Source: The Roanoke Times

We’re tromping across a farm in the Whitethorne section of Montgomery County. Out past the sheep pasture, past the grain bins, past the corn field … whoa, wait, is that a field of marijuana? Are they really growing cannabis here, right out in the open?

No. And yes.

This is hemp. It sure looks like marijuana. Same distinctive leaves. Same species, in fact — just a different strain of cannabis, just like how Chihuahuas and Saint Bernards are both dogs, but are very different types of dogs. The main difference here is that hemp won’t get you high. Well, it might — if you rolled a joint as fat as a telephone pole.

The buzz comes from tetrahydrocannabinol; the THC content of marijuana often measures in the double-digits. The THC content of hemp is 0.3 percent or less. As a drug, it’s a buzz-kill. But as a farm product, well … that’s why two researchers from Virginia Tech are standing here admiring their crop.

Graduate student Jabari Byrd plucks a spindly plant out of the ground and tries to snap it in two. He’s a big, strong guy — but the hemp is stronger. It takes him some effort to bend the stalk and peel away the skin. Hemp is fibrous, which explains why it used to be a staple crop in colonial America. You can make stuff out of it.

Rope, clothes, sails for ships — all were once made from hemp. The word “canvas” comes from “cannabis.” Thomas Jefferson penned the first drafts of the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper. In World War II, the federal government promoted “Hemp for Victory!” Growing hemp for use in making industrial fiber was considered patriotic. Then came another war — the War on Drugs — and hemp didn’t fare so well. If it looks like pot, it must be pot, right?

Other countries didn’t see it that way, though. Today, industrial hemp, as it’s called, is grown in more than 30 countries. This year, Americans will spend an estimated $500 million to import stuff made from hemp — and you can make a surprising amount of stuff out of hemp. It can be processed into beauty products or woven into strong but lightweight construction materials. Hemp apparently can be used for just about everything from A to Z — from airplanes to zits.

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