The distinction between “hemp” and “cannabis” in the public eye of America can be a bit hazy; a confusion not helped by inconsistent, murky legal issues, typically enforced by an oppressive, capitalistic government and its wealthy elite.
As laws on hemp, cannabis, and their assorted byproducts begin to relax, it’s smart to understand the difference between these two similar-yet-very-different plants – With more and more consumable cannabis and hemp products on store shelves knowing what to expect when taking each is important. Because despite similarities in appearance, smell, and taste? Hemp and cannabis aren’t as alike as it may seem.
So the short answer to “can you smoke hemp?” is “yes”. But whether or not smoking hemp buds is something you want to do? Is a much wider topic. Let’s delve in.
What is Hemp?
What we refer to as “hemp” is a variety of the plant Cannabis sativa that contains little to zero psychoactive compounds. Though the nomenclature can get a bit confusing at times, for the purposes of our article we’ll be defining the difference between “hemp” and “marijuana”/”cannabis” as a matter of THC included; cannabis has high levels of THC, hemp does not. This means hemp has primarily been cultivated throughout the ages not as a smoking substance, but instead for it’s strong fibers.
When hemp plants are harvested and dried the hemp buds are removed and their stalks stripped of additional plant material before further processing. These stalks contain many strong plant fibers attached to a central, wood-like core; separating these fibers away from the core, known as “retting”, was traditionally done by hand, though using automated machinery or chemical solvents is common in modern times.
Tow, Line Fibre, Paper & More
After the fibers have been removed from the core they are then further cleaned (a process called “scutching“) before being combed out. Once straightened, the fibers are then separated into two categories: The shorter, more coarse pieces, referred to as “hemp tow”, and the longer, linen-like pieces referred to as “line fibre”. Paper can be also be made from the pulp obtained from these fibers, alongside a wide range of other uses.
Hemp Seed, Hemp Flower, Hemp Oil
Hemp buds and seeds have uses as well, historically expressed into hemp seed oil but also used more recently in the creation of CBD related products (more on this below). The seeds themselves can be eaten outright too, or further processed into hemp meal that can be used as a culinary ingredient.
“A Pipe of Sweet Hemp”
Interestingly, though hemp flower certainly has been smoked in some regard through-out history, smoking has never been known as it’s primary purpose, particularly in the western world (and for those curious about the header up there, no, that is not a real Abraham Lincoln quote).
After the concept of smoking tobacco was introduced to Europe following the voyages of Christopher Columbus, those taken to the new vice sought ways to improve and alter the experience. One popular method was by adding various herbs or spices, and throwing in some hemp buds was a common way of adding a bit of additional taste to a pipe of tobacco.
As a smokable substance on its own, though, most cultures across the globe have long recognized the distinction between hemp grown for industrial purposes and cannabis grown for its psychoactive properties. Most cultures except, of course, for the United States of America.
Is Hemp Legal in the USA?
Now? Yes, though that hasn’t always been the case. To discuss this topic properly, we’ll need to go over a bit of history on the United States and cannabis.
America and Hemp: A Brief History
From the early years of America hemp was a prized crop, grown primarily through the mid-east and southern regions of the country. Valued for its sheer diversity in uses, many of America’s “founding fathers” pushed farmers to sow the crop, and pre-Civil War era America saw hemp as one of the most common crops grown on slave plantations.
After slavery was legally abolished cannabis – the type meant to smoke – began growing in popularity throughout the southern regions of the United States, often shared and spread amongst the formerly enslaved and other immigrants from Latin America or the Caribbean islands. By this time hemp was still an important cash crop for American farmers – One large and diverse enough to threaten other established industries.
The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937
Before going any further, a disclaimer: Reports of exactly what lead up to the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 are murky, and unlikely to be verified or fully understood any time in the near future. There is likely no one root cause or incident that led to this moment in history, and instead is a factor of many different instigating factors. One prevalent theory, though, is that the invention of the “decorticator”, a machine that mechanically separates hemp fiber from its woody core, had other textile fabricators nervous.
With an automated machine able to handle the labor-intensive process of breaking down the hemp plant, other textiles and fabrics would likely soon face stiff competition, potentially even destroying industries such as wood pulp producers.
Combined propaganda assaults from deep-pocketed paper, cotton, and nylon moguls tied both hemp and marijuana to racist fears; outlandish reports of (typically non-white) citizens flying into drug-addled rages after a single toke for were crafted and distributed for the purposes of inciting terror in the American populace – See cinematic “masterpiece” Reefer Madness as an example.
Once these industries were able to tie together the concepts of smoking cannabis and the “dangerous Other” in the minds of white America it was sadly easy to pass legislation effectively banning the cultivation and sale of all forms of cannabis, hemp included. Sadly easy and, as coming years would point out, also incredibly stupid and short-sighted.
America Goes to War
Enter World War II, bringing with it a vast need for hemp material. Before this point America had been importing most of its industrial hemp from countries in south-east Asia it was now at war with, meaning the US military machine was sorely lacking on basic, high-quality textiles .
After releasing “Hemp for Victory“, a war-time propaganda film produced by the United States Dept. of Agriculture in 1942, the American government began dispensing special permits to a multitude of farmers for the production of industrialized hemp, bypassing the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act. Hemp production began to boom again, but this new bubble was soon set to burst.
The Rise of Synthetic Textiles
In post-war America hemp was no longer as valuable, with advancements in synthetic fibers such as acrylic and polyester making the labor-intensive process of gathering hemp less economically feasible.
Prior to the turn of the century the last legal industrial hemp field in the United States was planted in the early 1950s. Past this, the US government doubled down on it’s prohibition against hemp in the 1970s, by adding it and marijuana to the Controlled Substances Act as a Schedule I drug – On the same tier as heroin, and considered “more dangerous” than methamphetamine and benzodiazepines (Xanax, et al.).
Finally Legal Again
After many more years of various experiments and governmental missteps the Agricultural Improvement Bill of 2018 (aka the 2018 “Farm Bill”) finally removed industrial hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, allowing farmers to finally plant the the psychoactively inert textile once again. The timing of this farm bill is rather interesting, considering the recent rise of…
Hemp & CBD
As noted above: Industrial hemp does not contain any appreciable amount of THC. If you’re wondering if smoking hemp buds will get you high, the answer is (still) “no”. What industrial hemp products do have, however, is CBD, often at percentage values that mirror the THC content in cannabis.
Though the market for CBD has had it’s issues over the years (see our article on “Why is CBD So Expensive?” for more on this topic) the use of CBD as a medical aid has only grown in popularity, leading producers to focus on hemp crops grown, not for turning into textiles, but to maximize their CBD output.
The .3% Limit
To be sold legally in the United States a hemp bud (or related product) cannot contain more than .3% THC content – Again, this is not an appreciable amount, and certainly not enough to get anyone high upon smoking, but anything above that fraction of a percent cannot be legally owned from a federal standpoint.
Legal “smoking hemp” manufacturers must keep close watch on their crops – Mutations or crossbreeding from nearby THC-laden cannabis plants can cause THC levels to elevate in their crop of hemp plants, potentially requiring the entire field to be discarded and burned. To prevent this from happening, samples of their hemp buds must be sent to testing facilities on a regular basis, to ensure the ratio of CBD to THC remains constant.
Such farms often specialize in high quality hemp strains developed and cultivated by their own staff – The call for “designer”, high-CBD strains among the hemp industry is a growing market, and developing a strain of smokable hemp that is CBD-heavy & THC-free can bring in significant amounts of revenue all on its own.
So, How Do I Smoke Hemp?
Exactly the same way you smoke any other sort of plant material; tobacco, cannabis or anything in between. Hemp flower buds aren’t very different from cannabis buds and can be smoked via a pipe, bong, joint or whatever your preferred consumption method may be.
Often companies that focus on CBD products will sell not only the loose smokable hemp flower but a wide array of concentrates and even pre-rolls (see below), making your options for smoking hemp flower even more convenient.
Concentrated CBD products can be used in any other concentrate-smoking device you might have, including vaporizers or dab rigs; likewise these concentrates can be added to other plant material for a more traditional smoking experience.
Pre-Rolled For Your Convenience
Pre-rolls filled with hemp buds (often known as “hemp smokes”) can be found at a variety of online shops and over-the-counter retail outlets, and at least visually do an excellent job of mimicking the look and feel of a very large cannabis joint/blunt.
(With the above in mind, though, breaking out one of these pre-rolls in front of, say, a local law enforcement officer may not be the smartest idea – They don’t know that blunt you’re smoking is 100% legal, and will likely have a few sternly worded questions.)
While smoking hemp buds filled with CBD shows signs of having significant medical benefit without providing any psychoactive effects, to get the most out of your CBD intake it may be smart to consider combining it with a little bit of THC on the side.
CBD + THC: The Entourage Effect
We discuss this topic in further detail in our article “Cannabis: Indica vs. Sativa” but it’s important enough to the concept of smoking hemp that it’s worth talking about here as well.
When cannabis is taken into the human body it’s effects are determined by it’s ratio mixture of THC, CBD and various terpenes. This interplay between the three major components of cannabis is often referred to as the “entourage effect”, implying that it isn’t enough to have just THC or CBD as the star of the show, it’s rolling up with the squad that makes the real difference.
Cannabinoids Teaming Up with Terpenes
In 2011 the British Journal of Pharmacology published the first reports detailing the concept of the entourage effect. This review of several studies determined that taking cannabinoids themselves wasn’t providing the maximum therapeutic benefit from cannabis use – It was the mix of cannabinoids and terpenes that truly brought out marijuana’s potential, with CBD in particular aiding in reducing the typical side effects of THC such as hunger, anxiety and lethargy.
A further study in 2018 reported that certain terpenes could provide neurological benefits on their own, compounded when taken with CBD products. All together, the best benefit from taking cannabis seems to be when the entire spectrum of chemicals from the plant is consumed – CBD, THC and terpenes alike.
This has lead many home hemp consumers to create a “mix” of smoking hemp buds heavy in CBD-heavy combined with THC-laden cannabis flower, often at a 1:1 ratio; scientific studies on this are unfortunately still uncommon, but anecdotal evidence claims this mix displays more noticeable effects from the CBD with a milder, less-intrusive high coming from the THC.
So: Can you smoke hemp? Sure. Do you want to smoke hemp? That’s more up to you and your situation. As stated (ad nauseum) above, hemp won’t get you high, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have medicinal, or even cultural, significance over smoking it’s more THC-laden relative in marijuana, and may just be worth a try in it’s own right.
We hope our article on hemp and it’s effects (or lack thereof) has been helpful. Happy smoking!