Once upon a time, hemp was one of America’s most vital cash crops, a hardy, low-maintenance and incredibly versatile plant, the fiber of which was used to produce everything from rope to paper. Heck, even George Washington — and a smattering of other early United States presidents including Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson — were proponents of industrial hemp cultivation and grew cannabis on their plantations (presumably not to craft chunky beaded chokers and macramé plant hangers).
Through the years, the status of hemp as a viable crop in the U.S. entered a dormant state, with commercial production ceasing in the late 1950s. Although individual states including Colorado, Kentucky and North Dakota are working to reintroduce small-scale industrial hemp production, the plant continues to be classified by the federal government as a controlled substance even though you’d have to try really, really hard to get high from the stuff because the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) found in industrial hemp is negligible.
Because it is illegal to grow the plant in the U.S., hemp products and the raw materials used to make them must be imported from a country — like China, Canada, France, Romania, or Turkey, just to name a few — where its production is not verboten. In fact, the U.S. is one of only a few, if not the only, industrialized nation that does not produce hemp for commercial purposes.
Although there are several theories about why industrial hemp has struggled to enjoy the renaissance it deserves, and why it went away in the first place, it generally boils down to the “pot factor.” Industrial hemp, an adaptable and sustainable plant with serious planet-improving potential, and marijuana, a plant that goes best with a large bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, are one and the same — both cannabis plants grown for very different purposes.
Legality issues aside, the number of diverse products made with hemp seeds, oil and fiber is eye-opening. This is one seriously multitasking plant used to make consumer products ranging from shower curtains to dog toys. Below, you’ll find just a few rather uncommon instances.
Although we’ve left the vast array of nutritious, cannabis-based comestibles off this list, the next time you’re cruising the aisles of Whole Foods, be sure to grab a bag of hemp seed granola and a carton of hemp milk (or frozen waffles). You’ll be making G.W. proud.
Companies offer bikes with frames of bamboo and hemp fiber, like this one from Evolve Bicycles. (Photo: Teslatesla/Wikimedia Commons)
If you’re the type who prefers to don a helmet and propel yourself around town instead of sitting slouched behind the wheel of a car, you’ll probably dig the work of Erba Cycles, a Boston-based purveyor of truly gorgeous bicycles expertly handcrafted from bamboo and hemp.
The frames, available in a range of styles from country cruisers to city commuters, are made with lightweight, stronger-than-steel bamboo with joints held together by resilient hemp fiber.
If you’re not on the market for a sweet new bike, you can always start small while keeping with the “bike” theme … with a deck of classic Bicycle Playing Cards made from hemp.
Clothing made of hemp has become more widespread and fashionable. (Photo: Dave O/Flickr)
Although the phrase “hemp underpants” might conjure images of scratchy, ill-fitting and completely unfashionable knickers or some sort of epic Cheech and Chong gag, this is not the case with undergarments and other clothing items made with hemp-based textiles. They’re ultra-soft, stylish and even, yes, sexy.
Unlike bamboo, organic cotton and other sustainable natural fibers, hemp — grown free of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals — has long experienced an identity crisis on the apparel front, unable to fully shed those hoary, flower power associations still kicking around from the 1960s.
Honestly, we all have our preconceived notions of what someone who wears hemp clothing looks like. But the times have indeed changed as Patagonia, H&M, Calvin Klein and other clothing brands that don’t exactly scream “sacred moonchild” are now using eco-friendly hemp fibers.
If you’ve ever doubted that Cannabis sativa could improve your beauty regimen, think again. For centuries, hemp oil has served as a skin-improving miracle worker used as an emollient in everything from lip balm to hand salve.
Beyond its everyday moisturizing properties, natural hemp oil is used to combat even more serious skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.
Also found in shampoo and sunscreens, hemp-based bath and beauty products are relatively easy to come by if you’re already big on natural products. Not at all shockingly, hemp is Dr. Bronner’s approved.
For the uninitiated who prefer chain stores to natural markets, the Body Shop’s hemp range of products — foot creams, body butters, heavy-duty hand protectors, etc. — is a great place to start. Gardeners and those who are frequently exposed to the elements will particularly reap the hydrating benefits of hemp oil.
The Kestrel EV has a hemp-based biocomposite body. (Photo: Motive Industries Inc.)
Two communities that you normally don’t find coming together, auto geeks and industrial hemp proponents, went gaga in 2010 when Canadian company Motive Industries unveiled the Kestrel EV, a prototype electric car with a body made almost completely from a hemp-based biocomposite material.
Speaking to Popular Science, Motive Industries president Nathan Armstrong explained that the three-door hatchback hemp mobile’s strong “yet incredibly lightweight” body could be a “sweet spot for electric vehicles.” Compared with the similarly sized Ford Fusion, which weighs nearly 4,000 pounds, the Kestrel rings in at just 2,5000 including its battery. The vehicle’s low tonnage is capable of boosting fuel efficiency by 25 to 30 percent.
Although the Kestrel EV has yet to hit roads, hemp enthusiast Henry Ford must be smiling down from automotive heaven. In 1941, Ford unveiled a car body made from a lightweight agricultural bio-plastic (reportedly mostly soybeans, but also hemp, flax and other crops) that ran on a hemp-based fuel.
This hemp-based home in Asheville, North Carolina, was completed in 2010. (Screencapture: MNN)
Perhaps the most promising use of industrial hemp is within the home construction industry. Yessir, you can build houses with cannabis.
But really, hempcrete — a bio-composite composed of the shives, or inner woody cores, of the plant mixed with water and a lime-based binding agent — is the perfect bio-based building material. It boasts excellent insulating properties to help homeowners save on energy bills, it’s completely nontoxic and ideal for those with chemical sensitivities, and it stands up strong when the ground begins to shake, making it a viable materials for rebuilding in areas that have been devastated by earthquakes.
Added bonus: Hempcrete is impervious to mold, termites, fire — basically whatever you throw at it. Plus, this highly sustainable alternative to traditional concrete actually absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
A handful of hemp-based homes have been completed, with the first in Asheville, North Carolina, in 2010. The home’s proud owners, Russ Martin and Karon Korp, have an excellent sense of humor about living in a home primarily built from nonpsychoactive cannabis. “We heard that we could have a really great neighborhood party if it ever caught on fire,” Korp joked.
Targeting cool kids concerned about the state of our forests, companies such as Habitat have started to offer pretty sweet skateboards that swap out traditional Canadian maple with hemp decks.
And because skateboarding is a sport where your kicks are just as scrutinized as your tricks, snagging hemp skate shoes and streetwear from classic brands such as Vans, Element, Adidas and others is easier than ever.
And don’t forget the hemp grip tape!