If you like controversy, bringing up the topic of marijuana is likely to generate more than a little smoke in most company. Wild health claims, stereotypes, oversimplification, and wishful thinking add to the haze impeding rational discussion of the herb’s benefits and risks.
However, the passion that keeps the marijuana debate smoldering—whether for medicinal or recreational purposes—has completely obscured a much more important debate involving marijuana’s currently legal cousin: hemp.
What’s the Difference?
Marijuana and hemp both refer to genetically differentiated forms of the Cannabis sativa plant. Although they share the same scientific name, their differences are plentiful. Agricultural hemp is planted densely to grow tall and straight with few branches (often crowding out weeds in the process), and produce long durable fibers. Marijuana grows low to the ground in bushy mounds, has fibers of lesser quality, and develops high levels of cannabinoid delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive substance that produces euphoria. Hemp cultivars, in contrast, have been intentionally bred to produce barely detectable amounts of THC.
The most important difference, for the time being, is the plants’ legal status. Schedule 1 drugs, such as Cannabis, are defined by the US Controlled Substances Act as having high potential for abuse, while having no accepted use in medical treatment within the United States. Because all Cannabis cultivars are considered schedule 1 drugs by federal enforcement agencies, growing hemp in the United States remains prohibited (despite the fact that as many as 10 states have changed laws to allow for the crop). The distinction is that hemp, which has THC content of less than 1 percent, can be legally imported and used in the production of food, fabric, paper, rope, and other materials.
This brings up comparisons to other sources of controlled narcotics that are derived from herbs, like the popular poppy seed, which contains an extremely low, but measurable amount of opiate, and is still sold in the general market as food. With hemp containing a similarly low amount of THC, this raises the question, “What is the difference?”
More about Hemp
Hemp has a long historical legacy in the United States. Before its prohibition in 1937, the US government actually encouraged farmers to grow hemp. In fact, in 1619, the Virginia assembly passed legislation that required every farmer to grow hemp for the production of rope, sails, and clothing. During World War II, supplies of manila fibers for ropes were cut off when the Japanese captured the Philippines, and hemp reappeared for several years as a source of rope fiber for the US Navy.
Today’s perspective reveals that hemp is also a powerhouse food. It is a complete protein, containing all 10 essential amino acids. It also contains both of the essential fatty acids, omega-3 and omega-6, in the ideal ratio of 1-to-3. Consumption of these fatty acids are required for optimal heart and skin health, immune system support, energy production, and brain development.
Perhaps the most unique trait of industrial hemp, however, is that it has produced no documented allergic reactions. While other healthy snacks, garnishes, and food additives are known allergens—nuts, soy, wheat (gluten), milk—hemp has yet to find an audience that cannot tolerate hemp seeds as a food source or as an ingredient in health and beauty products.
What about the Cannabinoids?
Although reports of cannabis-related effects stretch back several thousand years, successful analyses defining its active chemicals and how each interacts with human biology have taken place only in the past few decades. The identification of cannabidiol (CBD), the second most prevalent cannabinoid in marijuana and the top cannabinoid in hemp, came first, followed by THC. Many others were subsequently identified in the herb, including noncannabinoids, such as terpenes, that affect the potency and behavior of the cannabinoids.
When contrasted with THC, CBD is described as “nonpsychoactive.” Studies have shown it to have a variety of health benefits including anti-inflammatory, anti-pain, anti-anxiety, anti-psychotic, and anti-spasm properties—often without the common side effects associated with THC, which include lethargy, dyphoria, and paranoia. As a result, research is currently investigating roles for CBD in managing conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, alcoholism, MS, chronic pain, schizophrenia, PTSD, antibiotic-resistant infections, epilepsy, and other neurological disorders.
You may notice that although CBD is described as nonpsychoactive, it does seem to have neurological and psychological effects. Furthermore, the presence of CBD in traditional marijuana cultivars also seems to counterbalance the effects of THC, preventing them from becoming severe. The answer to these contradictory observations lies in the discovery of the human endocannabinoid system—a regulatory system in the brain and body modulated by cannabinoid-like substances produced by the body.
Although the question of what substance triggered the effects of Cannabis was resolved, more important questions remained: “If the body has two receptors (CB1 and CB2) that specifically target cannabinoids, then what endogenous substance interacts with it?” and “If these endogenous substances exist, what do they do?” In 1992, researchers working in the labs of Israeli biochemist Raphael Mechoulam, PhD, identified anandamide as the brain’s ligand for the CB1 receptor. Two years later they identified 2-arachidonylglycerol (2-AG), which demonstrates activity at both receptors.
It turns out that CBD does not directly interact with either the CB1 or CB2 receptors. Its effects may actually be derived from inhibiting an enzyme that breaks down the endocannabinoid anandamide. Anandamide competes with THC for interaction with the CB1 receptor. Lingering anandamide at the CB1 receptor prevents THC from acting on the receptor, effectively muting the effect of THC. Additionally, the extended contact with the receptor may prolong the natural effects of the anandamide.
Therefore, it can be said that a hempderived CBD supplement produces no direct psychoactive effects. In addition, studies have demonstrated that there is no known overdose limit for CBD and that it has potential for effectiveness in normalizing function in a wide range of conditions.
The status of hemp-derived CBD as a dietary supplement is currently fluid, with the FDA attempting to limit access through administrative guidelines and the hemp industry advocating enforcement that better reflects the changing tide in legislation. Whatever the outcome, you can be sure that the progress of this debate will be closely watched.
By Craig Gustafson