What is hemp? For our purposes, hemp is the plant called 'cannabis sativa'. There are other plants that are called hemp, but cannabis hemp is the most useful of these plants. In fact, 'cannabis sativa' means 'useful (sativa) hemp (cannabis)'.
'Hemp' is any durable plant that has been used since pre-history for many purposes. Fiber is the most well known product, and the word 'hemp' can mean the rope or twine which is made from the hemp plant, as well as just the stalk of the plant which produced it.
What is cannabis? Cannabis is the most durable of the hemp plants, and it produces the toughest cloth, called 'canvass.' (Canvass was widely used as sails in the early shipping industry, as it was the only cloth which would not rot on contact with sea spray.) The cannabis plant also produces three other very important products which the other hemp plants do not (in usable form, that is): seed, pulp, and medicine.
The pulp is used as fuel, and to make paper. The seed is suitable for both human and animal foods. The oil from the seed can be used in as a base for paints and varnishes. The medicine is a tincture or admixture of the sticky resin in the blossoms and leaves of the hemp plant, and is used for a variety of purposes.
Where did the word 'marijuana' come from? The word 'marijuana' is a Mexican slang term which became popular in the late 1930's in America, during a series of media and government programs which we now refer to as the 'Reefer Madness Movement.' It refers specifically to the medicine part of cannabis, which Mexican soldiers used to smoke.
Today in the U.S., hemp (meaning the roots, stalk, and stems of the cannabis plant) is legal to possess. No one can arrest you for wearing a hemp shirt, or using hemp paper. Marijuana (The flowers, buds, or leaves of the cannabis plant) is not legal to possess, and there are stiff fines and possible jail terms for having any marijuana in your possession. The seeds are legal to possess and eat, but only if they are sterilized (will not grow to maturity).
Since it is not possible to grow the hemp plant without being in possession of marijuana, the United States does not produce any industrial hemp products, and must import them or, more often, substitute others. (There is a way to grow hemp legally, but it involves filing an application with the Drug Enforcement Administration and the DEA very rarely ever gives its permission.) This does not seem to have stopped people from producing and using marijuana, though. In many of the United States, marijuana is the number one cash crop, mostly because it fetches a very high price on the black market.
How can hemp be used as a food? Hemp seed is a highly nutritious source of protein and essential fatty oils. Many populations have grown hemp for its seed -- most of them eat it as 'gruel' which is a lot like oatmeal. The leaves can be used as roughage, but not without slight psycho-active side-effects. Hemp seeds do not contain any marijuana and they do not get you 'high'.
Hemp seed protein closely resembles protein as it is found in the human blood. It is fantastically easy to digest, and many patients who have trouble digesting food are given hemp seed by their doctors. Hemp seed was once called 'edestine' and was used by scientists as the model for vegetable protein.
Hemp seed oil provides the human body with essential fatty acids. Hemp seed is the only seed which contains these oils with almost no saturated fat. As a supplement to the diet, these oils can reduce the risk of heart disease. It is because of these oils that birds will live much longer if they eat hemp seed.
With hemp seed, a vegan or vegetarian can survive and eat virtually no saturated fats. One handful of hemp seed per day will supply adequate protein and essential oils for an adult.
How can hemp be used for cloth? The stalk of the hemp plant has two parts, called the bast and the hurd. The fiber (bast) of the hemp plant can be woven into almost any kind of cloth. It is very durable. In fact, the first Levi's blue jeans were made out of hemp for just this reason. Compared to all the other natural fibers available, hemp is more suitable for a large number of applications.
Here is how hemp is harvested for fiber: A field of closely spaced hemp is allowed to grow until the leaves fall off. The hemp is then cut down and it lies in the field for some time washed by the rain. It is turned over once to expose both sides of the stalk evenly. During this time, the hurd softens up and many minerals are returned to the soil. This is called 'retting', and after this step is complete, the stalks are brought to a machine which separates the bast and the hurd. We are lucky to have machines today -- men used to do this last part by hand with hours of back-breaking labor.
How can hemp be used to make paper? Both the fiber (bast) and pulp (hurd) of the hemp plant can be used to make paper. Fiber paper was the first kind of paper, and the first batch was made out of hemp in ancient China. Fiber paper is thin, tough, brittle, and a bit rough. Pulp paper is not as strong as fiber paper, but it is easier to make, softer, thicker, and preferable for most everyday purposes. The paper we use most today is a 'chemical pulp' paper made from trees. Hemp pulp paper can be made without chemicals from the hemp hurd. Most hemp paper made today uses the entire hemp stalk, bast and hurd. High-strength fiber paper can be made from the hemp baste, also without chemicals.
The problem with today's paper is that so many chemicals are used to make it. High strength acids are needed to make quality (smooth, strong, and white) paper out of trees. These acids produce chemicals which are very dangerous to the environment. Paper companies do their best to clean these chemicals up (we hope.) Hemp offers us an opportunity to make affordable and environmentally safe paper for all of our needs, since it does not need much chemical treatment. It is up to consumers, though, to make the right choice -- these dangerous chemicals can also be used on hemp to make a slightly more attractive product. Instead of buying the whiter, brighter role of toilet paper, we will need to think about what we are doing to the planet.
Because of the chemicals in today's paper, it will turn yellow and fall apart as acids eat away at the pulp. This takes several decades, but because of this publishers, libraries and archives have to order specially processed acid free paper, which is much more expensive, in order to keep records. Paper made naturally from hemp is acid free and will last for centuries.
How can hemp be used as a fuel? The pulp (hurd) of the hemp plant can be burned as is or processed into charcoal, methanol, methane, or gasoline. The process for doing this is called destructive distillation, or 'pyrolysis.' Fuels made out of plants like this are called 'biomass' fuels. This charcoal may be burned in today's coal-powered electric generators. Methanol makes a good automobile fuel, in fact it is used in professional automobile races. It may someday replace gasoline.
Hemp may also be used to produce ethanol (grain alcohol.) The United States government has developed a way to make this automobile fuel additive from cellulosic biomass. Hemp is an excellent source of high quality cellulosic biomass. One other way to use hemp as fuel is to use the oil from the hemp seed -- some diesel engines can run on pure pressed hemp seed oil. However, the oil is more useful for other purposes, even if we could produce and press enough hemp seed to power many millions of cars.
How can hemp be used as a medicine? Marijuana has thousands of possible uses in medicine. Marijuana (actually cannabis extract) was available as a medicine legally in this country until 1937, and was sold as a nerve tonic -- but mankind has been using cannabis medicines much longer than that. Marijuana appears in almost every known book of medicine written by ancient scholars and wise men. It is usually ranked among the top medicines, called 'panaceas', a word which means 'cure-all'. The list of diseases which cannabis can be used for includes: multiple sclerosis, cancer treatment, AIDS (and AIDS treatment), glaucoma, depression, epilepsy, migraine headaches, asthma, pruritis, sclerodoma, severe pain, and dystonia. This list does not even consider the other medicines which can be made out of marijuana -- these are just some of the illnesses for which people smoke or eat whole marijuana today.
There are over 60 chemicals in marijuana which may have medical uses. It is relatively easy to extract these into food or beverage, or into some sort of lotion, using butter, fat, oil, or alcohol. One chemical, cannabinol, may be useful to help people who cannot sleep. Another is taken from premature buds and is called cannabidiolic acid. It is a powerful disinfectant. Marijuana dissolved in rubbing alcohol helps people with the skin disease herpes control their sores, and a salve like this was one of the earliest medical uses for cannabis. The leaves were once used in bandages and a relaxing non-psychoactive herbal tea can be made from small cannabis stems.
The most well known use of marijuana today is to control nausea and vomiting. One of the most important things when treating cancer with chemotherapy or when treating AIDS with AZT or Foscavir, being able to eat well, makes the difference between life or death. Patients have found marijuana to be extremely effective in fighting nausea; in fact so many patients use it for this purpose even though it is illegal that they have formed 'buyers clubs' to help them find a steady supply. In California, some city governments have decided to look the other way and allow these clubs to operate openly.
Marijuana is also useful for fighting two other very serious and wide-spread disabilities. Glaucoma is the second leading cause of blindness, caused by uncontrollable eye pressure. Marijuana can control the eye pressure and keep glaucoma from causing blindness. Multiple Sclerosis is a disease where the body's immune system attacks nerve cells. Spasms and many other problems result from this. Marijuana not only helps stop these spasms, but it may also keep multiple sclerosis from getting worse.
What other uses for hemp are there? One of the newest uses of hemp is in construction materials. Hemp can be used in the manufacture of 'press board' or 'composite board.' This involves gluing fibrous hemp stalks together under pressure to produce a board which is many times more elastic and durable than hardwood. Because hemp produces a long, tough fiber it is the perfect source for press-board. Another interesting application of hemp in industry is making plastic. Many plastics can be made from the high-cellulose hemp hurd. Hemp seed oil has a multitude of uses in products such as varnishes and lubricants.
Using hemp to build is by no means a new idea. French archeologists have discovered bridges built with a process that mineralizes hemp stalks into a long-lasting cement. The process involves no synthetic chemicals and produces a material which works as a filler in building construction. Called Isochanvre, it is gaining popularity in France. Isochanvre can be used as drywall, insulates against heat and noise, and is very long lasting.
'Bio-plastics' are not a new idea, either -- way back in the 1930's Henry Ford had already made a whole car body out of them -- but the processes for making them do need more research and development. Bio-plastics can be made without much pollution. Unfortunately, companies are not likely to explore bio-plastics if they have to either import the raw materials or break the law. (Not to mention compete with the already established petrochemical products.
The hemp plant, like the hop, which is of the same natural order, Cannabinaceae, is dioecious, i.e. the male and female flowers are borne on separate plants. The female plant grows to a greater height than the male, and its foliage is darker and more luxuriant, but the plant takes from five to six weeks longer to ripen. When the male plants are ripe they are pulled, put up into bundles, and steeped in a similar manner to flax, but the female plants are allowed to remain until the seed is perfectly ripe. They are then pulled, and after the seed has been removed are retted in the ordinary way. The seed is also a value product; the finest is kept for sowing, a large quantity is sold for the food of cage birds, while the remainder is sent to the oil mills to be crushed. The extracted oil is used in the manufacture of soap, while the solid remains, known as oil-cake, are valuable as a food for cattle. The leaves of hemp have five to seven leaflets, the form of which is lanceolate-acuminate, with a serrate margin. The loose panicles of male flowers, and the short spikes of female flowers, arise from the axils of the upper leaves.
The height of the plant varies greatly with season, soil and manuring; in some districts it varies from 3 to 8 ft., but in the Piedmont province it is not unusual to see them from 8 to 16 ft. in height, whilst a variety (Cannabis Sativa, variety gigantea ) has produced specimens over 17 ft. in height.
All cultivated hemp belongs to the same species, Cannabis Sativa; the special varieties such as Cannabis Indica, Cannabis Chinensis & Cannabis Ruderalis, owe their differences to climate and soil, and they lose many of their peculiarities when cultivated in temperate regions. Rumphius (in the 17th century) had noticed these differences between Indian and European hemp.
The names given to the plant and to its products in different countries are of interest in connexion with the utilization of the fibre and resin. In Sans it is called Goni, Sana, Shanapu, Banga and Ganjika; Bengali Ganga; Persian Bang and Canna; Arabic Kinnub or Cannub; Greek Kannabis; Latin Cannabis; Italian Canappa; French Chanvre; Spanish Cáñamo; Portuguese Cânhamo; Russian Konoplya; Latvian and Lithuanian Kannapes; Slovak Konope; Irish cnáib and Erse Canab, Anglo Saxon Hoenep; Dutch Hennep; German Hanf; English Hemp; Danish and Norwegian Hamp; Icelandic Hampr; and in Swedish Hampa. The English word Canvas sufficiently reveals its derivation from Cannabis.