All About The Hemp (Cannabis) Plant

Your Encyclopedia for Non-medicinal Topics on Industrial Hemp

Welcome to the hempcyclopedia, where you can find information on any hemp related topic that doesn't have to do with its medicinal benefits. For articles surrounding benefits and uses of hemp and an in-depth discussion on using hemp as a medicine, visit our Hemp as Medicine category.

If you're brand-new to hemp and need questions like 'what is a hemp,' or 'is hemp marijuana' you're in the right place. First, we'll go over all of the basics, and then if you're ready to learn more, you can do a deep dive into articles written about the topics you're interested in.

If you're looking for a specific topic, feel free to skip ahead using the table of contents below.

If you're confused about exactly what hemp is, what gets you high, what's legal, and why there has to be so much terminology for the same plant, you're not alone.

Even most individuals who use cannabis don't understand its origins. If you're the kind of person who wants to know exactly what they're getting, this section of the article will be important to you. Additionally, we'll go over basic terminology, legal considerations, and a little bit of cannabis family history.

For more in depth articles about any of these topics, see the bottom of this page, where educational articles about hemp are collected for you in one place. 

What is hemp?

Industrial (or agricultural) hemp is a weed. It's an incredibly robust and versatile weed that humans have been using for thousands of years.

Due to dishonest propaganda, there's somewhat of a naming crisis currently underway with cannabis. Technically, cannabis and hemp are the same plants with two different names. We usually use hemp to refer to the varieties of cannabis that are non-psychoactive and have incredibly beneficial structural properties. For example, hemp is stronger than most fibers out there.

But back to our naming crisis. As you'll see, cannabis is a plant with many names, both official and slang. Marijuana is used to denote cannabis with high THC content (i.e. psychoactive). Hemp is used to refer to plants cultivated for their fibers. Cannabis is used mainly to refer to psychoactive strains of cannabis, but that's technically misnomer.

In order to clear this all up for you, I went ahead and broke down the facts about what cannabis really is.

Hemp Geneology

Cannabis is a genus in a small family of flowering plants called the Cannabaceae family. The Cannabaceae family has 170 different species of plant in 11 genera (only 10 shown in family tree below).

Image of a single young hops leaf on a white background
Hops leaf
Fresh green marijuana leaf isolated on white background
Cannabis leaf

You're familiar with another plant in the cannabaceae family: Humulus, the genus that contains hops. That's right. Hops and cannabis are closely related. You can even see the resemblance in the fingered shape of their flowers.

In the classification tree below, the Humulus and Cannabis genera are highlighted in yellow so you can follow the tree. On the left side are the continuing branches of the Humulus genus. On the right side is the progression of the cannabis genus.

Here's where things get tricky for cannabis. In 1753, the plant we all know as cannabis was given its name, as cannabis sativa L (the L denotes the author of the name, Carl Linnaeus). For some time, there was only cannabis sativa. Then, in 1785, Jean Baptiste Lamarck described a cannabis plant different from Linnaeus's cannabis sativa that he found in India. Jan Baptiste Lamarck named this plant, cannabis indica L, to denote where he found the plant.

The naming conventions for cannabis sativa and cannabis indica are still debated to this day. Some experts believe there is only one species of cannabis, cannabis sativa L., with three distinct subspecies. Still other experts believe that cannabis sativa and cannabis indica are their own separate species. Since we don't have a stake in this battle, we put all three varieties on the same row as three different species to help you clearly delimitate the differences between the plants, without getting caught up in nomenclature.

IMPORTANT!

Sativa and Indica as Cannabis Products

It's important to note that the terms cannabis sativa and cannabis indica as used here do not have the same definition as when they are used by cannabis retailers to describe the effects of their cannabis on the consumer. Retailers use the word indica to refer to strains that provides more of a body high and relaxing effects, and they use sativa to refer to strains that provide more of a head high and uplifting effects. While used incorrectly, the misnomer has gone too far to be stopped, and thus, confusion reigns.

Array of cannabis products bought in retail stores in colorado.

Before we move on to characterizing different varieties of our species, there is one other species of cannabis, called cannabis ruderalis. In 1924, a Russian botanist came to the conclusion that a plant he was studying was either its own species of cannabis, or a subspecies of cannabis sativa. He named this plant, cannabis ruderalis.

Cannabis ruderalis is less known because it doesn't have any real direct human applications. The plant is short and not psychoactive and does not produce significant fibers. Cannabis ruderalis however, can be important for cannabis cultivators due to its relatively short time to maturity, and for the fact that it is the only species of cannabis that flowers on its own, without light depravation. This characteristic is called 'autoflowering.' Cannabis ruderalis plants are cross bred with other cannabis plants in an attempt to transfer these characteristics to cannabis cultivation operations that produce plants for human consumption in one form or another.

Cannabis taxonomy and geneology tree

Strictly speaking, cannabis sativa are the cannabis plants we use for industrial or commercial applications. Cannabis indica are the plants with high THC content and psychoactive properties. Cannabis ruderalis are the plants with low THC content, are short and thus are inferior to the sativa plants for fiber production, and they autoflower. 

On The Universal Plant, we will refer to cannabis sativa (as defined in the previous paragraph), as hemp, cannabis indica as marijuana, and cannabis ruderalis as simply, ruderalis. 

Only cannabis indica, and cannabis sativa are used for their pharmacological applications or for intoxication, and it is these two species this website is concerned with. Marijuana has a high THC content and usually a lower CBD concentration, whereas CBD is found in large amounts in hemp. CBD is the cannabinoid identified to be most responsible for hemps medicinal effects, and is extracted to create an array of CBD-infused products.

Is hemp legal in extracted forms?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question sounds something like, "it depends on what you mean by legal." Technically, hemp is not legal in all 50 states. However, most states have laws that regulate the production of hemp extracts, and no state has taken the time to raid individuals with possession of products for personal use.

Here's the bottom line. If you buy hemp at a retail store, or online, as a consumer, you will not get in any trouble with the law. I feel comfortable saying that because of the facts of the matter:

  1. CBD extract is officially legal nationwide as long as the product contains below 0.3% Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
  2. Currently, 28 states have legalized the use of medical cannabis. Another 16 states also permit the possession of “non-intoxicating” CBD products by patients and their caregivers. An increasing handful of states have legalized recreational cannabis. 
  3. While there have been reports of stores being raided by the FDA for carrying CBD products, there are no credible, reported instances of individuals being arrested for possession of CBD.

Because of the 2018 Hemp Farming Act, I'm even more confident that no legal issues will arise from purchasing hemp products with low THC as defined by the act:

“the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of that plant, including the seeds thereof and all derivatives, extracts, cannabinoids, isomers, acids, salts, and salts of isomers, whether growing or not, with a delta-0 [THC] concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.”

This definition of hemp includes 'extracts' and 'cannabinoids' which are the two essential elements of using hemp as a medicine. This should give consumers even more confidence that they won't land in any legal trouble for substituting hemp for prescription drugs

The History of Hemp

Regardless of how new and exciting cannabis cultivation has recently become, humans have been cultivating hemp for thousands of years. Since the timeline is so vast, I like to break up hemp history into four chapters:

  1. Wild Hemp Ages: 10,000 B.C. - 1800's A.D.
  2. The Medicinal Hemp Awareness Era: 1800's - 1920's
  3. The Great Regression: 1920's - 1960's
  4. The Age of Incarceration: 1960's - 2014
  5. Hemp Enlightenment: 2014 - Present

These aren't official periods in time, or designated by a hemp historian. However, I think you'll agree with the logic of my segmentation when you're finished with the post.

Wild Hemp Ages: 10,000 B.C. - 1800's

Evidence of cannabis in ancient egyptIn this period of time, it was a wild west of 'anything-goes' attitude toward hemp. Since the beginning of history, humans have been cultivating and making use of the hemp plant. Archaeologists say that the first draw to the plant for humans was as a source of food. Along with cannabinoids, terpenoids, and the hundreds of other compounds in hemp, hemp is also filled with fatty-acids and proteins. Hemp is called a functional food because it has value to the human body beyond meeting nutritional needs.

You could make the argument that hemp is the first ever superfood since what brought us together was the need for sustenance, and the first record of humans using hemp was over ten thousand years ago in Japan. I dare you to find a super food older than that.

Hemp is recorded to have spread far and wide across Eurasia 5,000 years ago once we were able to transport goods across the world on horseback and roads - instead of by foot and weaving through the steppes. Archaeological artifacts from these times include rope, cloth, and home fabrics.

Fun Fact

Where does the name 'cannabis' come from?

The commonly accepted etymological origins of the scientific name we use today (Cannabis) is traced to Greece, where, in the first century A.D., Dioscorides referred to it affectionately as kannabion (which translates to dear/little cannabis). 

hemp extract overflowing a dabbing tool on white background

Besides capitalizing on its fiber strength, humans quickly learned that hemp could be used as a medicine. The first record of humans using hemp for its medicinal value is also about 5,000 years ago, but in China. 

Beyond Asia, hemp is recorded to have been used medicinally during the two millennia before the birth of Christ in the modern-day Middle East, Egypt, India, and all throughout the Mediterranean.

The Medicinal Hemp Awareness Era: 1800's-1920's

Although hemp was cultivated, used, and eventually industrialized, inquiry into hemp as a medicine didn't dawn on scientists until the 1800's. The physical properties of hemp fiber, its applications and industrial uses were all lauded for hundreds of years before it occurred to us to systematically inquire into the effects of hemp when consumed. All that changed with just one man.

Image of extracted cannabis from a pharmacy before 1937It wasn't until the founding father of modern medical cannabis inquiry, Irish physician William Brooke O-Shaughnessy came along in 1839 that we started actually performing studies on the effect of cannabis on the body. In the previous era, stories were passed down and anecdotes were told, but scientific discovery was scarce. William O'Shaughnessy changed all that when he began conducting primitive clinical trials on animals in the 1830's.

Until the late 19th century, hemp was cultivated, processed, and used in the daily lives of humans all over the world. Hemp even played a large part in the early days of America, when the 13 colonies were required to produce at least 25% hemp from their crops because of its utility and overall robustness as a crop. Early Americans used hemp copiously for paper, rope, and other fiber products.  Even the Declaration of Independence is written on hemp paper. Two of our founding fathers, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both farmed hemp.

At the end of the 19th century, the future of hemp in the world looked bright, until the masses were infected with the delirium of a few men who will use cannabis to further their own ends.

The Great Regression: 1920's-1960's

By the time the great depression hit, cannabis's archnemesis, politician and first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), Harry Jacob Anslinger and media mogul, William Randolph Hearst, were in full swing of their anti-cannabis crusade. Although Hearst could be heard all throughout the 20's and 30's metaphorically shouting from the rooftops about the Mexican and African American men who smoked 'marihuana' and then proceeded to lust after white women, Anslinger didn't pay much attention to cannabis until his directorship was at stake. The FBN was about to hit the chopping block and Anslinger needed a foil. He found an enemy in cannabis and exploited it to the best of his ability.

Their effort to tie cannabis and Mexican's inexorably together can still be seen today with the continued use of the Spanish slang word 'marijuana' for cannabis that intoxicates you. By stigmatizing marijuana and the ethnic minorities who smoked it, they stoked already boiling anti-Mexican feelings during the great depression among whites who felt that their jobs were being taken by foreigners.

With these tactics under their belts, it was only a matter of time until they were able to cement irrational half-truths in the minds of most Americans.

Although the League of Nations endorsed and ratified the International Opium Convention in 1925 stating, among other things, that all cannabis not used for medical or scientific purposes was prohibited, it wasn't until 1937 that cannabis effectively became officially illegal in America. Before 1937 it remained on the on the U.S. Pharmacopeia, even though, by the 1930's, obtaining it was near impossible since it was a banned substance in all 48 U.S. states.

And then World War II came around and the government sang a different tune about the hemp plant.

As the HIA puts it, "The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor shut off foreign supplies of "manila hemp" fiber from the Philippines. The USDA produced a film called "Hemp For Victory" (see left) to encourage U.S. farmers to grow hemp for the war effort. The U.S. government formed the War Hemp Industries Department and subsidized hemp cultivation." Not only would American farmers grow hundreds of thousands of acres of hemp across the Midwest, farmers who cultivated hemp were exempt from the war!

At the end of the war, the government swiftly shut down all hemp operations in the United States. Once again, progress made would become progress lost.

On the bright side, during this time in the history of the plant, the American government at least recognized that the cannabis used to intoxicate and the cannabis used for its tensile properties were two different plants. Cannabis mania wouldn't set in until late in the 1900's, and it wouldn't let up for half a century.

The Age of Cannabis Delirium & Mass Incarceration: 1960's-2014

Upon the entrance of President Nixon, things really start to get harry for the cannabis plant. The 1960's brought anti-war rebel groups and counter-culturists. In order to quiet the protesters, Nixon targeted one of their favorite past times: marijuana. Reefer madness posterThe tone of that era toward cannabis is exemplified by the quotes on the cover of the cult classic, Reefer Madness. My favorite one is, "The deadly scourge that drags our children into the quagmires of degradation. Your child may be next!" It's fear mongering it its worst.

In 1970, the passage of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) turned marijuana into a Schedule 1 narcotic (a substance with a high likelihood of dependability and no known medical uses). Hemp and marijuana were no longer considered separate plants, despite the existence of a specific exemption for hemp. The situation for marijuana would only get worse over the next four decades.

Thousands of dollars would be spent on a failed war on drugs. Dangerous and harmful propaganda will permeate the airwaves and adults and children alike will be taught falsehoods about cannabis. With campaigns like 'This is Your Brian on Drugs" and "Just Say No," the evil nature of cannabis is solidified in the minds of Americans.

Millions of people will suffer and die due to lack of available medicine. Hundreds of thousands of people (mostly black and brown men) will lose their freedom or even their lives for possessing cannabis. Hemp production will stall in the U.S., but individuals who still believed in the plant will pump millions of dollars into foreign countries getting hemp imported into the U.S. (which was, inexplicably, still legal).

Decades would pass. Memories of a time when cannabis was picked up at the local pharmacy would fade. If it wasn't for the few people immersed in the culture, we could have gone on losing for a long time.

The Enlightenment: 2014 - Present

Finally, in 2014, we get some sense knocked into us. There were two major events in 2014 that merit it as the marker for the beginning of 'The Enlightenment:

  1. The recent federal court case HIA vs DEA has re-established acknowledgement of distinct varieties of Cannabis, and supports the exemption for non-viable seed and fiber and any products made from them.
  2. Colorado legalized marijuana for recreational use, followed closely by Oregon and Washington State.

After these two events, the government was forced to put up or shut up. They needed to decide if they were going to use limited DEA resources to go after states exercising their rights to make laws for their constituents. As it turns out, they didn't have the stomach (or they weren't dumb enough) to enforce federal marijuana laws on the state level. 

Leading up to 2014, memorandums were passed in 2009 and 2013. In 2009 the memo advised state attorneys to, "not focus federal resources in your States on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana." Then, in 2013, the federal government took it a step further by significantly shifting their priorities from strictly enforcing prohibition laws, to a more hands off approach in jurisdictions, "that have enacted laws legalizing marijuana in some form and that have also implemented strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems to control the cultivation, distribution, sale and possession of marijuana."

Then, in 2016, 8 more states legalized marijuana for recreational use. As far as outlook goes, the industry is optimistic. The general feeling is that there is no going back now that a critical mass has made the shift from reefer madness to reefer gladness.

Key Takeaways

Cannabis is a plant of dichotomies. Martin Lee puts it well in his book, Smoke Signals:

Cannabis is all about duality. Fiber and flower, Medicine and menace. Sacrament and recreant. Gift and commodity. Psychoactive or non-psychoactive. Cannabis is biomodal (affects both the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system) and biphasic (triggers opposite effects depending on dosage). It's both curative and preventative. - Martin Lee, Smoke Signals

The ambivalence of American politicians can't be denied when looking at the 2009 documentary about North Dakota's 'controversial crop' and this 1919 image of an article with a photo of a North Dakotan farmer working in his hemp fields (photo source).

Image of 1919 article of harvesting hemp in 1919

With examples like this, it's hard to imagine that change can ever come fast enough for us to reap the benefits. Over the span of just a few hundred years, cannabis was revered, feared, outlawed, legalized, scapegoated, and revered again.

Nevertheless, we should never stop fighting for what is right. The pendulum may swing wildly for a period of time, but eventually it stops. Without the right influences, we can't be sure it will stop in the right place. The place where children can be free of multiple daily seizures, people can live without both pain and prescriptions, and the use of the most versatile plant on earth is appreciated instead of feared.

What Can be Made From Industrial Hemp

Hemp is unique among other crops, in that every part of the plant has utility and potential market value. Hemp’s oilseed makes high-grade food and beauty products. The stalks produce fiber and cellulose for everything from automotive parts and fine clothing to building products and fuel. See below for an overview of hemp’s versatility.

You may be thinking that recent developments in technology and the ability to perform research with cannabis have opened the way to discovering all of these applications, but the many uses for hemp is not a new concept. In fact, in 1938, the magazine Popular Mechanics wrote, "Hemp is the standard fiber of the world. It has great tensile strength and durability. It is used to produce more than 5,000 textile products, ranging from rope to fine laces, and the woody "hurds" remaining after the fiber has been removed contain more than seventy-seven per cent cellulose, and can be used to produce more than 25,000 products, ranging from dynamite to Cellophane."

Nowadays, we estimate that hemp can have over 50,000 uses. See the infographic below that does an excellent job summing up the different uses for the industrial hemp plant. Take note that each part of the plant is best used in different ways.

Infographic detailing the manu uses of hemp

What Else Can Industrial Hemp Do?

Hemp as a Weed Killer

I know what you're thinking. How can a weed kill another weed?

Hemp smothers weeds by growing so dense and thick that the parasites can't get enough sunlight to survive. While in its early stages of growth it is not so dense and runs the risk of unwanted weeds taking the upper hand, as it matures and grows thicker, other weeds can't compete. This is lucky since there are currently no herbicides approved for use in hemp cultivation. 

Using Hemp for Phytoremediation

Phytoremediationa term coined by Dr. Ilya Raskin of Rutgers University's Biotechnology Center for Agriculture and the Environment, is a process that removes pollutants and contaminants from the ground by using the fact that green plants can extract certain elements from their ecosystem.

Hemps ability to clean up toxic soil is well documented. One of the first documented cases of phytoremediation using hemp is in the Ukraine, where there was a nuclear plant explosion in the mid 1980s. In the 1990's, hemp plants were planted all around the site to clean up the mess. (source

While plants other than hemp can be used for this purpose, hemp is ideal for its robust nature, fast grow cycle, and imperviousness to many contaminants.

Hemp is Robust & Eco-Friendly

Hemp can grow almost anywhere, and can do so without the use of harmful pesticides. Hemp is biodegradable, renewable, and the fibers produced from hemp are generated at a greater volume than the same products produced with other fibers. In summary:

  • Hemp succumbs to few pests and insects, meaning that its production requires little to no use of pesticides. It's best if you ensure that your consumable hemp products are made with hemp grown without pesticides. 
  • Hemp can produce more cotton and wood from a single acre than its counterparts, and it does it faster since it takes just a few months to grow plants ready for processing. This means less trees cut down to make paper and wood. That's great for the environment. 
  • Hemp is renewable & biodegradable. This means it can be used to make renewable fuels and recyclable plastics that currently litter our environment. 
  • And of course, hemp can be used for phytoremediation, sucking out toxins from our soil. 

The Future of Our Universal Plant: Industrial Hemp

If you didn't know before, I hope that now you see what an amazing plant hemp is. In the past, hemp has been obscured by the negative connotations of its sister plant, marijuana.

We are making progress, but as we've seen, many times progress means taking two steps forward and one step back. I hope that the future of hemp is filled with less controversy than its past. After all, there's nothing controversial about it when you focus on the facts.

When cannabis the plant is fully legal, the potential for hemp products to inundate our world is more than a possibility; it's only a matter of time. In a world where capitalism is the guiding principle for decision-making, the many positive properties of hemp can't be ignored without major negative consequences. How much longer will we be forced to take dangerous prescription medications when a natural alternative is ready and available? How many more years will we ignore the many cost-saving industrial applications of hemp? What will it cost us?

Unless reason prevails sooner rather than later, the answer is: more than we're willing to pay.

Conclusion & Next Steps

All in all, hemp is an amazing, versatile, life-changing, and universal plant. Its history is rife with misunderstandings, political machinations, and forward progress followed closely by regression.

If you made it through this article, you deserve a certification in hemp basics. Since we don't have any certificates, and since such a certification would be meaningless, we suggest that you explore other topics.

Learn More About Industrial Hemp

The world of hemp is massive. We know how hard it is to do research on your own, so we've split it up for you to make it easier for you to find what you're looking for. Just click on the topic you want to learn more about.

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Hemp/CBD As Medicine

If you're looking for information about how CBD can help you feel better, this is the place for you. Here you'll find thoroughly researched and meticulously cited information on:

  • Whether or not hemp/cbd extract can work for you
  • What kinds of suffering hemp/CBD extract has been shown to alleviate
  • How hemp/CBD extract helps bring balance and homeostasis back to your body
  • How to take hemp/CBD extract
  • Any topic on using cannabis hemp or medical marijuana to live a full life again

Hemp/CBD Product Information

Overwhelmed by the plethora of hemp products on the market? One of the most frequently asked questions we get here at The Universal Plant is, "how do I know which hemp/CBD brand to go with," followed closely by "how do I use this stuff." With The Universal Plant as a resource, you'll never have to worry about finding reliable answers to those questions ever again. Explore this category to see information such as:

  • An overview of hemp/CBD extract products on the market
  • Which hemp/CBD extract product is right for you
  • Choosing a reputable brand you can feel confident in
  • Any topic related to hemp/CBD products

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