The extreme versatility and usefulness of hemp has seen an overdue resurgence in interest lately, which is rather remarkable considering that humans first began cultivating it about 10 millennia ago. Hemp is a variety of the Cannabis sativa L plant species, but—unlike the plant harvested for its flowers and high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol—it contains only trace levels of THC.
Traditionally used since the Stone Age as a source of food, fiber, medicine and building materials, hemp’s high tensile strength and natural water resistance led to its widespread maritime use in rope and canvas sails during the Age of Exploration. George Washington famously grew hemp at Mount Vernon, both as a cash crop and for use on the plantation itself. It is extremely versatile, and is grown and used worldwide in the development of numerous commercial applications including cannabidiol (CBD) oil, textiles, construction materials, nutraceuticals, body-care products, applied materials and industrial products.
University of Manchester researchers Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov’s cutting-edge work with graphene (a material 200 times stronger than steel, lighter than aluminum and more conductive than copper, and capable of being shaped into any form and used in batteries for “green” photovoltaic solar-energy systems) earned the pair their 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics. Following this, Dr. David Mitlin of the University of Alberta was awarded a patent for an economical method of manufacturing hemp into a material that shares many of the high-tech properties of graphene.
Now, since around the time Jay Leno posted an online video of himself test-driving a 2017 Renew sports car (with a chassis fashioned from 100 pounds of woven hemp), hemp is enjoying a bit of the limelight. After all, it’s more sustainable and 60 times faster to market than lumber (a hemp harvest equivalent to a 20-year lumber forest’s yield can be grown in four months). The environmentally friendly crop has proven to have more than 25,000 product applications. Industrial hemp is used to manufacture everything from rope and cloth to oil and soap.
Nationwide, hemp products account for about $688 million in annual domestic sales; yet while hemp has the potential to become a multibillion-dollar domestic crop, American manufacturers instead have had to rely entirely on imports of hemp from other nations—primarily Canada and China—because here it has been listed as a controlled substance under federal law.
Nevertheless, some sense is following the dollars. The Agricultural Act of 2014 signed into law by President Barack Obama allowed states to implement laws for their departments of agriculture and universities to grow hemp for research or pilot programs. Last July, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation intended to carve out the Empire State’s primacy in hemp production. His signature amended an existing statute to categorize it as an agricultural product deserving the same status as other crops. It also encouraged research on hemp as a commercial commodity and established an industrial working group to advise the state on hemp research and policies. New York is establishing an industrial hemp-seed certification program, featuring a “one-stop shop” website to provide hemp producers and processors with information about pertinent state and federal regulations.
On the federal level, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) introduced an amendment to an appropriations bill to allow farmers to grow industrial hemp in any of the 32 states where it is legal. The intention was to prohibit unnecessary interference by the federal government with any state’s implementation of laws authorizing the cultivation, growth, processing, manufacturing, use, possession, marketing, distribution or transportation of industrial hemp.
As attorney Bob Hoban, founder of the Denver-based cannabis-industry-focused Hoban Law Group, told New Frontier Data (for whom he is an adviser), “I do see the hemp industry taking huge, huge, huge steps forward. I’ve always seen and still maintain that the hemp industry is going to dwarf the marijuana industry by a long, long, long shot. The hemp industry worldwide is a $1 trillion industry, whereas marijuana is certainly going to be very profitable, but we’re going to see large strides in hemp in the near term.”
Hoban Law Group patent attorney Kevin Fortin found that a Google patent search for “hemp and graphene” yields more than 600 independent search results as research scientists from China and Europe are being granted patents for manufacturing methods and products for things like supercapacitors, integrated circuits, batteries, water filters and something called “atmospheric ion harvesting,” in which electron streams are drawn from thin air to deliver electrical currents.
“The uses are all across the board, and we can develop more,” Governor Cuomo said during a signing event at Cornell. “I really believe this is going to be not just an agricultural boon if we do it right, but it will also be a manufacturing boon because the processors are all on the manufacturing side, and they were really looking for someone in this country to step up and take the lead.”