For centuries, civilisations have made good use of cannabis in terms of medicine, lifestyle and textiles.
One of the first cultures to use hemp was China, and they continue to reap rewards from it in the region to this day.
Industrial hemp has a variety of uses – from paper and beauty products to rope, material, bricks and toilet paper. This herb has proven to be a sustainable alternative to conventional tree plantations.
The Extract reports that, until 1883, most of the paper in the world was being made using hemp fibres.
So, why have industries not made better use of this wonder plant?
This would mainly be due to the stigma and misconception surrounding hemp, with people often mistaking it for marijuana, which contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), one of many cannabinoids that can make you high.
In simpler terms, the MD of ALCO-Safe Rhys Evans explains: “All cannabis plants contain CBD but not all of them contain THC.”
Cannabis plants containing more than 0.3% THC are classified as marijuana, while products containing less than that are classed as hemp.
Hemp does not contain enough THC to make you high, but rather contains cannabidiol (CBD). This still has the endless benefits that marijuana does, such as pain relief, increasing appetite, combating nausea and muscle spasms.
And because hemp does not contain enough THC to make you feel stoned, it is becoming increasingly widely used.
Evans says that legal CBD products extracted from hemp plants will not cause a person to receive a positive drug test result, and are 100% legal to use both in and outside of the workplace.
Why make the change from tree plantations to hemp?
Planting a tree, provided it is indigenous, or if exotic and non-invasive, is a good thing. This is because trees store carbon dioxide (CO₂) emitted into the earth’s atmosphere.
But according to The Extract, hemp also has the ability to sequester and store CO₂, and can release oxygen, making it just as good, albeit on a smaller scale, than conventional tree plantations.
In addition, a hemp plant takes about four months to mature, compared to trees used in plantations, which typically take five to 80 years. Hemp plants do not need any chemicals, pesticides or herbicides to grow and thrive, and, although they do require irrigation, they are not as water-intensive as other trees.
And because they do not require pesticides, their very presence improves soil health by restoring nutrients while removing toxins. An added bonus, according to the Rodale Institute, is that bees love hemp plants.
GoodEarth Resources released a report titled The Role of Industrial Hemp in Carbon Farming, in which it explains that industrial hemp absorbs more CO₂ than “any forest or commercial crop”, and, as such, is “the ideal carbon sink”.
To be precise, GoodEarth Resources says that one hectare of industrial hemp can absorb 22 tons of CO₂ per hectare, and that it is possible to grow up to two crops per year, doubling this figure to 44 tons of CO₂ being sucked out of the atmosphere.
Some do, however, dispute these figures, as hemp is technically a herb, and thus cannot be compared to a tree’s ability to sequester carbon, as reported by Sebastian Leuzinger in The Conversation. However, it is emphasised that hemp will make a difference in terms of carbon sequestration even if it is used as an efficient energy crop or in concrete, simply by being planted alongside trees and plants in mass plantations.
What can hemp be used for?
The number of products that can be derived from hemp are virtually limitless.
Newer uses include bandages, diapers and tampons, due to antimicrobial, fast-drying and ultraviolet-proof properties, reports the Global Times.
But centuries ago, hemp was used to make rope, paper and textiles, and notably, these products were arguably of a higher quality than in present times, with most manufacturers relying on tree plantations.
For example, The Extract reports that paper made from hemp is thinner, stronger, and does not yellow or deteriorate, as it would when made from wood.
420 Intel reports that hemp can be used to make beer, sunscreen, milk, shoes, clothes, soap, building materials such as hempcrete, protein powder, supercapacitators and even fuel.
The Agricultural Research Council adds that cellophane, paints, chain lubricants, food, and more than 25,000 other consumer products can be made using hemp.
Legal hiccups and managing crops
Even though hemp contains little to no THC, Global Times reports that many countries police hemp plantations to prevent the potential abuse of marijuana.
In addition, gaining a licence to plant hemp has its fair share of paperwork.
In South Africa, one would need a permit, obtained from the Department of Health under the Medicines Control Council, as it is classified under the cannabis species, and is thus illegal to cultivate en mass.
The Agricultural Business Chamber (AgBiz) reported in July last year that South Africa can no longer afford to ignore the vast economic benefits of legalising cannabis, or at least allowing farmers to cultivate hemp.
And considering that cannabis has been decriminalised in more than 50 countries worldwide, with many investors eyeing Lesotho, South Africa’s lax legislation regarding the contentious herb is in dire need of an update.
AgBiz reported that, according to Green Fund, the global cannabis market is worth $R150 billion, with Barclays forecasting an exponential growth to $272 billion by the year 2028.
Botswana, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Uganda are currently in the process of rolling out legislation to attract keen investors, such as Canada.
The fight against the stigma surrounding cannabis in South Africa, for medicinal, recreational or industrial use, still has a long way to go to. Perhaps once this is combated, the country can follow the example of other such as Lesotho to provide a much-needed cash injection, and employment opportunities.