In a case of mistaken identity, industrial hemp was found guilty by association with its identical twin in the original “War on Drugs.” Hemp was a major cash crop in the Eastern United States until 1937 when it was outlawed as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. The primary difference between hemp products derived from marijuana is the amount of THC, the psychoactive compound that gets you high. Hemp contains very little THC—less than 0.3 percent, while marijuana THC levels range from 5 percent to 35 percent. Industrial hemp is much more than its controlled substance relatives. A hemp plant is huge and can grow over 12 feet tall. It has the potential to support soil systems, protect resources and reduce waste. Growing hemp also helps sequester carbon.
Hemp had been illegal to grow and sell until Donald Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill, legalizing hemp by removing it from the Controlled Substances Act. Hemp producers also became eligible for a number of agricultural programs that allowed farmers to grow hemp under federally-approved plans. The 2018 Farm Bill provided national guidance for hemp production in the U.S., which opened the doors for interstate transportation of raw hemp. States and tribal entities with legalized hemp production had to adopt USDA’s federal hemp regulations by Oct. 31, 2020. Resolution HR 8319, passed by the U.S. Congress in September 2020, allows states to continue operating under the 2014 Farm Bill hemp pilot programs through September 2021.
HB 581—Hemp Manufacturing Act, regulating the production, testing, research, manufacturing and transportation of hemp and similar products in New Mexico, was signed by Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham in April, 2019. The bill was designed to help farmers and manufacturers access the lucrative hemp industry while maintaining compliance with federal and state laws. Between hemp’s resurgence as a cash crop (39 cents per pound for seed, $1.20 per pound for certified seed for planting and $200 per ton for hemp stalks) and its ability to integrate into regenerative farming practices, hemp may provide answers for carbon-neutral climate change targets and help cut down on toxic waste. As oil-based fuels and plastics cause enormous environmental damage and should increase in price as oil becomes more scarce, there is a lot of interest in hemp seed oil as fuel, as a binding agent in hemp plastic and as environmentally friendly alternatives for everyday items.
Hemp as a building material is extremely strong and has been used for centuries to make a mud-like building material that dries and hardens into bricks. The modern-day version of this is “hempcrete.” Buildings made from early versions of hempcrete have been built as far back as the sixth century. The basic foundations for building a structure—concrete, wood, insulation, metal and carpet—can all be substituted with hemp alternatives. Hempcrete, a mixture of hemp and lime, is seven times lighter than normal concrete and just as strong. It is also non-toxic, mold- and pest-resistant, a breathable insulator and lasts for hundreds of years. It can be made into bricks or mixed in a mortar-like normal concrete. Hemp is 10 times stronger than steel and six times more efficient at mending and bending than steel. Cars made out of hemp are extremely hard to dent. There are just a handful of hempcrete homes in the United States—mostly in Southern states, such as North Carolina and Florida—as the trend is just getting off the ground.
Some of the earliest plastics made were made from organic hemp cellulose fibers. We use plastics that are fossil fuel-based and take over 400 years to decompose. We now have 9.2 billions tons of it to deal with as waste, and much of it is in our oceans —where it has become known as “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” From bottles to grocery bags, hemp, an organic material—meaning that it is biodegradable—can help replace plastic. Lego and Coca-Cola are already using plastic made out of hemp and other plant fibers.
The Declaration of Independence was written on paper made from a hemp plant, which is ready to be harvested and made into paper after one season. It takes 60 to 90 days for hemp to reach maturity, whereas trees are 10 to 30 years old before they are used for paper. Paper made out of wood is causing a huge deforestation issue, contributing to climate change. One acre of hemp can produce as much paper as four to 10 acres of trees over a 20-year cycle. Hemp paper is stronger than wood-pulp paper, doesn’t yellow and can be recycled up to seven time—as opposed to tree paper, which can only be recycled up to three times.
Hemp has been used throughout history to make clothing, rope and textiles. It was one of the first plants to be spun into usable fiber 10,000 years ago, and the first American flag was made from hemp. Today’s clothing is made from polyester, assembled from plastic and cotton, which contributes to soil erosion, water pollution and uses a ton of insecticides. Two to three acres of cotton are needed to produce the same amount of material as one acre of hemp. Hemp fabric is odor-resistant, breathable, a UV protectant and fire-resistant. It is four times warmer than cotton and only gets softer with every wash without wearing out. Hemp seed oil was used for centuries as lamp oil until petroleum was introduced. Today hemp can be made into biodiesel that can run in any diesel engine completely unmodified. While it is not the best alternative, it is much better for the air, as—unlike fossil fuels—biofuels are non-toxic, producing less greenhouse gas. They are also biodegradable.
Industrial hemp—in all its uses—can help with climate change and could dramatically stem the flow of the 260 million tons of non-biodegradable waste produced each year that’s dumped into landfills and oceans.