Hemp: it’s not just for hippies anymore.

Photo by Kevin H. | flickr.com

Hemp. We’ve all heard about it, but how much do we really know about it? It’s associated with hippies and drug culture, but it’s slowly working its way out of that stereotype. In fact, with the amount of work hours that hemp has put in over the years, it’s very surprising that it’s mistakenly linked to lazy deadbeats and “getting high.” Hemp is slowly becoming a jack of all trades. It’s everywhere nowadays.

But first things first, what is the difference between hemp and marijuana? Both plants are from the genus Cannabis sativa. Both plants also produce cannabinoids. A famous cannabinoid you may have heard of is THC or delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol. This molecule causes the psychoactive effect in the resin secreted by plants in the genus. This psychoactive effect is counteracted by another cannabinoid known as CBD or cannabidiol. The difference between marijuana and hemp is that the THC to CBD ratio in marijuana is high whereas it is quite low in hemp. The end result is psychoactive versus regular plant, illegal versus legal, etc etc.

The oldest trace of hemp is thought to be a piece of material from 8000 BC. Over the years it was involved in some influential moments such as being the paper for the first copies of the Bible and the canvas for works by Rembrandt and Van Gogh. Now it’s involved in a wide array of industries. The main environmental benefits of hemp production are that it consumes much less water than conventional crops and that the entire plant can be put to use. It also usually requires a low amount of any pesticides or fertilizers for support. The plant as a whole can aid farmers with weed control and crop rotation. Additionally, dried up crops can also be used as a fuel for biomass energy and any leftover leaves can be used to replenish soil nitrogen content.

The seeds of hemp plants can be up to 35% oil. This oil can be used as fuel, a component of plastics, feed for livestock, body care products and fertilizer. The seeds and oil are also now becoming more prominent in the food industry with products like Hemp Plus Frozen Waffles from Nature Foods or Hemp n’ Mocha HempPower bars from Ruth’s Hemp Foods. Similarly, the fibres from hemp plants have also developed a strong economy. Hemp fibres can be used as basic material for rope, canvas and clothing. The automotive industry has also been recently increasing its use of natural fibres including hemp to create press moulded parts like door panels. Hemp is being put to use in the construction industry as well, by serving as an insulation material in buildings. Finally hemp has also become a popular choice for animal bedding, with the primary demand coming from stable beds for horses.

With its dynamic repertoire of uses, the question is: “why isn’t our use of hemp more prevalent?” Some people may say due to a negative stigma against the plant, but others also believe it is due to a lack of research. For plants to have widespread use in industry, the technology and farming techniques behind them need to be well researched and developed. Additionally, hemp waffles aren’t the most common thing on the shelf. It may take years of product testing and customer approval before hemp becomes more mainstream. So the next time you’re out and about, why not consider a hemp product? For the health conscious, hemp is a good source of protein, Omega 3 and 6. For the style conscious, hemp clothes are beginning to make it on the fashion scene (check out Effort Industries Inc. if you’re in the Toronto area). Finally if you’re worried that your friends are just going to think you’re another pocket mulching, soy paper using hippie if you buy hemp products, then you can at least argue that a plant with sustainable uses in over 15 industries isn’t just for hippies. It’s for economists and eco-activists too.