Frequently Asked Questions
As defined in the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp is the plant Cannabis sativa L., and any part of the plant, whether growing or not, including the plant’s seeds, and all the plant’s derivatives, extracts, cannabinoids, isomers, acids, salts, and salts of isomers, containing a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.
Hemp has now been removed from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). It is legally distinct from marijuana and recognized as an agricultural crop by the federal government.
Hemp has an extensive history of human utilization, with records of its use dating as far back as 12,000 years. Since that time, hemp has been cultivated as an economically important crop with various uses, including:
- Durable fibers for rope, clothing, and paper
- Seeds and oils
- Food sources and cooking oils
- CBD production
- Medicinal purposes
The term marijuana refers to certain Cannabis cultivars (plant varieties that have been produced through selective breeding) that are bred for a high concentration of the psychoactive phytocannabinoid, THC. The term CBD refers to the non-intoxicating phytocannabinoid formally named “Cannabidiol,” a cannabinoid produced naturally in all Cannabis plants. To clarify, marijuana plants produce CBD and other cannabinoids through natural processes, and although they are commonly associated with each other, CBD and marijuana are two separate things, not to be used interchangeably.
In Cannabis plant biology, it is generally accepted that there are two main cultivars of Cannabis plants; hemp and marijuana. Hemp refers to Cannabis varieties that contain less than .3% THC by dry weight. Any variety that produces more than .3% THC is legally viewed as marijuana. Hemp is cultivated for its seed, oil, fiber, and high CBD content while marijuana is grown for its psychoactive properties.
Although you see things about CBD almost everywhere, it’s important to understand that CBD is just one of the many cannabinoids produced by Cannabis plants. To this day, scientists have discovered over 100 cannabinoids, likely with more to come as research continues investigating Cannabis biochemistry.
The term cannabinoid broadly refers to a diverse class of chemical compounds that have the ability to interact with cannabinoid receptors. There are three main types of cannabinoids that are named according to their place of origin. Cannabinoids that are found in plants (CBD, THC, etc.), are referred to as “Phytocannabinoids” and are the most well known group due to their association with Cannabis. Cannabinoids produced inside mammals (Anandamide, 2-Arachidonoyl Glycerol) are named “Endocannabinoids” since they are endogenously generated within an organism (including humans). The final class of cannabinoids are the “Synthetic Cannabinoids,” which are cannabinoids that are made artificially mainly for medicinal use.
Records of hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) cultivation as a source for oil, fiber, and medicinal compounds can be traced back 12,000 years, and it is likely one of the first plants ever domesticated by humans (Small 2015). It is likely that cultivation began in ancient China, eventually spreading to India, Europe, and the Americas through trade routes (Zuardi 2006). With hemp cultivation in North America beginning as early as the 17th century, there has been a number of studies researching the natural ecosystems that best suit wild hemp plants. It is now generally accepted that hemp populations are found in higher densities when growing in ecosystems described as “tallgrass prairies” (Haney and Bazzaz 1970). Tallgrass prairie ecosystems are distributed all throughout the midwest, but most heavily concentrated in states such as Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, and Minnesota (Cleland et al. 2007). This makes southern Minnesota a considerable candidate for organic hemp agriculture since mother nature is able to provide an ideal environment for outdoor cultivation.
Although CBD and THC are most certainly the most discussed cannabinoid in the media and other news outlets, there are actually over 100 phytocannabinoids that have been discovered with likely more to come as science continues to explore the biochemistry of Cannabis.
If you are familiar with the healing potential of Cannabis, you have probably heard of the main chemical components that are responsible for these effects such as cannabidiol (CBD) and delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). These compounds are unique to Cannabis plants and are formally recognized as “phytocannabinoids.” Although CBD and THC are the primary phytocannabinoids produced in Cannabis, over 100 others have been identified in lower concentrations.
These chemicals get their power from their unique chemical structure that have the ability to interact with cannabinoid receptors distributed throughout the body. These phytocannabinoids include cannabinol (CBN), cannabigerol (CBG), tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV), and many others. As more research investigates the biochemical mechanisms of Cannabis plants, it is likely that more phytocannabinoids will be discovered.
If you are familiar with the medicinal properties of Cannabis-derived pharmaceuticals, it is likely that you have heard something about the Human Endocannabinoid System (ECS). Although the ECS was first discovered nearly three decades ago, scientists are just beginning to detail the intricate mechanisms that govern this signaling matrix so.
Although phytocannabinoids are now gaining popularity through their interaction with the human endocannabinoid system, Cannabis plants have been producing these compounds long before humans first came into contact with them. So if human utilization isn’t the reason Cannabis plants produce phytocannabinoids, what is?
Unfortunately, there is no direct answer to that question, but modern-day botanists hypothesize that phytocannabinoid production evolved as a response to many different factors that affect Cannabis plant growth and survivability. These factors include environmental stressors, herbivory, competition among neighboring plants, and pathological threats. Although the predominant driver of phytocannabinoid production is currently being debated, evidence is available to support all of these ideas. When Humulus and Cannabis diverged from their common ancestor 27.8 million years ago (McPartland, 2018), different environmental factors influenced selection for the synthesis of secondary metabolites that provided resistance for those stressors. Now referred to as “phytocannabinoids,” these secondary metabolites are unique to the Cannabis genus and are what give hemp plants the resilience that they are so well known for. Cannabis plants regulate the production of phytocannabinoids as a way to withstand a multitude of stressors such as damaging light, nutrient depleted soil, and low water availability. Phytocannabinoids also provide a defense against insects and other plants, acting as a physical and chemical barrier that works to prevent predation and competition.
To cite specific examples, phytocannabinoid production has been found to be positively correlated with the increase of UV-B radiation, suggesting it has the ability to decrease photo damage when growing in areas of high sunlight exposure (Lydon et al., 1987) . Major phytocannabinoid production such as THCA and CBDA are also increased in response to different soil chemistries (Coffman and Gentner, 1975) and low water availability (Caplan, 2018). These studies shed light on the remarkable versatility of phytocannabinoids, and how they have been evolutionarily valuable in providing Cannabis plants with the adaptability and resiliency that have made them so successful in colonizing a wide range of geographical regions.
Coffman, C. B., and W. A. Gentner. 1975. Cannabinoid Profile and Elemental Uptake of Cannabis sativa L. as Influenced by Soil Characteristics1. Agron. J. 67:491-497. doi:10.2134/agronj1975.00021962006700040010x
Lydon, John, et al. 1987. “UV-B RADIATION EFFECTS ON PHOTOSYNTHESIS, GROWTH and CANNABINOID PRODUCTION OF TWO Cannabis Sativa CHEMOTYPES.” Photochemistry and Photobiology, vol. 46, no. 2, 1987, pp. 201–06. Wiley Online Library, doi:10.1111/j.1751-1097.1987.tb04757.x.
McPartland, John. 2018. Cannabis Systematics at the Levels of Family, Genus, and Species | Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research. https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/can.2018.0039. Accessed 20 Oct. 2019.
Small, Ernest. 2015. “Evolution and Classification of Cannabis Sativa (Marijuana, Hemp) in Relation to Human Utilization.” The Botanical Review, vol. 81, no. 3, Sept. 2015, pp. 189–294. Springer Link, doi:10.1007/s12229-015-9157-3.
Weiblen, George D., et al. 2015. “Gene Duplication and Divergence Affecting Drug Content in Cannabis Sativa.” New Phytologist, vol. 208, no. 4, 2015, pp. 1241–50. Wiley Online Library, doi:10.1111/nph.13562.