Recently, the United States’ Government federally legalized hemp through the 2018 Farm Bill, ending a decades-long prohibition and bringing the American farmer back on equal ground to the rest of the world.
However, commercial hemp cultivators still must take caution to ensure their plants don’t contain too much of the cannabinoid THC, or they risk having their entire crop destroyed by regulators.
In the world of cannabis, there’s a thin line between legal and illegal. Let’s take a look at just how small it is for hemp farmers across the globe.
Hemp, Marijuana, Cannabis: What’s The Difference?
First, what exactly makes hemp different from the stuff that gets you high?
The word hemp, or the phrase industrial hemp, gets used as a sort of umbrella term to describe several different strains of the cannabis plant. Marijuana, weed, pot, or any of the dozens of slang terms used to describe the recreational drug, also refer to the cannabis plant. The difference is solely in THC percentages.
Cannabis is a unique herb that humans have cultivated for thousands of years. In fact, it’s one of the first things we grew when we discovered agriculture. Through centuries of selective breeding and hybridization, we’ve created hundreds of different strains of cannabis, all with slightly different chemical compositions.
Every strain has a cannabinoid profile—a combination of compounds like CBD and THC unique to the plant. In order for a cannabis plant to get designated as hemp, its cannabinoid profile can only include so much THC per dry weight. To make things complicated, the exact percentage of THC a plant can have and still be considered hemp will vary based on where you are in the world.
Global THC Regulations
The 2018 Farm bill set the THC percentage for hemp in the United States at a maximum of 0.3% THC per dry weight. Anything with more than 0.3% percent THC wouldn’t be considered hemp, and therefore would still be federally illegal, even if grown in a state like Washington or Colorado, where high-THC recreational cannabis is currently legal.
The United States is only just now re-entering the global hemp marketplace, but other countries never left. The European Union, for example, has been pumping out industrial hemp throughout America’s hemp prohibition period. Until last year, hemp grown in Europe had to contain no more than 0.2% THC per dry weight, but while the EU didn’t follow America’s lead in originally banning hemp, parliament did vote in 2020 to raise hemp’s maximum THC percentage to 0.3% in order to be in line with US policy, avoiding any potentials legal pitfalls in CBD shipping lines.
Other countries, like Colombia and Switzerland, allow for up to 1% THC in their hemp, giving cultivators a wider variety of strains to choose from.
Benefits Of Allowing For Higher THC Percentages In Hemp
Ultimately, the THC regulations around industrial hemp are put in place in order to prevent the sale of cannabis products that could result in intoxication. So, will 0.2% THC get you high? It’s extremely unlikely, and the same goes for cannabis with 1% THC.
Everyone’s body interacts with cannabinoids a little differently, and even at these negligible levels, low-THC cannabis could possibly have an effect on extremely sensitive members of the population—though they would be clear outliers. But, for the average person, it takes around 10-20 mg of THC to produce an intoxicating experience. Even at a whole 1% THC, one would have to smoke a nearly impossible amount of hemp in a short amount of time to start feeling high.
As our understanding of the cannabis plant evolves, so do the global policies that govern the plant. We’re seeing cannabis restrictions loosen all around the globe, and increasing the maximum THC percentage in hemp could be next in line. As demonstrated by the EU’s decision to raise their national limit, more nation’s agreeing on the same fixed limit encourages global trade.
It would make more sense for the US and EU to come up to 1% than for countries like Switzerland to come down. Raising the percentage gives the farmer significantly more options in seed sourcing, drastically reduces the risk of accidentally growing illegal “hot plants,” which are subject to destruction by governments, and negligibly increases the potential for abuse.