We all know what cannabis is. Whether you call it something else, like weed or pot, it’s all the same thing: a plant that can get you high. Many people, however, are unaware of hemp. We might see products lining the shelves in certain stores that contain it in its products, like many skin lotions for example, and wonder what on Earth it even is. Some people think that weed and hemp are the same thing.

This plant has been around for as long as cannabis has and for millennia, it has been used in the creation of products like textiles and paper. In fact, it used to be an incredibly popular industrial product because of how quickly it grows and how versatile its fibers are.

Hemp and weed aren’t the same thing?

Nope! While hemp is derived from the cannabis sativa L plant, it is actually a variant of the high-inducing cannabis that we all know and love. While the two come from the same species of cannabis, hemp is genetically different from what we put in our pipe and smoke. Also called industrial hemp, this plant possesses less than 1% THC, which means that it will not get you high-at all.

Hemp won’t get you high. But what can it do?

While it won’t provide the same intoxicating effects as weed, there is certainly a lot that it can do. It is believed that since 8,000 BCE the fibers of this plant have been utilized by humans to meet a variety of needs. Every part of this incredibly renewable resource-from the seeds to the stalks-can be used somehow and produced into other things. It is the flowers and the seeds of the hemp plant that go into the beauty products and many health foods that we are starting to see become more available. But the true versatility of hemp can be found in its fibers and stalks.

From clothing to construction materials to biofuel, the fibers and stalks of the hemp plant could play a significant role in the production of many goods that we use today. It is also an excellent rotation crop for farmers, for quite a few reasons:

  • It grows quickly.
  • It breathes in CO2, detoxifying the soil and preventing soil erosion.
  • After harvest, what’s left breaks down into soil-enriching nutrients.
  • It requires less water than many other crops.
  • No pesticides are required to help plants thrive.
  • It can grow in almost any soil.

For all of these reasons, hemp is looked to as a significantly more environmentally-friendly solution to the modern production methods that harm our planet.

How can hemp help save the world?

Let’s look at something that we all use in our day-to-day lives, often without even thinking about it: plastic. It’s everywhere. We use it in practically everything.  And it’s killing us.  Conventional plastic releases harmful compounds into the air when it is being produced or destroyed via incineration, and it is not biodegradable. This means that landfills are becoming absolutely packed with plastic waste. And it’s not just landfills, either. Our oceans are becoming choked with plastic as well, damaging existing ecosystems. This is bad news, but  plastic  made from this material could turn things around.

Hemp could, if embraced by the entirety of the plastic-producing world, eliminate the need for manmade plastics. It rivals the durability and strength of the plastic that is damaging our world so much today, but breaks down over time to actually benefit the environment.

Now let’s think about fuel, what we use to facilitate transport throughout the world. Petroleum diesel fuel is the go-to fuel source for diesel engines at this point, but in the future hemp could be a viable replacement. Unfortunately, limitations in terms of cultivation and economic concerns prevent industry experts from moving forward with this ambition.

“People talk about it, but there’s not really anything happening with that right now,” Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance executive director Arthur Hanks told  Biodiesel Magazine .

An additional hurdle that keeps this dream from becoming a reality is the low oil production of hemp seeds. The high oil content of hemp seed is about 33%. For comparison, canola oil has a high oil content of 40%. The average acre of hemp produces 700 pounds of hemp seeds, though some growers have experienced nearly double that amount. Canola growers, however, experience a typical yield of between 1,500 and 2,600 pounds of seed per acre.

If the federal government were to permit farmers to grow this highly beneficial crop, thus causing a surge in production overall, there might be more enthusiasm in pursuing making hemp a commonly used biodiesel. But as it stands at the moment, growing hemp for this purpose is not something that is seen as financially viable.

But if hemp can do so much, then why is it illegal in the United States?

The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 put the hammer down on cannabis and all of its varieties-including hemp-even though restrictions had been placed against it since 1906. It classified these substances as Schedule One drugs, making them illegal to grow in the United States.

It’s frustrating, isn’t it, to see solutions to our environment’s problems being overlooked because of laws that don’t seem to make any sense in the first place. Hemp won’t get you high, after all, but it seems to carry the same controversy as weed does.

The US is certainly not the only country to ban the cultivation of hemp crops, as only thirty have fully legalized its production within their borders. In the United States, hemp products can be sold but they have to be imported from one of these thirty nations-as long as it contains less than 0.3% THC. The United States receives these products from China, Canada and several other countries.

What can be done about the prohibition of hemp in the US?

Fortunately, states that have passed their own industrial production legislation can in fact grow hemp. This is thanks to the 2014 US Farm Bill that gave states the right to make these decisions. Kentucky, Colorado and Oregon are already testing out their own hemp “pilot programs,” after the passage of state legislation in 2104 that made it possible for them to take this step forward.

However, final approval must come from the US Drug Enforcement Agency-the DEA-and this is not something that the federal agency is the least bit inclined to do.

Unfortunately, hemp remains an illegal crop under the eyes of the federal government. In total, 33 states and the territory of Puerto Rico have passed pro-hemp legislation. 24 states have removed barriers of production by differentiating between cannabis and hemp.

In 2015, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act (H.R. 525 and S. 134) came before the House and the Senate. This measure would have removed this material from the list of Schedule One substances and lifted all federal restrictions on the production of hemp. Finally, after decades of complete prohibition, farmers are beginning to again look toward this highly renewable and incredibly versatile material.

Truly, it is baffling that the United States’ federal government still holds onto such arguably outdated and nonsensical positions about hemp, of all things. A crop that can replace plastic and is already in high demand (as the US receives imports of around $620 million worth of hemp products each year) and doesn’t even get you high-why keep that illegal? Why take what was once one of the world’s most common domesticated crops and then ban its numerous and invaluable uses?