All About Hemp: the Plant, the Benefits & the Law

by | Updated: May 29th, 2019 | Read time: 6 minutes

Hemp may be the hottest thing since sliced bread. It is quite literally one of the fastest growing categories among the vitamins and supplements industry. In fact, all hemp product categories are expected to expand to an estimated $1.3 billion by 2022. But even though hemp is rapidly growing and is purported to have many benefits, there’s still a great deal of confusion around this green, leafy plant.

Below, we dive into all your burning questions to help you better understand what is hemp, how it’s related to marijuana and if CBD is legal.

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What is Hemp?

Hemp is a plant botanically known as Cannabis sativa L., which is part of the family Cannabaceae. Cannabis sativa has long been cultivated for its hemp seeds, fiber and oil. The fiber and oil are used for various consumer products, like rope, soaps and varnishes. The seeds, however, are edible and are a good source of plant protein.

Hemp also contains a slew of other nutritional compounds, including phytonutrients, plant sterols, omega fatty acids, terpenes/terpenoids, phospholipids, cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

It is because of its THC content that hemp was originally grouped under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which banned all cannabis. Of course, the real intent behind this act was to make marijuana an illegal substance. Unfortunately at the time, there was not sufficient education and awareness. As a result, hemp was inadvertently – and incorrectly – linked to marijuana.

So what is the difference between hemp and marijuana?

Hemp vs. Marijuana

While marijuana is derived from the same plant as hemp (Cannabis sativa), it is actually a product of a different variety. It’s also important to note that marijuana can be cultivated from other species of cannabis, such as Cannabis indica, Typically, Cannabis indica contains higher THC concentration than sativa, which produces a more intoxicating response if consumed. Hemp products, on the other hand, are only cultivated from Cannabis sativa.

When growing Cannabis sativa for hemp, farmers plant the seeds outdoors. It is a row crop, where the plants grow just a few inches apart from one another. In contrast, marijuana is grown in a carefully controlled environment, where it is warm and humid. In many cases, you’ll see marijuana growing in greenhouses. To flourish, these cannabis plants must be kept about six feet apart.

These different growing conditions are partly responsible for the variation in nutrient composition. Hemp, for starters, contains very little of the compound THC. In fact, regulations require hemp products to have less than 0.3% THC content. Marijuana, however, is grown specifically for its high THC content. Depending on the species of cannabis and the exact cultivation process, marijuana plants can have anywhere from 5% to 30% THC. The higher THC content is why marijuana produces psychoactive effects within the body.

With that said, marijuana and hemp do have one thing in common: They both contain cannabidiol, or CBD. As you’ve probably seen, CBD is the plant compound getting the most attention right now.





Cannabis sativa

Cannabis sativa

Growing conditions

Outdoors, planted in a row with only a few inches between each plant

A carefully controlled environment (indoors or greenhouse), with plants several feet apart

THC concentration

Low, <0.3%

High, >0.3%

CBD concentration


Low, unless cultivated specifically for CBD

Psychoactive effects


Yes, but intensity varies depending on species and THC concentration


The CBD Factor

Cannabidiol is part of a family of phytonutrients found in hemp. While all of the phytonutrients serve a purpose, CBD has become the hero of all hemp molecules. Why? CBD has been shown to activate what’s known as the body’s endocannabinoid system.

Essentially, the endocannabinoid system acts as your second nervous system. It has two main receptors, CB1 and CB2, which can be found all throughout the body. These receptors are parked in your brain, joints, stomach (hence the munchies), liver and kidneys. Working like a lock-and-key, CBD binds to these CBD receptors and indirectly supports your body’s healthy inflammatory response, as well as provides neuroprotective and immune support.†

Is CBD Legal?

If CBD (from hemp) is so beneficial, why hasn’t everyone jumped on the bandwagon? Indeed, CBD products have quickly filled store shelves and have even been added to restaurant menus. But, from a legal perspective, there are still a lot of gray areas.

For decades, hemp was considered a Schedule I controlled substance. Not until the Farm Bill of 2014 did hemp receive some reprieve. The Hemp Industries Association says, “[this bill] authorized hemp pilot programs and research by state departments of agriculture and universities.” In other words, hemp could be grown for research, but it was still subject to Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) oversight.

The Farm Bill of 2018 finally allowed for the industrial production of hemp, which made hemp legal on the federal level. The problem, however, is that each state still has the power to regulate hemp as they see fit. This means any hemp products shipped across state lines can create interstate commerce issues in the states where hemp is still an illegal commodity. 

In regards to CBD, specifically, the Farm Bill of 2018 completely decriminalized it. No longer does the DEA consider CBD to be a Schedule I drug, and therefore, cannot prosecute as such. This new status puts CBD in the hands of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has yet to finalize their guidance on the substance.

Currently, the FDA does not recognize CBD as a dietary supplement. There is still potential for that to change, though there is one major obstacle. In June of 2018, GW Pharmaceuticals got a green light from the FDA for its new prescription drug, Epidiolex. Epidiolex contains a 90% CBD isolate and is marketed for the treatment of seizures. The approval of this drug effectively prohibits CBD from being a dietary supplement. The only workaround is to prove CBD was used as a dietary supplement prior to Epidiolex’s introduction.

As you might imagine, there has been significant pushback from supplement companies, who argue that the CBD isolates currently on the market are not nearly the same potency as Epidiolex. This is a similar situation to the pharmaceutical drug, Vacepa, which offers a potent dose of fish oil. However, fish oil supplements available over-the-counter have a much lower potency, which makes them permissible under FDA standards. By that logic, proponents argue that the pharmaceutical drug Epidiolex should not prevent the manufacturing of CBD supplements with a reduced potency.

Unfortunately, the verdict is still out and manufacturers will have to wait until the FDA makes their final decision.

CBD Alternatives

Until the FDA submits their position statement, consumers can turn to CBD alternatives. Currently on the market are hemp extracts and hemp-free endocannabinoid-activation products. Let’s explore each of those a little more.

Hemp extracts

As long as they meet regulatory status in your state, hemp extracts are a great alternative to pure CBD supplements. As you find hemp supplements and oils, you might see the terms “full spectrum” or “broad spectrum” on the label. These have formal definitions and are used to communicate which type of CBD is used in the product.

Full spectrum: This means the product contains all the compounds that naturally occur in the cannabis plant, plus a small amount of THC (up to the 0.3% threshold). Not only do you get CBD, but you get what’s called the “entourage effect” from exposure to the other natural compounds – like terpenes, plant sterols and phytonutrients.

Broad spectrum: Broad-spectrum CBD products have all the naturally occurring compounds of the extract, but any trace of THC has been completely removed.

Hemp-free products

To overcome state-level hemp laws altogether, some companies are manufacturing hemp-free products. These formulas rely on the entourage effect, where all the CBD-free compounds work together to activate the endocannabinoid system.

Instead of CBD, these products employ other cannabinoids and combine them with the aromatic oils and terpenoids found in cannabis. The idea is that the aromatics and terpenoids alter the effects of the cannabinoids in a synergistic manner. However, some people don’t believe this entourage effect is as powerful as CBD itself.

Clearly, more research and regulating needs to be done. In the meantime, learn how to incorporate hemp seeds into your diet and enjoy the many nutritional benefits from hemp foods.


†These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.