‘You can’t smoke hemp’, they said. ‘It will just give you a headache’, they warned. What did they know?
Smokable hemp flower is currently one of the fastest growing cannabis products, in terms of popularity. On the back of the huge boom in demand for CBD products, hemp flower has found its place in the market as a bridge between traditional, old-school weed and modern health-conscious hemp products.
Consumers like it because, well, it’s cannabis in its most natural state – just dried, trimmed, and cured. It can be smoked, vaped, or made into oils and edibles. A variety of strains and terpene profiles mean there’s endless flavors to discover.
And then there’s the effects; a subtle body-high, calmness and tranquility. With none of the intense cerebral effects associated with THC-rich cannabis. Used alongside THC, hemp flower can even make the ‘high’ more enjoyable with less anxiety and paranoia.
All these factors have made hemp flower on of the most in-demand legal cannabis products in both the United States and Europe. However, due to inter-continental restrictions on shipping hemp flower, the two industries (and the hemp they grow) are evolving very separately.
With that in mind, this article will attempt to compare hemp flower from Europe with hemp flower grown in the United States.
American hemp flower industry
Inexplicably, hemp has been illegal to grow in the U.S for most of the last century. It was not until 2014 that states were allowed to make exceptions for hemp grown for research purposes. Then, in 2018, the Farm Bill made hemp (with a 0.3 percent THC limit) federally legal across the entire country.
Soon after this, some farms started selling dried smokable hemp flower online and to local stores. Products quickly flew off the shelves and farmers realized the unique demand for hemp bud.
There are now hundreds of cultivators and even more vendors. In fact, the 2019 harvest has just begun and it’s looking like an estimated 115,000-138,000 acres (46,000-56,000 ha) of hemp will be harvested, although the majority of this won’t be smokable-grade hemp.
European hemp flower industry
About 8 years ago, Switzerland legalized cannabis with less than 1 percent THC. However, it was only in 2017 that hemp flower was first sold as a smokable. Since then, many other countries have followed suit (allow most have a 0.2 percent THC limit), including Italy, Austria, Belgium, Poland, Greece, and the UK.
With patchwork laws making the legality of hemp flower contentious in some of these countries (most notable the UK), some countries’ industries have evolved faster than others. Currently, Switzerland and Italy are the main producers of high-grade hemp flower.
The 2018 farm bill decreed that cannabis with less than 0.3 percent total THC by dried weight is considered hemp. This is 0.1 percent more than in most European countries, where a limit of 0.2 percent is in place. In Switzerland, however, 1% is the limit, while Italy allows up to 0.6 percent THC.
What’s also interesting is that most smokable hemp flower producers in the U.S don’t consider THCa content when determining a product’s legality. THCa turns into THC upon heating – a process known as decarboxylation. And the law states that hemp must have a total THC content of less than 0.3 percent post decarboxylation.
There are many products on the market that, while they might have less than 0.3 percent deta-9-THC, they have an additional THCa content, which would make them illegal when factoring in decarboxylation rates.
Therefore, many hemp flower products in the U.S have a total THC content of up to 1 percent and higher.
Due to the 0.3 percent THC limit in the U.S. compared to Europe’s 0.2 percent limit, American hemp strains have greater potential for producing CBD – it’s very hard to have more than 10 percent CBD or so while keeping THC to below 0.2 percent.
However, as U.S. farmers often grow varieties with as much percent total THC, it is far easier to reach a CBD content of 20-plus percent.
But that doesn’t mean Europe has no hemp flowers above 10 percent CBD. In fact, as Switzerland and Italy can grow with looser limits on THC, many 20-plus percent CBD flowers not sold domestically are chemically ‘washed’ to remove THC to below 0.2%.
In the U.S, any cannabis variety with less than 0.3 percent is legal and can be sold as hemp. This allows farmers and breeders to experiment with a wide variety of genetics. This is unlike in Europe, where all hemp grown must be of an EU-approved variety, which can be found on a list on the EU’s website.
Despite these limitations in Europe, it is widely known that many breeders cross EU-certified hemp varieties with illegal high-THC strains in order to create higher quality strains that are technically legal.
Much of the smokable hemp on sale in the U.S. is grown outdoors, and this is usually reflected in the appearance of the buds – often darker, less dense, etc. However, indoor and greenhouse grows are becoming more popular as they produce much more aesthetically pleasing buds.
In europe, you have a good selection between indoor, greenhouse and outdoor grown flower. This again means a wide variety in how each product looks.
When it comes to indoors strains, both the U.S and Europe produce some incredibly dense buds, featuring greens and purples, as well as good coatings of crystally trichomes. In fact, in terms of looks, hemp flower that is indistinguishable from regular THC-rich cannabis is becoming much more common.
This is one area where hemp flower is slightly lagging behind traditional ‘weed’. There’s little difference between European and American hemp flower, however, as both produce buds a wide range of qualities – from ditch-weed-looking quality to just below top-shelf quality.
Again, indoor grown hemp flower in both regions can be especially pungent and flavorful.
Despite the hemp flower industry being more mature in Europe, prices are still very high. As a consumer, you’re looking at around $10 per gram, on average. Compare this to the U.S, where it’s not uncommon to see ounces available for $60, and the difference is stark.
Both the United States and Europe are seeing unprecedented interest in smokable hemp flower. And while both industries are incredibly young still, you can find high-quality products on both sides of the atlantic.
Switzerland and Italy are leading the way in Europe, while Oregon and Colorado seem to be responsible for the best buds in the U.S.
In terms of quality, there’s little to separate to two regions. It’s probably easier to find super high quality products in Europe, although you will get more THC in U.S strains thanks to farmers not adhering strictly to the law. U.S hemp is also much cheaper than its European counterpart.
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