Hemp and cannabis plants are getting a lot of attention as their cultivation, production and use in a variety of products have been increasing across the country. In response, states are developing programs to oversee the industry, ranging from regulating commercial sales of recreational cannabis to encouraging the study of industrial hemp.
Both hemp and cannabis (also known as marijuana) plants are strains of Cannabis sativa L. The major difference between them, according to government definitions, is the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) contained in them. THC is the chemical that produces a “high,” or altered state of mind, when consumed. Growers and researchers also point to physical differences between the plants. Various parts of the hemp plant—seeds, oil and fiber—can be used for products such as textiles, fuel, personal care, pharmaceuticals, and food and beverages. Medical and recreational cannabis products are usually produced from the flowers and buds of the plant and can contain higher amounts of THC. Growers of both plants choose strains and adopt practices to promote the harvest potential of certain parts of the plant—whether stalks, seeds, leaves or flowers—depending on the intended end product.
A multitude of chemical compounds are found in cannabis plants, with THC and cannabidiols (CBD) being the most notable and commonly studied for medicinal purposes. While THC produces a “high” and may have therapeutic benefits, CBD is non-psychoactive and may also have therapeutic benefits, such as decreasing pain and inflammation. These chemicals are extracted from the plant and typically are concentrated in the resin that coats the leaves and flowers. Although hemp plants may contain varying levels of CBD, there is debate on whether hemp is the best source of CBD for medicinal products. Lawmakers and other stakeholders are looking for clarity in how both of these plants can be grown and processed for products that have medical benefit under state law, and whether they can be sold across state lines.
For the past 80 years, cannabis has been illegal under federal law and grown and used illicitly. However, 29 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico have legalized its production and use for medical purposes, and since 2012 voters in eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized its recreational use for adults. Hemp is also illegal under federal law, although certain parts of the plant that lack significant levels of THC—such as sterilized seeds and products (e.g., cloth and food)—are legal to import and sell in the U.S.