Why All the Hype About Hemp?

Although the term  hemp  usually refers to the fibers of Cannabis sativa, it is often confused with marijuana, an intoxicating resin secreted by the epidermal glands of this plant. Industrial  hemp  is bred to increase the yield of fiber, seed, and/or oil, whereas marijuana varieties are bred to maximize their narcotic qualities.

Cannabis sativa is the first plant known to have been domesticated, and it has been cultivated for at least 12,000 years. Evidence of it has been found in Asia, Africa, Europe, South America, and North America. For much of its history, it has been valued as a source of food and fiber and it is one of the oldest sources of textile fiber. Plus, the fiber is long, strong, durable, and very resistant to decay and abrasion. In addition, it is more absorbent and mildew resistant than cotton. These qualities made it ideal for sailcloth, twine, rope, nets, and webbing during a time when voyage by sea was an important method of travel – in fact, “canvas” is a derivative of the word “Cannabis.” During its heyday, fabric made from it was also used to make military uniforms, shoes, and parachutes.

Several factors, such as the introduction of synthetic fibers and the decreased demand for sailcloth and rigging, led to the gradual discontinuation of its cultivation. In the United States, it was grown industrially until the 1950s. According to the North American Industrial  Hemp  Council (NAIHC), it “was doomed by the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which placed an extremely high tax on marijuana and made it effectively impossible to grow. While Congress expressly expected continued industrial production, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics lumped the industrial variety with marijuana, and its successor, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), does to this day.” The plant is still cultivated in South America, Eastern Europe, and Canada, but it currently constitutes only about 1% of the natural fiber market.

Environmental concerns have brought a renewed interest in the plant as an eco-friendly rotational crop. The mission of the NAIHC is to encourage the DEA to remove the industrially grown plant from its classification as a drug, and to reintroduce it as a farm crop in the United States. The plant is very hardy, and it grows in a wide variety of climates and soil types. It is drought resistant and does not require a long growing season. Moreover, the plants grow tightly spaced and outgrow competing weeds. After harvest, the roots remain and the leaves are retiled into the soil, improving the soil nutrients and preventing topsoil erosion. It can also be used in place of wood fiber for paper, thus saving forests for watersheds and wildlife habitats and, ultimately, helping to reduce global warming.

Refinements in the processing mean that the texture of high quality  hemp  fabric is now indistinguishable from fine linens, making it a comfortable choice for clothing and bedding. Interestingly, fabrics that contain at least 50% of the fiber block the sun’s ultraviolet rays more effectively than other fabrics. This fabric in varying weights is also used for upholstery, bags, sacks, and tarpaulins, and it is also becoming popular as a carpeting material.

So, why all the hype about  hemp ? Far from being a harmful substance, it has many of the qualities that make it an excellent choice for environmentally friendly living.