A Beginner’s Guide to All Things Cannabis By Jillian Thayer
The recent legalization of adult-use and medicinal cannabis in various states, as well as the federal legalization of hemp, has revitalized the perception and use of these plants. Many entrepreneurs, researchers, consumers, and regulators are eager to reap the rewards and benefits of this new industry due to the many resources derived from it. This short guide is for anyone who wants to learn about the background of the cannabis plant and industry basics to become more familiar with this burgeoning industry. Whether for personal use in terms of its purported therapeutic effects or for entrepreneurial rewards, this industry is here to stay by popular demand.
There are many ways to refer to this plant. Cannabis sativa is the scientific name, which includes the high THC variety as well as the high CBD variety; these are commonly termed marijuana and hemp respectively. When people speak about hemp, they are referring to the industrial aspect of the plant, which includes the fibers and seeds derived from it in addition to the phytochemical cannabidiol (CBD). Clearly, people are more familiar with the name ‘marijuana’ as it contains the highly psychoactive compound delta-nine-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Many years under prohibition has created an expansive list of slang terms to include things like pot, weed, and ganja (Ganjapreneur, n.d.). Currently, there is a debate on what the correct nomenclature should be for these varieties, some argue that marijuana is a pejorative term as it brings up the racist history that led to demonization, therefore we should refrain from utilizing it and instead use the label cannabis (Piomelli & Russo, 2016). On the other hand, others argue that calling it cannabis would get too confusing and is not specific enough (Belville, 2016). It is evident that this conflict has not been resolved. Many industry professionals merely utilize whatever terms they feel comfortable with and do not dwell on the jargon. In addition to the marijuana debate, many people take issue with the labels “sativa” and “indica” (Piomelli & Russo, 2016). Some scientists declare that this is an erroneous way to describe high THC cannabis as these plants have been interbred for so long, they depart from the original variety. They argue that the physical features do little to support the case of what constitutes an indica or a sativa, instead, it would be better refer to them as chemical varieties (chemovars), for their chemical profile varies plant to plant in terms of their cannabinoid and terpene content (Piomelli & Russo, 2016).
History of The Plant
Cannabis sativa has had a long relationship with humankind. There are many postulated ideas of where the plant originated, for it is very difficult to determine conclusively where cannabis first emerged due to its prolific spread across the world. Researchers believe cannabis has origins in the European and Asiatic continents where it spread outward to other countries (Zhang et. al., 2018). Scientists have found evidence of cultivation in China based upon archaeological evidence due to the discovery of pollen deposits (Hand et al., 2017). Humanity’s relationship with cannabis has spanned thousands of years, some scientists argue that it spans five thousand years (ElSohly & Gul, 2014), whereas some postulate our relationship with this plant spans ten thousand years (Zhang et al., 2018). There are many researchers who claim that cannabis was most likely the first crop to domesticate because we were able to derive many applications from the multi-purpose crop such as textiles, medicine, and a source of food (Hand et al., 2017).
Cannabis sativa is an herbaceous annual with woody fibers that is wind-pollinated and is considered dioecious, where there are separate male and female plants (Andre, Hausman, & Guerriero, 2016). It can be grown all over the world excluding regions like the Arctic and desert climates. Growers who wish to cultivate hemp need to know the intended market they are planning to grow for because it determines the variety and growing method. In the case of the fiber and seed crops, one can make it a dual-purpose crop which can yield both goods. However, the current driver of the hemp market is for cultivating floral hemp, instead of the industrial crop.
Cannabis of the high THC or high CBD varieties need more attention and requires a certain level of skill. It can be very demanding in terms of providing care and labor. Only the female plants are utilized in this crop, since the males have little value to this market because the goal is to produce trichome-rich flowers. In fact, if a single male were amongst the females, it would lower the quality of the females significantly. This is due to the fact that males do not produce a lot of trichomes and it makes the females produce seeds, which lowers the cannabinoid content. There is also the risk of running into the issue of yielding high THC results when cultivating floral hemp. Those who reside in legal adult-use states do not need to worry about this factor; in fact the higher the THC content, the more value it imparts on the final good because many enthusiasts desire potent varieties. After the growing season and lab tests have determined the cannabinoid content, one can harvest the crop. It must be done with care because the flowers are easily bruised. Once the plants are removed from the field, they can be transported to a drying facility. The drying time is dictated by the scale of the operation and the size of each plant, where it can take up to a few weeks to a month in some cases to fully dry. With proper drying conditions, concerning the temperature, humidity, and airflow, the plants will be ready when the moisture is driven out of the middle and is at an appropriate moisture content. The flowers or biomass are prepared for the next step to be processed into final goods.
Fiber and Seed
Growing for the more industrial aspects of the hemp market requires fewer inputs and labor, which makes this a crop suitable for newcomers. It needs to be densely sown to crowd out weed competition and it forces the plants to grow tall, they are not meant to be girthy. Another beneficial feature of this crop is the fact that both males and females are utilized. Males are more suited for growing fiber also, but females can still produce quite a bit of fiber in their stalks. Once the females go to seed, that is the optimal time to harvest the crop. The harvesting techniques require machinery to efficiently process the plants. They must be processed in a way that removes the chlorophyll from the stem, this step is called retting (a step that separates the fibers from the non-fibers in the stalk), which occurs for some time, and then subsequently it must be dried and further separated. It is important to note that there are two parts of the stem people are after, the outer bark, called bast fibers, and the inner woody core, termed hurd. There are many applications the fibrous plant offers.
A Multi-purpose Crop
The stalks of Cannabis sativa are world-renowned for their properties. Ancient humans used the fibers for making ropes, textiles, and paper (Andre, Hausman, & Guerriero, 2016). Hemp fiber fell out of favor during the middle of the 20th century, but it is witnessing a revival. People are turning to hemp fiber because it is a renewable resource that can be utilized for so many things in daily life, such as textile fibers, construction material, animal bedding, and plastics (Adesina, Bhowmik, Sharma, & Shahbazi, 2020). The fibers are extremely durable; this is primarily the reason sailors utilized hemp fibers for rope-making. These parts have different purposes when they are processed, such as the bast (outer bark) being utilized for textiles, rope, and other accessory items (shoes and bags), whereas the hurd, the inner woody core, creates construction materials and animal bedding.
The seeds of the cannabis plant contain high amounts of nutrients and essential fatty acids. We can derive many things from the hemp seeds such as oil. The seeds can be cold-pressed or utilize solvents to transform it into oil, which is great for cooking and for skin applications. The seeds can also be powdered, as well as eaten raw. Hemp seeds are some of the most nutrient-dense food sources we have access to (Crichton-Stuart & Marengo, 2018). More research is required to fully explore the different processing methods which can impact the functionality and stability of food products and to conclusively determine the human health benefits from hemp seed consumption (Leonard, Zhang, Ying, & Fang, 2019).
This plant has the amazing quality of absorbing many substances from the soil, including nutrients such as nitrogen, but also substances such as heavy metals, and pesticides. Phytoremediation refers to the ability of plants and soil organisms to remove and contain toxins from the environment (Greipsson, 2011). Intentionally planting crops at sites of contamination provides an efficient way of cleaning up polluted areas from different industries. Due to hemp’s rapid growth and its deep roots that allow it to efficiently absorb, accumulate, and store heavy metals through the root system and leaves, substances like lead, nickel, and cadmium among others types are accumulated (Adesina, Bhowmik, Sharma, & Shahbazi, 2020). This is helpful because contamination can be widespread. It is an economically viable way of cleaning up these sites due to their growth cycle and natural ability of taking up and tolerating toxins.
For thousands of years, people have been utilizing the medicinal qualities of cannabis to help with things like pain and insomnia (Bostwick, 2012). There are over five hundred documented chemical compounds in the cannabis plant (ElSohly & Gul, 2014). These include the well-known cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids present in the plant’s resinous trichomes. Cannabis contains many phytochemicals that have been purported to help folks who deal with health issues. The main constituents found in the phytochemistry residing within the glandular trichomes are the terpenophenolic compounds called cannabinoids. The predominant cannabinoids are found in their acidic forms, which means they have not lost their carboxyl group, and these are THCA, CBDA, CBNA, and CBGA (Andre, Hausman, & Guerriero, 2016). There are many other minor compounds that scientists are aware of; they haven’t been as well studied due to their smaller quantities present in the plant and most of the attention is still on CBD and THC. Besides the cannabinoids, there is an abundant amount of terpenes. Terpenes are the fragrant aroma molecules that provide many protective qualities for plants; researchers have found hundreds of different types of terpenes, which can vary across plant to plant of the same variety. The dominant kinds of terpenes are the monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes and they offer therapeutic properties too (Boyar, 2016). We are still studying cannabis’ phytochemistry in order to uncover other constituents and the role they play in plant health and how it may be extrapolated for human health applications.
The Endocannabinoid System is an internal regulating system present in all mammals. It is a system that helps to modulate physiological and cognitive processes so we can remain in balance. It was not until the 1990’s that scientists were able to uncover natural receptors and endogenous compounds in our bodies that elucidated how cannabis compounds are able to exert an effect on our physiology (De Petrocellis, Grazia-Cascio, & Di Marzo, 2009). There are many components that make up the endocannabinoid system such as endogenous compounds, receptors, and enzymes. We are still learning how these constituents work together and how they may be manipulated into potential routes of therapy for addressing different health conditions. There is great potential for future studies on the endocannabinoid system (Zou & Kumar, 2018).
Barriers to Entry
Even though the federal government legalized hemp and its derivatives in 2018, there are still many barriers encountered in the industry such as marketing issues, high start-up costs, and expensive lab testing requirements. There are more difficulties present in the adult-use markets because the federal government does not recognize marijuana as a legal substance, since it is still considered a Schedule One substance under the Controlled Substance Act. Despite these challenges, many people of all backgrounds are participating in these industries.
Financial and Regulatory
In every participating state, there are fees for the initial application and subsequent license to contend with. These include all aspects of the supply chain from the grower to the manufacturer. The state one resides in will dictate the application process and financial needs to get an operation started. It can be very costly and deter people from pursuing this field. The issues of banking, insurance, payment processing, and access to capital are among the biggest concerns facing the CBD hemp industry (Caramela, 2020). Courtesy of the 2018 Farm Bill, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was given authority to regulate the hemp industry that deals with CBD infused goods, and the Department of Agriculture was tasked with regulating the cultivation. The FDA has yet to rule on how this cannabinoid will be classified, as FDA officials challenge the notion that the cannabinoid cannot be infused into food because it is a primary ingredient in the pharmaceutical Epidiolex (U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2020). They argue that there have not been enough studies to examine the potential side effects and long term effects of use which is why they have been hesitant to make an official statement. This has left many people in the processing sector in a gray area because they are unable to market their products (Caramela, 2020). The Department of Agriculture has the authority to issue state plans in order to regulate hemp cultivation. They have challenged the hemp industry with their interim final rules, which mandate a short harvest window, a stricter THC test, and require testing to sample the top one-third of the flowering plant among other restrictions (Ritter Spencer, 2020).
Hemp is not marijuana, but there is still a stigma attached to this plant. Despite hemp being declared federally legal two years ago, many folks are unfamiliar with the differences of the legal variety compared to the psychoactive type. There is a legal distinction between the two which is elucidated by the cannabinoid content involving THC, stating that hemp must not exceed 0.3% THC in order to be considered a legal substance. However, the drug-type plant and the industrial plant look very similar at times in their life cycle, which only adds to the confusion. Moreover, the recent change in public perception about adult-use and medical marijuana has helped to make strides in normalizing and legalizing this plant; this challenges the preconceived notions that marijuana has no value. The decades-long prohibition has dramatically altered people’s understanding of what this plant can provide for us in terms of wellness and other applications.
There is more to uncover and learn about these plants and how to approach the industry. We are emerging from a time of prohibition, therefore it will take time to move forward from our complicated history as a society in order to embrace the qualities and potential applications we can derive from cannabis. People interested in pursuing ventures in the hemp or marijuana industry need to do their due diligence by researching necessary policies and regulations (depending on the state), as well as establish how a business will be able to stand out among the competition.
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