Both hemp and marijuana, it’s not-so-distant relative, come from the Cannabis Sativa plant. This single plant species comprises thousands of different varieties and strains, which are grown for different purposes. Its applicable legislation in each country will depend on the intended use and scientific progress. Medicinal use of cannabis began around 2737 B.C., long after its first use as a fibre. For centuries, hemp has been closely related to humans, meeting a vast number of needs.
Marijuana or Hemp?
The difference between both plants lies in their chemical structures. To be considered hemp, a plant must contain less than 0.3% of THC by weight, while any higher concentration will result in the plant being classified as marijuana.
Most available CBD products are made from hemp instead of marijuana. HempMeds, a subsidiary of the U.S. company Medical Marijuana, claims that the hemp plant—including its stem, seeds, and flowers—are harvested to produce oil, edibles, paper, textiles, fibre, fuel, building materials and topical ointments, just to mention some of its hundred uses.
Marijuana is any cannabis strain with more than 0.3% of THC content by dry weight. Marijuana includes not only Cannabis sativa but also a related species: Cannabis indica. These strains are mainly used because of their psychoactive effects. Marijuana is specifically grown to produce THC and its strains may be conditioned so that they are especially stronger. Depending on its strain, marijuana may contain from 10% to 30% of THC—33 times more THC than the most potent hemp strains.
In 1961, the United Nations included hemp in a “blacklist,” prohibiting the growth of this crop worldwide. THC (a psychoactive cannabinoid) was discovered in 1964 and was added to the list of prohibited substances in 1968. It was not until 20 years later that a group of scientists in France—a country with a strong tradition of growing hemp—developed strains with a very low THC concentration, so that the plant could be used again to produce edibles, cloth, building materials, and others—without breaching the law. This scientific development was supported by hard lobbying at the European Parliament. In the end, new regulations were established, allowing EU countries to grow industrial hemp with 0.3% of THC content or less.
Industrial hemp is nowadays classified as any strain with less than 0.3% of THC (some countries establishing a 0.2% limit). Those strains with less than 0.3% concentration are eligible to be entered into the EU Common Catalogue of Varieties of Agricultural Plant Species, listing plants that can be produced as an industrial crop.
Legalisation—A Long Way to Go
Although prohibition has been a hurdle in cannabis research since 1961, many benefits of this plant have been identified—especially those concerning medical uses. Latin American countries—as well as countries from all over the world—are moving forward in terms of research and legislation on medical and recreational cannabis—a challenge that will change the course of history for a crop that has fuelled drug trafficking, violence, and poverty for years in the region.
There is still a long road ahead regarding CBD production, as most industrial hemp in Europe is nowadays used to supply the fibre and seed oil markets. The list of authorised European hemp varieties—which currently amounts to more than 50—comprises just a few CBD-dominant strains.