With the potential to revolutionize everything from wellness to fossil fuels, hemp is experiencing a renaissance. But what is hemp and how does it differ from federally illegal cannabis? This guide walks you through everything you ever wanted to know about hemp’s history and applications, including CBD and beyond.

What Is Hemp?

Hemp has become a hot topic among environmentalists, politicians, and millions of Americans learning about the benefits of CBD.

In simple terms, hemp is a member of the cannabis plant family. Technically, it’s cannabis sativa, though keep in mind that the legal CBD products that you see in stores are completely different from weed sativa strains.

In fact, hemp is a strong, versatile crop that can grow in most conditions. And unlike industrial crops like cotton, wood, and corn, hemp requires little water or pesticides.

On top of that, it can be used to make fabric, building materials, oils, CBD tinctures and other products, and fuel. In many cases, the durable nature of hemp fiber makes it a longer-lasting alternative to the materials we commonly use today.

A Plant Close Up

The Difference Between Hemp and Cannabis

What is hemp in comparison to cannabis as we know it?

At first glance, hemp and marijuana look virtually identical. They have similar leaf structures and shared the same legal classification until recently. In other words, hemp and marijuana both became illegal with the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act because it didn’t differentiate between them.

However, these two plants are biologically distinct. Cannabis leaves are broader and have buds. By contrast, hemp plants are taller and have skinner leaves.

It Won’t Get You High

The biggest distinction for consumer and regulators is the hemp will not get you high. According to federal law, it can contain a maximum of 0.3% THC.

Otherwise known as tetrahydrocannabinol, THC is the compound found in marijuana primarily responsible for producing a ‘high’ feeling. Marijuana flower usually contains between 15% and 40% THC.

By contrast, 0.3% THC is too small an amount to produce any psychoactive effects. Hemp’s advantages lie in its other compounds.

Tinctures Contain Concentrated Amounts of Its Main Compounds.

Where CBD Comes From

CBD, which is short for cannabidiol, is a compound found in all types of the cannabis plant. According to U.S. laws, the CBD that you see sold as oils, topicals, and edibles today have to come from hemp.

A large part of hemp’s resurgence is thanks to the growing popularity of CBD products, which have everyday benefits as well as serious medical applications.

The Benefits and Uses of CBD

Until recently, CBD wasn’t distinguished from THC. Today, we know that CBD gummies, oils, and topicals can work as a daily supplement and can treat specific conditions. According to preliminary research, here are a few of the compound’s applications:

  1. CBD can help cope with anxiety, depression, and insomnia.
  2. Its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties can reduce acne, psoriasis, and protect against aging.
  3. CBD oil can control epileptic seizures.
  4. It can mitigate Crohn’s disease and IBS symptoms and pain.
  5. A cannabidiol supplement can slow the progression of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, dementia and Parkinson’s.

The majority of people who take CBD use it for its calming, balancing effects. In broad strokes, this is because CBD interacts with the endocannabinoid system, the biological system responsible for mood, pain and maintaining homeostasis, meaning balance, throughout the body.

The Ultimate Guide to Hemp: Its History, Benefits, and Uses

Hemp: An Eco-Friendly Alternative

But CBD is only one of many potential applications. In fact, we’ve been using hemp fiber for thousands of years to make things like rope, paper, clothing, and its seeds to make food and animal feed. Here are a few of its uses that could revolutionize the production of daily necessities.

Biodegradable Plastics

According to estimates from Our World in Data, the world produces 381 million tonnes in plastic waste annually. Much of it is single-use plastic that ends up in oceans and overflowing landfills.

Hemp could be the solution to the world’s growing plastic problem. In fact, it can produce a plastic that is completely biodegradable but has the same functionality and appearance as regular plastic.

An Environmentally-Friendly Cotton

Before hemp became federally illegal, it was one of the most popular fibers used to produce fabrics. Today, it’s reemerging as a more eco-friendly alternative to cotton.

Hemp uses a fraction of the resources needed to produce cotton. According to a report from the Stockholm Environment Institute, cotton requires twice as much land per ton, and four times as much water. On top of that, cotton is one of the most pesticide-intensive crops on earth.

The Ultimate Guide to Hemp: Its History, Benefits, and Uses


Fossil fuels are a significant source of pollution as well as a finite resource. By contrast, Ethanol and Biodiesel. can be made from hemp seeds. Not only are these more eco-friendly alternatives to fossil fuels, but they’re also cheaper to produce and have higher yields than other biofuel alternatives.

Building Materials

The world is rapidly urbanizing, which means that demand for construction materials is increasing. From an environmental standpoint, building materials contribute to deforestation, hazardous waste, and increased energy use. Hemp can be used to make alternatives to steel, concrete, insulation, and roofing.

Infused Smoothies

A Nutritious Supplement

Not only can we produce many of the necessities of modern life from hemp, but we can eat it, too. Hemp seeds, also called hearts, are incredibly nutritious. More specifically, they contain high concentrations of fatty acids and protein, Vitamin E. Other important ingredients include calcium, iron, potassium, and zinc.

For vegetarians, seed-based products are a great source of protein and other nutrients they may be lacking. It can come in the form of: 

  • Milk
  • Oils and Butter
  • Energy Bars
  • An ingredient in baked goods and salads

Hemp’s Thousand-Year History

Though hemp might seem like a trend, experts believe that it was the first plant grown for use as fiber. According to archeological evidence, farming dates back to 8,000 BCE in ancient Mesopotamia.

Hemp farming expanded throughout the globe during the Stone and Iron Ages. In other words, humans have been using it for textiles, rope and other materials for thousands of years.

The Ultimate Guide to Hemp: Its History, Benefits, and Uses

Restriction Dates Back to the 1930s

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was a turning point in the history of both types of cannabis. Specifically, the legislation taxed farmers, pharmacies, and doctors who dealt with it. At the time, hemp was becoming a more common medicine and fiber, though was still unimportant in comparison to other alternatives.

The Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act also changed the history of cannabis. This Act—coupled with the influence of Reefer Madness—was eventually adopted by all 50 states. By the 1930s, hemp and marijuana were not only illegal but highly stigmatized.

Why Outlaw Both Types of Cannabis?

There is speculation that hemp and marijuana weren’t grouped together accidentally. In fact, newspaper chain owner Randolph Hearst was influential in the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.

In addition to running the largest newspaper chain in America, he also owned extensive timber farms, which could have been threatened by hemp production had restrictions not been imposed.

The Future of Hemp Farming

History changed when the 2014 Farm Bill legalized industrial hemp farming. This first step allowed for pilot farming programs and research, but no interstate trade or large-scale farming operations.

But in 2018, a new Farm Bill completely removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act. As a result, it’s legal to farm and trade in all 50 states like any other industrial crop.

Today, hemp is a booming agricultural industry—and it’s just getting started. And without legal obstacles, a wide variety of applications, and the rise of CBD, it could soon become a major industrial crop.