USDA
- There are federal hemp law violations that many farmers must understand and consider including such activities as cultivating without a license and producing cannabis with more than 0.3 percent THC.
Ultimately, while the Farm Bill legalizes hemp, it’s not nearly as easy to grow it as one might think. And while the demand for hemp is high, there just aren’t enough processors to turn that hemp into products. For example, growth of the embryonic North American hemp fiber industry is being restricted by a lack of processing infrastructure. And because of its nearly 81-year long prohibition, the entire fiber supply chain needs to be rebuilt, essentially from scratch.
Processing hemp to make fiber consists mainly of a process called decortication, which separates hemp stalks into fiber. It’s a fundamental part of the process and advances the plant to be used to manufacture it for other products. The shortage is no surprise though as it’s long been attributed to the fact that there were no processing facilities of this sort when there was little hemp to be grown. Today, with the explosion of the hemp industry, that’s not necessarily the case, but the risks surrounding processing and the costs that go along with it make for a volatile market. And to top it off, growers in the United States are competing with countries, like Canada and China, that are much more advanced in processing hemp affordably with several decades of a head start.
However, don’t let the lack of production or strict legalization fool you. Hemp and hemp use is on the rise. And while hemp remains more expensive than its alternatives; with so many countries cracking down on plastics, hemp products will become popular alternatives. From plastics, papers, textiles, building materials, and even biofuel there’s no doubt about the growing adoption of hemp as a raw material resource.