A few years ago, hemp was a little-known darling of the hippie movement. Now it’s everywhere.
Walk through the aisles at Earth Fare or Roanoke Co+op, and the hemp products are hard to miss: packages of seeds, brownie mixes, granola bars, milk alternatives, gummy bears, lotions, tinctures, essential oils.
Drive past any strip mall. Chances are you’ll see giant, feather-shaped flags barking, “CBD products sold here!” Hemp in some form is available at Dollar Tree, Sheetz, Kroger, CVS and Walmart.
Eighty-year-old grandmothers are swearing hemp lotions aid their arthritis. Nearly any conversation about chronic pain leads to CBD. Doctors are quitting hospital jobs to investigate hemp’s healing powers. More than 1,100 Virginia farmers have applied to grow hemp, as of November 2019. That’s up from zero in March 2019. Nearly any informational session on hemp is standing-room-only mobbed.
So, what, exactly, is going on?
We’re in the midst of a moment. 2019 was a no-holds-barred race to be the first to study, grow, process, package, sell and experiment with the many, many applications of a plant that only became widely legal in the U.S. one year ago.
“I talk to a lot of people who all say they’ve never seen anything like this before,” says John Fike, associate professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences at Virginia Tech. “Part of the reason it has captured people’s imagination, is, well … my wife likes to say stolen apples taste sweeter.”
It’s the newness, Fike explains. And the thrill of working with an ingredient that has been prohibited for so long.
To be clear, hemp is a non-psychoactive variety of the marijuana plant. Where marijuana’s pharmacological effects are derived from tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, hemp has only trace amounts of THC and does not get users high. But since the 1930s, hemp has been lumped with marijuana and considered by many to be contraband.
Today, hemp is celebrated as everything from an environmental alternative to plastics and insulation and fabric to the next super food. But a relatively new chemical compound found in hemp, called cannabidiol, or CBD, has been the break-out hit of the year.
By various accounts, CBD can reduce acne, anxiety and depression. It can help you get a better night’s sleep and shed unwanted pounds. It fights pain and stress and inflammation and maybe even cancer. It can improve heart health, epilepsy and Parkinson’s.
The catch is that almost no scientific studies exist to prove any of this. The Food and Drug Administration is now in charge of regulation, but they don’t have the data to make decisions. Except for Epidiolex, a CBD-based medication used to treat some forms of epilepsy, the FDA has not approved hemp or CBD for any therapeutic uses.
Money is, of course, in the mix. In 2017, the U.S. hemp industry earned a healthy $820 million, according to the Hemp Business Journal. By 2022, the market is expected to reach anywhere from $2 billion to $22 billion.
Those who’ve watched hemp for awhile say it is here to stay. There’s too much potential, too many anecdotes of people who’ve had positive experiences, to think that hemp-derived products will disappear anytime soon.
“Long story short, I see a lot of potential there but we have a long way to go to figure that out,” Fike says.
It may turn out that the biggest miracle isn’t hemp’s healing prowess but its creation of a brand-new industry.
History of Hemp
The irony is that hemp is very, very old.
Like 10,000 years old. Like first plant ever cultivated for textile fiber old.
Hemp is native to Asia, according to the website Britannica. The Chinese first made paper, then fabric from hemp. The sails of explorer ships were cut from hemp cloth. The word “canvas” comes from the word “cannabis.” Hemp is one of several varieties of the Cannabis sativa plant. Marijuana is another.
The birth of America is interwoven with hemp, explains the Founder’s Hemp website. It was illegal NOT to harvest hemp in the early days of the colonies. Thomas Jefferson both grew hemp and drafted the Declaration of Independence on paper made from it. Hemp was processed into ropes and clothes and U.S. currency and even American flags.
The rise of cotton and rayon and a smear campaign linking hemp with its buzz-inducing cousin caused a sharp drop in its popularity in the 1930s. Concerns about limited fiber supplies during World War II led the U.S. government to promote the crop. But production declined after the war and a ban in 1970 abruptly ended U.S. hemp production. It would not be legally grown in the United States again until 2014 — and then only for research.
It took 2018’s Farm Bill to remove hemp from the Controlled Substances Act. Hemp was no longer a Schedule 1 drug, no longer categorized in the same company as heroin, LSD and ecstasy, no longer regulated by the Drug Enforcement Agency. Once Virginia’s General Assembly voted to align state and federal law in March 2019, hemp could once again be grown, harvested, processed and sold on Virginia soil.
“We have this long-seated history of using hemp fiber,” explains Tom Hammett, professor of sustainable biomaterials at Virginia Tech, who teaches a class that experiments with uses for hemp. “We need to be a student of history to find out what products were made from hemp and then modernize and make those products even better.”
Restrictions on food-grade imports of hemp and hemp oils had been easing over the years, so that some hemp products could be found on specialty store shelves as early as the 2000s.
And the push for legal status for medical marijuana created a curiosity and acceptance of the potential healing effects of hemp.
But few were prepared for the rush that kicked in once hemp became legal. Farmers jumped on board hoping for a cash crop that could replace the revenue they once earned from tobacco. Entrepreneurs saw opportunity around every corner. Regulators and law enforcement agencies weren’t sure how to move forward. Consumers were thrilled to hear of plant-derived pain relievers without serious side effects.
The reality, of course, is unknown, somewhere in the middle, probably less mind-blowing than many say.
For now, hemp is the good-looking, gun-toting cowboy who sauntered into the saloon. It’s just that no one knows if we should sweet talk him or stand back warily and watch his first move.
Hemp for Health
Enter Susan Cromer.
In truth, Cromer walked into the cannabis world nearly a decade ago. She was living in Florida, working as a U.S. distributor for an organic plant growth enhancer company, when her attention turned first to medical marijuana and soon enough to hemp.
She was impressed with the Cannabis sativa plant and its potential to heal. Both hemp and marijuana boast hundreds of chemical compounds; both produce THC and CBD, but at differing levels. The legal definition of hemp is Cannabis sativa with less than 0.3% THC.
“How do the compounds combine? How do they work in isolation,” asks Cromer. “Different varieties may produce different benefits. That’s why this plant is so miraculous.”
By 2014, research into how hemp’s compounds worked in the human body was under way. Cromer moved to Roanoke. In 2016 she began an online business selling high-quality CBD products and found her niche educating and advocating for hemp.
Cromer held workshops where she fed participants hemp seeds and foods made with hemp and she explained the science behind hemp for health.
“I feel that if people will start reintroducing hemp into their diets they’ll feel a lot better,” says Cromer, speaking in downtown Roanoke’s artisan gallery, Crafteria, where she is selling her hemp food products under the label LilyHemp.
The “why” of CBD is not well-understood. But, according to the National Institutes of Health, it is one of the hottest topics in pharmacology today. Basically, the cannabidiol in hemp connects with the endocannabinoid system in the human brain and organs, lining up in ways that create wellness.
Over the years, Cromer has testified before the FDA, presented at hemp industry gatherings and advocated for the legalization of hemp in Virginia’s General Assembly. She’s a board member of the Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition.
These days, in addition to educating and selling her hemp food products, Cromer is hoping to help Virginia hemp growers find a market for their crop.
“Southwest Virginia could be the hemp capital of the world,” Cromer says. This region has both the agricultural potential and the health care industry to connect the dots, she says. “Virginia Tech Carilion could be doing research right now.”