The difference between hemp and marijuana is a topic that is all too often improperly explained.
As demand for CBD continues to skyrocket, the CBD industry has developed into a unique market that is independent, yet still tied into the Cannabis industry. Due to the confusion and complications that this can present for CBD users, it has become increasingly important to understand the difference between hemp vs. marijuana, and how they relate to Cannabis.
What is Cannabis?
In order to truly understand this subject, you must first understand Cannabis as a whole.
A scientist and naturalist of the 18th century, named Carl Linnaeus, invented a system of classifying all living species and defining their relationship with one another. You probably learned about Species Classification in your high school biology class, but here is a quick refresher. In this system, each individual “species” belongs to a “genus”, a “family”, an “order”, a “class”, a “phylum”, and a “kingdom”.
Cannabis is a genus of flowering plants in the Cannabaceae family, which consists of three primary species: Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis.
Cannabis Species | Hemp vs. Marijuana | CBD Origin
Cannabis sativa is what people are often picturing in their mind when they talk about cannabis. It grows naturally in and around tropical regions, such as Central America, Africa, and Asia. It was first described by Karl Linnaeus, who named it Cannabis sativa L, with the L referring to his surname. Sativa is the tallest known type, often reaching 2-4 meters in height.
Cannabis indica was discovered later. It flourishes in arid, mountainous regions, such as the hills of Afghanistan and parts of India. Indicas are much shorter and bushier than sativas; some say they resemble a small Christmas tree.
Finally, there is Cannabis ruderalis. It grows predominantly in the northern hemisphere in China, Russia, and Poland. Ruderalis is well adapted to surviving harsh environments and climates. It is a reasonably small and hardy plant. In the past, humans used ruderalis plants for fibers and nutrition.
Over time, these three species of cannabis have been bred together repeatedly in order to maximize growth potential and potential medicinal effects. It can be difficult to make a clear distinction between the species, as most commonly bred plants are now these hybrids.
While hemp and marijuana are regularly referred to as “species” or “strains” of Cannabis, they actually do not qualify as either one. Hemp and marijuana are simply broad classifications of Cannabis that were adopted into our culture; however, they are not legitimate nomenclature for the Cannabis plant.
To clarify the difference between “hemp” and “marijuana”, and clear the smoke on this frequently misinformed subject, let’s explore what each of these terms actually means and how they relate to Cannabis.
What is Hemp?
“Hemp” is a term used to classify varieties of Cannabis that contain 0.3% or less THC content (by dry weight). While the legal definition described had not been legitimized until the Agricultural Act of 2018 (commonly known as the 2018 Farm Bill) had passed, “hemp” has generally been used to describe non-psychoactive Cannabis that is harvested for the industrial use of its derived products.
With evidence of its use recorded throughout history (including the discovery of material made from hemp over 10,000 years ago!), many believe that hemp was the first crop ever cultivated by mankind. With the capabilities to produce crucial resources such as food, rope, clothing, paper, housing material, and more, “hemp” has been the catalyst for man’s earliest innovations.
What is Marijuana?
“Marijuana” is a term used to classify varieties of Cannabis that contain more than 0.3% THC by dry weight (some up to 30%) and can induce psychotropic or euphoric effects on the user.
While the use of this term is widespread throughout American culture, most informed individuals and organizations in the Cannabis industry refuse to use the term because of the negative history associated with it.
The Confusion Presented by Hemp vs. Marijuana
Based on the context used to describe Hemp and Marijuana, the defining characteristic between the two is based on a single factor––the amount of THC in the plant––or rather whether it will get the user “high”.
While the intoxicating properties of each plant is an important factor to consider, categorizing Cannabis as either hemp or marijuana based on a single characteristic presents a skewed portrayal of Cannabis which prevents users from fully understanding its diversity.
To give you a comparison, consider the taxonomic hierarchy of fruits in the citrus species:
As portrayed in the chart above:
Categorizing Cannabis as either Hemp or Marijuana is akin to classifying all fruits in the citrus genus as either sweet or sour, without acknowledging the diverse characteristics of each fruit. For example, lemons and limes are indeed similar and are both sour, but if you ONLY describe them as sour, then another person who didn’t know the differences would not be able to understand how each one should be used for differing flavors, acidity, etc.
In addition, hemp and marijuana can often appear indistinguishable from one another. This has already led to numerous issues of law enforcement officers making arrests and seizing “hemp” that is now 100% legal because it looks exactly like “marijuana.”
The classification of hemp or marijuana, absent of a true understanding of Cannabis, presents a clear issue of functionality in our society. The obvious solution is for these words to have never existed; however, now that these terms have become deeply ingrained in our society, this problem will be difficult to reverse. The only realistic solution is to re-educate our society over time.
In the meantime, it’s probably best to stay informed about what hemp and marijuana mean and how they are used in our society and legal system to know your rights and avoid any complications when using hemp or CBD products.
4 Key Differences Between Hemp and Marijuana
As varieties of the same plant species, hemp and marijuana share many similarities and can even appear exactly alike. With contrasting legal regulations and very different effects and usages, you definitely do not want to get these two confused. To understand just how different these two are, consider these 4 key differences between hemp and marijuana.
1) Composition: The defining characteristic between hemp and marijuana is the chemical composition contained within each plant.
a. Both hemp and marijuana can produce high amounts of CBD, the non-intoxicating cannabis compound; however, THC is produced at very different levels.
b. While hemp can contain no more than 0.3% THC by dry weight, marijuana can contain up to 30% THC content.
2) Legality: Due to the difference between their levels of THC, hemp and marijuana are regulated very differently under the law.
a. While hemp was previously regulated as an illegal substance under the Controlled Substance Act of 1970, it was removed as an illegal substance under the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018, which federally legalized hemp and hemp-derived products that contain no more than 0.3% THC.
b. Marijuana, on the other hand, is still treated as a controlled substance and is federally illegal under the Controlled Substance Act. Only certain states have begun legalizing it within their borders, but it is still illegal to transport across those state’s lines.
3) Cultivation: Hemp and marijuana are harvested for different purposes so, naturally, they require different growing conditions.
a. Marijuana varieties are selectively bred in controlled environments which are designed to optimize the breed’s characteristics and produce female plants that yield budding flowers. To properly cultivate a marijuana plant, a grower must pay close attention to the plant at each stage of its life cycle and maintain exact conditions in its environment, such as proper temperature, lighting, and humidity.
b. In contrast, hemp is grown to maximize its size and yield. To achieve this, hemp is typically grown outdoors and does not require the level of control and attention that is necessary to grow marijuana.
4) Usage: Hemp and marijuana each offer a range of usages which are unique to their composition.
a. Marijuana is commonly recognized for its recreational uses due to its higher concentration of THC, a psychoactive agent, which induces mind-altering, euphoric effects. Studies have also revealed its potential use in a wide variety of therapeutic applications, which is why there are so many users of medical “marijuana”.
b. In comparison, hemp is harvested to produce a wide variety of products including, but not limited to:
i. Industrial products such as paper, clothing, building materials, and plastic
ii. Food products such as cooking oil, hemp flour, and hemp seed-based products
iii. Medicinal products such as Cannabidiol (CBD).
Hemp-Derived CBD vs. Marijuana-Derived CBD
When it comes to CBD and the case of hemp vs. marijuana, we are faced with yet another important subject that must be addressed. CBD can be derived from either hemp or marijuana because these broad terms are used to describe the cannabis plant’s THC content. However, both of these ‘types’ of cannabis also contain CBD molecules in varying amounts.
So, if all CBD is the exact same at a molecular level, then CBD products should be legal whether it’s derived from hemp or marijuana, as long as it has below 0.3% THC right? Not exactly…
This is where the law can get a little confusing, but let me explain.
Under the Agricultural Act of 2018, commonly known as the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp and hemp-derived products, including hemp-derived CBD, were legalized. A common misconception about the 2018 Farm Bill is that it legalized all CBD regardless of if it was derived from hemp or marijuana. This is not true.
Based on the guidance of the DEA, CBD is still considered a Schedule I controlled substance. If, however, the CBD is derived from hemp which contains no more than 0.3% THC, it would not be regulated as a controlled substance and is federally legal. The keyword here is “derived from hemp.”
The 2018 Farm Bill explicitly applies to “hemp and hemp-derived products.” It does not include marijuana-derived CBD, which remains under the regulation of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a controlled substance. Even if the CBD product contained 0% THC, if it is derived from marijuana, it is not legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill.
To summarize and re-clarify:
- Hemp-derived CBD: is federally legal if it contains 0.3% THC or less - under the Agricultural Act of 2018
- Marijuana-derived CBD: is federally illegal and is still classified as a controlled substance regardless of its percentage of THC.
Hemp vs. Marijuana: Final Thoughts
While the subject can be a bit complex and quite confusing, I hope to have shed some light on this important subject and properly explained the difference between hemp vs marijuana.
Despite the dysfunctional use of the terms “hemp” and “marijuana,” these terms have become deeply ingrained in our culture and society. There is definitely a need to re-educate America about Cannabis, but to reverse this issue, it will have to take time.
Because these terms are used in a legal context, it’s important to understand: what they mean, how they’re different, and how they relate to cannabis - to understand your rights and avoid potential legal complications when using CBD products.