We examine the historical myths and realities of industrial hemp and high THC cannabis (marijuana) through a questionnaire conducted by David West. For too many years, emotion – not reason – has guided our policy toward this crop. And nowhere have emotions run hotter than in the debate over the distinction between industrial hemp and high THC cannabis (marijuana). This paper is intended to inform that debate by offering scientific evidence, so that farmers, policy makers, manufacturers, and the general public can distinguish between myth and reality. Throughout this article we will reference to high THC cannabis as marijuana, although we do not feel this is the correct use of language to describe high THC cannabis but it is most commonly known as this.
Botanically, the genus Cannabis is composed of several variants. Although there has been a long-standing debate among taxonomists about how to classify these variants into species, applied plant breeders generally embrace a biochemical method to classify variants along utilitarian lines. Cannabis is the only plant genus that contains the unique class of molecular compounds called cannabinoids. Many cannabinoids have been identified, but two preponderate: THC, which is the psychoactive ingredient of Cannabis, and CBD, which is an anti-psychoactive ingredient. One type of Cannabis is high in the psychoactive cannabinoid, THC, and low in the anti-psychoactive cannabinoid, CBD. This type is popularly known as high THC cannabis (marijuana). Another type is high in CBD and low in THC. Variants of this type are called industrial hemp.
In the United States, the debate about the relationship between hemp and marijuana has been diminished by the dissemination of many statements that have little scientific support. This report examines in detail ten of the most pervasive and pernicious of these myths.
Myth: United States law has always treated hemp and marijuana the same.
Reality: The history of federal drug laws clearly shows that at one time the U.S. government understood and accepted the distinction between hemp and marijuana.
Myth: Smoking industrial hemp gets a person high.
Reality: The THC levels in industrial hemp are so low that no one could get high from smoking it. Moreover, some hemp cultivars contain a relatively high percentage of another cannabinoid, CBD.
Myth: Even though THC levels are low in hemp, the THC can be extracted and concentrated to produce a powerful drug.
Reality: Extracting THC from industrial hemp and further refining it to eliminate the preponderance of CBD would require such an expensive, hazardous, and time-consuming process that it is extremely unlikely anyone would ever attempt it, rather than simply obtaining high-THC cannabis instead.
Myth: Hemp fields would be used to hide recreational cannabis plants.
Reality: Hemp is grown quite differently from marijuana. Moreover, it is harvested at a different time than marijuana. Finally, cross-pollination between hemp plants and recreational cannabis plants would significantly reduce the potency of this plant.
Myth: Legalising hemp while continuing the prohibition on marijuana would burden local police forces.
Reality: In countries where hemp is grown as an agricultural crop, the police have experienced no such burdens.
Myth: Feral hemp must be eradicated because it can be sold as marijuana.
Reality: Feral hemp, or ‘ditchweed’, is a remnant of the hemp once grown on more than 400,000 acres by U.S. farmers. It contains extremely low levels of THC, as low as .05 percent. It has no drug value, but does offer important environmental benefits as a nesting habitat for birds. About 99 percent of the “marijuana” being eradicated by the federal government – at great public expense – is this harmless ‘ditchweed’. Might it be that the drug enforcement agencies want to convince us that ‘ditchweed’ is hemp in order to protect their large eradication budgets?
Myth: Those who want to legalise hemp are actually seeking a backdoor way to legalise recreational cannabis.
Reality: It is true that many of the first hemp stores were started by industrial-hemp advocates who were also in favour of legalising recreational cannabis. However, as the hemp industry has matured, it has come to be dominated by those who see hemp as the agricultural and industrial crop that it is, and see hemp legalisation as a different issue than marijuana legalisation. In any case, should we oppose a very good idea simply because some of those who support it also support other ideas with which we disagree?
Myth: Hemp oil is a source of THC.
Reality: Hemp oil is an increasingly popular product, used for an expanding variety of purposes. The washed hemp seed contains no THC at all. The tiny amounts of THC contained in industrial hemp are in the glands of the plant itself. Sometimes, in the manufacturing process, some THC- and CBD-containing resin sticks to the seed, resulting in traces of THC in the oil that is produced. The concentration of these cannabinoids in the oil is infinitesimal. No one can get high from using hemp oil.
Myth: Legalising hemp would send the wrong message to children.
Reality: It is the current refusal of the drug enforcement agencies to distinguish between an agricultural crop and a drug crop that is sending the wrong message to children.
Myth: Hemp is not economically viable, and should therefore be outlawed.
Reality: The market for hemp products is growing rapidly. But even if it were not, when has a crop ever been outlawed simply because government agencies thought it would be unprofitable to grow?
Written by David P. West
for the North American Industrial Hemp Council
Edited & Updated by Lauchlan E. Grout
Image: Industrial Hemp crop grown for grain production – Hemp Farms Australia, QLD 2019