After 81 years of criminalization, US farmers can finally grow industrial hemp without fear of a DEA raid.

Last year on December 20th President Donald Trump signed the 2018 US Farm Bill, which for the first time differentiates between hemp and marijuana products and removes industrial hemp from the US list of controlled substances.

For decades, US state and federal laws have lumped marijuana and hemp together. While they are both cannabis plant species, hemp lacks the high concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) which gives pot smokers that famous psychotropic “high.” Instead, hemp is used for a vast range of products, from textiles and fibers to food and nutrition supplements to bioplastic and fuel.

It’s also a popular health and wellness product because of the presence of CBD, or cannabidiol, which studies have shown to improve sleep and mood regulation, relieve pain and reduce inflammation – although the Centre for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration both caution more research is needed.

Under the new law, industrial hemp will be closely regulated to make sure crops maintain THC concentrations of 0.3 percent or lower, to make sure the crop isn’t being grown for recreational drugs. But, realistically, smoking hemp would just be a waste of a good plant.

Today, hemp is grown predominantly in the northern hemisphere – largely in China and Canada, according to Ministry of Hemp, a US-based advocacy group. China’s industry is focused largely on textiles and paper, the group says, while Canada is the largest producer of hemp food products, including seeds, oil and protein powder.

Hemp is also grown legally in 21 other countries, including Australia, Chile, Egypt, India, Nepal, South Korea and Thailand. In Europe, 15 countries produce hemp, mostly for industrial and construction materials. Most of Europe’s hemp is grown in Eastern European countries like Romania, Hungary, and Russia, according to the Ministry of Hemp.

It’s widely considered one of the first domestically-cultivated fibers, having been found in Asian archaeology sites dating back to 8,000 BCE.

British colonizers introduced it to North America in the 17thcentury, requiring farmers to grow it to make ropes, sails, and paper, according to Forbes.com. Later, automotive legend Henry Ford experimented with sustainable bioplastics and touted the durable qualities of hemp. He even built a prototype car out of renewable fibers and meant it to run on hemp-based fuel.

But in 1937 the US Congress effectively banned any possession or import of cannabis through the Marijuana Tax Act.

The law restricted cannabis possession by charging an annual excise tax of US $24 a year (about US $418 today) to import the plant – but only for a small number of approved medical and industrial uses.

While the law targeted recreational drug use, it made industrial uses for hemp much less economical, US Customs and Border Protection said in history online. 

The law was repealed in 1970, but cannabis was then quickly classified as a schedule one substance – on par with heroin – as part of the US war on drugs. As a cannabis product, hemp was effectively banned, too.

Today, the legal landscape is changing. Over the past decade, some states have made exemptions for hemp production, and 33 and counting have legalized medical marijuana. Recreational marijuana use is legal in 10 states.

The 2018 US Farm Bill could make industrial hemp production an economically viable crop again – especially as the Food and Drug Administration looks to be opening its doors ever so slightly to regulated hemp products.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb issued a statement on Dec. 20 that his agency was considering “potential regulatory pathways” to approve hemp-derived CBD products. So far, CBD is only approved as a drug, not for food or dietary supplements.

There are many potential uses for the plant as regulations continue to loosen.

Hemp is not only edible but incredibly nutritious. According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, hemp seeds are “second only to soybeans in furnishing complete proteins.” And the seeds can be crushed to make an oil rich in essential fatty acids and vitamins A and E, all useful in a healthy diet or for skincare products. 

US consumers can already find hemp in a wide range of food items, from power bars to veggie burgers. Some of these products are even made in the US, since importing food-grade hemp has been allowed since 1998.

Hemp-derived health and wellness products are also increasingly popular, particularly in the natural goods market - and they’re quickly becoming mainstream, according to Jessica Hochman, the research manager for natural products data firm SPINS.

Demand for CBD-derived products is growing at a break-neck pace, she said in a recent report, and despite the legal grey zones, retailers and producers are tripping over themselves to deliver.

“Even under the limitations of the current legal climate, products containing CBD and cannabinoids have grown an astonishing 384 percent in sales in traditional retail channels over the last year — and it feels like it’s just the beginning,” Hochman wrote last November.

And the variety of available CBD-based products is on the rise, as well. Innova Market Insights found there was a 34 percent average annual growth in the number of new food and beverage launches with hemp ingredients globally between 2013 and 2017. US growth was slightly slower at 21 percent annually over the same period.

Hemp isn’t just good for individuals, however. Advocates insist it is an invaluable crop to fight climate change, reduce plastic use and transition to renewable fuels.

The plant itself is incredibly fast growing and can even help regenerate contaminated soil in a process known as ‘phytoremediation’ – it was used this way near the infamous Chernobyl nuclear disaster site in Ukraine, and this attribute of the plant is being studied at Colorado State University.

Globally, the automotive and industrial sectors have been exploring the potential of hemp to provide powerful energy storage systems in electric vehicles, computers and even cell phone chargers. BMW used hemp in the interior of its electric car, the i3, and a Canadian car company in Calgary has made its vehicle, the Kestrel, primarily out of hemp.

And the versatile crop is even being used in the US to improve poor communities through steady work and investment.

Colorado’s Evo Hemp, for example, has partnered with the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota to grow hemp on its land. Up to 90 percent of the reserve’s Lakota residents live below the poverty line, and Evo Hemp’s mission is “to use industrial hemp to empower small U.S. farmers and revitalize poor farming communities.” The company has a new line of CBD extracts and soft gel capsules made with organic hemp from the reservation.

As Hochman said, this is just the beginning. She predicts a product “explosion” is on the horizon for hemp.