Cannabidiol (CBD) is a cannabis compound that’s making headlines for its formidable healing properties. Many people find CBD oil to be a convenient and generally safe way to experience marijuana’s many benefits without psychoactive effects. But CBD oil is often confused with hemp oil, which is also made from a kind of cannabis, but is a very different substance.
Now, a variety of products labeled as both CBD oil and hemp oil are available from hundreds of sources. But although hemp oil has healthful benefits, it’s typically—though not always—classed as a nutritional supplement that's not often as potent as CBD derived from whole-plant cannabis.
There’s a lot of confusion surrounding hemp and its more famous cousin, marijuana. This confusion has hobbled hemp production in the United States for nearly half a century. It’s also contributed to misunderstandings about the uses and benefits of products derived from various parts of the Cannabis sativa plant.
Hemp and cannabis are both varieties of Cannabis sativa. They both contain common cannabis compounds and terpenes, including CBD and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). But hemp, also referred to as industrial hemp, contains only trace amounts of THC—less than 0.3%. So, it has no psychoactive properties and can be sold even in places where cannabis is still illegal.
Hemp has been cultivated around the world for thousands of years for agricultural and industrial uses ranging from making rope and clothing to animal feed. Today it’s used for those and many other purposes including replacing petroleum products in paint and plastics, and as fuel and construction material. Like other nuts and seeds, hemp seeds are also rich in essential fatty acids and proteins, making them a popular nutritional supplement.
But hemp got caught up in the war on drugs that made cannabis a controlled substance of the highest order. In the early years of the 20th century, hemp and cannabis were both cultivated and processed legally in the United States. But the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 placed Cannabis sativa on its Schedule 1, along with heroin and LSD. All of these substances are classified as having significant potential for abuse without any redeeming medical qualities.
Because hemp is just a variety of Cannabis sativa, it went right along with cannabis onto Schedule 1. This means that hemp cultivation and research are prohibited in the U.S. But an odd loophole in the Controlled Substances Act excluded seeds, stalks and the oil extracted from hemp. So, this is why you see products made from imported hemp for sale all over the country even though hemp cultivation is illegal.
The leaves and flowers of the Cannabis sativa plant contain the highest quantities of all its compounds, and that accounts for its medical and recreational effects. CBD oil extracted from these parts of the plant typically contains high levels of CBD, but it can also contain some THC. These oils are often called cannabis oils to distinguish them from oils that contain only CBD and have no psychoactive properties at all.
Hemp oil is made from hemp seeds and/or stalks of the plant. That’s why it can get around the restrictions of the Controlled Substances Act. But that’s also why it may not make the best medicine. The seeds and stalks—where the hemp oil comes from—don’t contain many cannabinoids. If hemp oil is naturally low in THC, it’s also a comparatively poor source of CBD.
By its very nature, hemp oil does contain CBD, but it takes a lot of hemp to make oil with enough CBD to produce its well-documented effects. For this reason, hemp oil products generally don’t have the anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and immune-boosting properties to the level that cannabis-derived CBD oil does.
Hemp oil does support immune health, and that’s why it’s widely sold as a nutritional supplement. Like other healthy oils, it contains the omega-3 fatty acids that help prevent oxidation in cells and contribute to the flexibility of the circulatory system. Hemp oil also contains omega-6 fatty acids and linoleic acid, which also act as antioxidants and benefit the cardiovascular system.
Hemp production and research in the U.S. are still restricted, so there’s limited information on its side effects and risks. But that could change with the passage of a new bill called the Hemp Farming Act, proposed by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY). The bill seeks to legalize industrial hemp and classify it as an agricultural product. For now, most hemp oil products are manufactured outside the U.S., with varying levels of oversight and quality control.
Unless you’re allergic to hemp or cannabis, there are few reported side effects of consuming these oils. That said, hemp oil has a few extra risks, related largely due to the nature of the hemp plant itself and the way it’s often processed.
Because quality standards around hemp oil are limited, it can be hard to find out how much CBD is in a particular product—and the content can vary considerably from seller to seller. Hemp oil can also be processed using toxic substances such as ethanol, which can leave traces in the oil. The hemp plant itself can also absorb toxins and heavy metals from the soil too, and these things can also be passed along to consumers.
Like hemp oil, CBD oil can vary in its content of actual CBD, and processing methods can also involve toxic substances. CBD oil can be professionally produced by leading cannabis laboratories using carbon dioxide under high pressure to isolate and extract oil from CBD-rich cannabis leaves.
But other methods can also introduce harmful chemicals such as ethanol and butane to the finished product. Because CBD oil production typically begins with high-CBD cannabis leaves and flowers, this kind of oil has a higher CBD content than hemp oils do, so it typically offers more of CBD’s potent healing benefits.
You can consume both CBD oil and hemp oil by itself, or you can add it to foods. Neither oil is recommended for cooking. These oils can also be added to a long list of topical creams, lotions and ointments.
Though it may be labeled as CBD oil, hemp oil that contains CBD isn’t the same as CBD oil from cannabis. So, it’s important to read labels and research products carefully.
Photo credit: Katherine Hanlon