Hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) is originally from Central Asia and was one of the first plants (some think it was the first one ever) to be cultivated by humans because of its triple value as a foodstuff (seeds), use in textiles (fiber), and medicine/ritual use (resin). The plant’s flexibility has led to the selection of varieties where some of these properties are particularly marked, generally to the disadvantage of others. Hemp’s versatility ensured its success in all the Old World’s civilizations. In addition, because of its use in producing nautical materials, it was one of the species cultivated by European settlers in the New World. Hemp was cultivated for its fibers in Europe but its psychotropic properties were practically unknown until Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign. In the second half of the 19th century, colonial expansion in North Africa, the Middle East, and India led to its psychotropic resin (hashish) becoming increasingly available in the main European countries. If, on the one hand, this triggered the first modern research on the plant’s pharmacological properties, on the other hand, the detrimental effects of the recreational consumption of hemp and its by-products (hashish, marijuana) led to it being considered merely a drug. Ultimately, this resulted in its prohibition in the first half of the 20th century, gradually destroying this plant’s production chain, not just in western countries and the USA, but also in countries such as Egypt, important producers of hemp fibers. The reasons for this relentless legislative attack are not totally clear and could be connected to the growing economic importance of synthetic textiles and, in agriculture, of crops such as cotton and woody lignocellulosic cores.
Paradoxically, hemp fell to the status of a psychotropic plant with the complete blurring of its fiber and food properties while its medical potential was basically identified with THC’s biological profile. This compound, together with its degraded product CBN, is the only psychoactive constituent of the more than 160 different cannabinoids contained in the plant.
Still today, hemp continues to evoke the world of drug addiction. However, in recent decades, the groundwork for emotionally “neutralizing” hemp and disassociating the perverse equation of “hemp=drug-addiction” and completely reassessing this plant’s usefulness has been laid through growing environmental awareness and a search for new natural materials as well as a series of accidental observations by psychotropic hemp users suffering from various diseases (glaucoma, chemotherapy-related nausea).
This plant does not need pesticides to be cultivated. It has been used as food and medicine for thousands of years and has a pharmaceutical and health potential that goes beyond THC. Moreover, in the past, Italy was one of the main European hemp production centers and some of its varieties, like Carmagnola, are very important within the context of this species’s multipurpose use. In this historical perspective, and in the context of achieving a sustainable lifestyle from an environmental point of view, various possibilities for the medical and nutritional use of non-psychoactive hemp products have been described, highlighting their uniqueness and versatility. Besides, there are ongoing clinical studies on the use of cannabinoids to treat various diseases.