There are many misconceptions and false claims when it comes to Cannabis, it being “weed” or “hemp”. Many of them come from uninformed people – like saying that hemp plants are male weed plants, or saying that hemp plants can’t produce cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids or saying that hemp plants have higher levels of CBD compared to weed plants.
It’s been said that Cannabis has tens of thousands of uses, ranging from food, textiles and fiber to medicine and everything in between. And although both hemp and weed belong to the same Cannabis genus and species, their use has made them different – due to selective breeding. If you’re growing plants for fiber, you don’t need a bushy and leafy plant, instead you need a tall and thick stem. By eliminating the plants that don’t show those characteristics, with time, humans have bred varieties that best suit their needs. A plant that’s being grown for seeds is different than one grown for fiber and one grown for medicinal use is again different from both of those.
Long history of use
Hemp is considered to be the first agricultural crop that humans grew with some accounts going back thousands of years back. Prior to the 1930s there was no stigma against any use of cannabis and it was widely used for the production of clothing, rope, fiber, paper but as a herbal medicine and recreational drug as well.
For thousands of years, humans have been selectively breeding cannabis plants. Some of them were bred for fiber or seeds, some for their medicinal or psychoactive properties. Plants grown for fiber and industrial uses came to be known as (industrial) hemp while more psychoactive plants were called ‘weed’ or marijuana.
But, even in what’s considered to be industrial hemp there are considerable differences – you don’t need the same shape or composition of the plants if you’re growing them for seeds as you do if you’re growing them for fiber. Same as with growing medicinal cannabis or weed – you have plants that are more suited for CBD production and you have plants that are most suited for THC production.
Prohibition and banning of cannabis crops
Running a terrible, fear mongering campaign, US administration with Harry J. Anslinger on helm effectively banned cannabis use, possession and cultivation with the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, imposing heavy and unrealistic taxes that paved the way for the next 80 years of cannabis prohibition. Situation got even worse in 1970 when all cannabis plants and products became illegal under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Of course, like it was the case with the Marihuana Tax Act, the Controlled Substances Act was later adopted in one way or the other by other countries worldwide.
Farmers that grew cannabis plants for industrial use weren’t interested in THC, they cared about producing more plant mass that could later be used in any of the accompanying industries. Growing plants for fiber and other industrial uses meant that the farmers weren’t interested in wide and bushy plants, rather in tall and thick plants that they could harvest early and can grow using various farming equipment and machines, which reflects in modern day hemp’s shape and appearance.
In many places much “laid back” attitude, when it comes to hemp, was in place, allowing farmers to keep their crops even if they tested more than the required limit. Now, anything testing more than the limit will result in farmers paying fines and/or having their entire crops destroyed.
The flawed classification of hemp
Although hemp and weed are genetically different, the only difference the government was interested in was the level of THC in the plants. By putting the cap on 0.3% THC, governments worldwide set the difference which, in most cases, stand still today with slight variations – like 0.2% in the EU or 1% in other places. Before the government’s involvement, levels of any cannabinoids in hemp plants were irrelevant, because the plants were processed and they weren’t used for smoking, or other ‘recreational’ uses and many countries allowed some variations and thresholds. Many countries allowed significantly higher levels of THC to be present in the hemp plants, which didn’t matter because all of that hemp was used in industrial uses, processed, refined and made into various different products.
This classification of hemp or marijuana absent of a true understanding of Cannabis presents a clear issue of function. Concentrating on just one compound, out of 400+ found in cannabis is just silly and it’s like saying that rose is a rose only if it’s a certain shade of red. If it’s yellow, pink or just a different shade of red, it magically becomes pineapple. Of course, that’s not even remotely true but that’s what they’ve come with.
Dividing Cannabis into hemp and weed is like classifying all fruits in the citrus genus as either sweet or sour, without acknowledging the diverse characteristics of each fruit. Although there’s a distinct difference between lemons, grapefruits, oranges, limes and kumquats, by simply looking at one difference and classifying them all as either sour or sweet, we lose the proper nomenclature and seriously hinder the scientific approach when it comes to it. Similar things have happened to Cannabis plants with the terms Indica and Sativa and it would be easier if none of the terms existed, so that we could have a fresh start and properly educate the public.
No regard for science and an arbitrary value to begin with
Dividing Cannabis into hemp and weed by the THC content is flawed and isn’t supported by any science and is totally an arbitrary value with no support in real data, studies or research. Even Dr. Ernest Small, the scientist who set forth the 0.3 percent cap in a 1976 paper published in the Netherlands-based scientific journal Taxon called “A Practical and Natural Taxonomy for Cannabis”, admitted that the 0.3% cap was totally arbitrary and thinks it should be changed.
Since 1976 many countries have adopted this THC designation. The EU initially established a 0.5 percent THC limit in 1984, changed it to 0.3 percent THC in 1987, and then lowered it to 0.2 percent in 1998. Canada adopted the 0.3 percent limit in 1998.
With science saying one thing and the government and lobbyists saying another, it would be best if we started fresh and let skilled and knowledgeable people do what they know best and let politicians concentrate on their side of things. You wouldn’t want a car mechanic to treat your medical conditions and visa versa, there’s no reason why uneducated politicians should be making decisions they’re clearly not fit to make.
The current state of affairs
Initially the law banned cultivation, sales and everything else of hemp that was higher in THC than 0.3%, meaning that hemp with more than 0.3% THC existed but you weren’t allowed to grow it. That was the case until the signing of the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018, which legalized hemp and hemp-derived products on a federal level in the US. But the law brought a very simple change too – instead of banning people to grow hemp that had more than 0.3% THC, it defined the hemp plant as a cannabis plant containing less than 0.3% THC.
There isn’t a similar law or regulation in place anywhere else in the world and it’s not the law’s place to define plants but with significant lobbying efforts the law was changed and this distorted definition of hemp was put in place. This allowed farmers and growers to grow all cannabis plants, whether they were weed or hemp, as long as the THC levels were less than 0.3%. The same similar practices are sadly in place in most other countries as well.
The CBD greed
And although hemp or cannabis in general, could provide us with a clean and safe alternative to oil-based products, make us not be oil-dependent, provide food and shelter, the biggest reason why hemp, or what the government considers to be hemp, is experiencing a renaissance is CBD.
The only reason why people use hemp to produce CBD though is the fact that weed is still illegal in most places, so lowering the levels of THC in their plants is a nice way to circumvent those regulations. The problem was and still is that hemp plants, opposite to many myths and misinformation available, don’t really have significant levels of any cannabinoid, CBD included. And just like growers and breeders bred weed strains to chase the highest possible THC levels, the same thing is happening now with hemp.
The problem with that is, when you grow from seeds, like most commercial operations do, slight (or even huge) differences will still occur. The 0.3% THC limit is very low and it’s very easy for the plants to go ‘hot’. That wouldn’t be an issue if those same plants were processed and refined like they used to be but cultivating hemp just because of the CBD, doesn’t really do that because the whole process is oriented on cannabinoid extraction.
Although CBD producers could use real hemp varieties or at least those that will test as hemp in most cases, those strains tend to have lower levels of CBD which increases the price of CBD. Without any regulations in place in the CBD market, anything goes, so a lot of wannabe breeders have crossed higher CBD strains – considered to be weed because of the higher content of THC with hemp plants in order to increase the levels of CBD in hemp. The problem with that is that CBD levels or even ratios (CBD:THC) are very hard to stabilize and breed, resulting in a record number of hemp grows to be destroyed.
So, what are the real differences between hemp and marijuana?
A study examining the genotypes of 43 hemp samples and 81 marijuana samples identified a consistent difference between hemp and marijuana. However, this same study revealed that weed and hemp plants still “share a common pool of genetic variation.” There are hemp strains that are more genetically similar to weed and visa versa. This is due to thousands of years of selective breeding and human travels – sometimes people had to ‘start fresh’ and breed weed strains into something they could use for textile or fiber.
But, generally speaking – hemp plants require a lot less attention and are way less picky of their environmental conditions than weed plants, allowing them to be cultivated using regular agricultural practices and methods. Hemp plants tend to have way less branching and leaf matter and more thicker stalks, which are better suited for fiber, as opposed to medicinal or recreational plants that are grown for their flowers, in which most of the therapeutic substances are located. For the same reason, hemp plants tend to be taller and skinnier than weed plants with way less leaves.
There isn’t an easy way to differentiate between hemp and weed and one wrongly put arbitrary level shouldn’t be the only condition on which we make that difference. Unfortunately, prohibition of cannabis has brought many many issues that we’re just beginning to correct, hopefully the hemp or weed question will be one of them soon.
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