Hemp vs Marijuana

By: Elena Schmidt October 30, 2019 • 6 minutes

Unless you have superhuman sight and a mutant sense of smell, there’s almost no way for you to know the difference between hemp and marijuana flowers. Their differences lie in THC content, how they are grown, and what they are used for, but scientifically speaking hemp and marijuana are the same exact plant. So why do we use two names to describe the same species? It turns out people care quite a bit about THC and its cognitive effects. These terms were created to separate the psychoactive THC-rich variety — marijuana — from the nearly THC-free kind — hemp

Until last year, hemp and marijuana were both federally illegal. But as of the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp was removed from its Schedule I drug status and is now legal to buy and sell across the country. With the passage of the Farm Bill, the difference between hemp and marijuana is now a matter of legal status. Knowing the difference is extremely important to protect your rights as a consumer and to become more educated about the uses and benefits of both varieties. 

Misconception: Hemp & Marijuana are Different Species

You may have thought hemp and marijuana are two different species, but you would be mistaken. Let’s get technical:

Cannabis is the genus of plants that belong to the Cannabacaeae family. Within that family, there is the Cannabis Sativa species as well as Cannabis Indica and Cannabis Ruderalis. Cannabis species are different in appearance, taxonomical structure, and physiological effect, but those differences have nothing to do with the THC content. For instance, a Cannabis Sativa plant is one species that can be bred as either hemp or marijuana depending on its level of THC. Learn more about the cannabis species here.

Misconception: CBD Makes a Difference

You may have thought that CBD content also differentiates hemp from marijuana. This is a common misconception due to the fact that CBD is sold on every store shelf and is seemingly legal. But as it turns out, CBD has nothing to do with the difference between these plants. Hemp and marijuana plants can both contain high or low levels of CBD as part of their spectrum of cannabinoids. Additionally, the CBD molecule that is derived from each plant is exactly the same in terms of pharmacology and effects, according to an article by Project CBD.

Truth: It’s All About the THC

According to the new legal definition, hemp is the term used to classify Cannabis varieties that contain 0.3% or less of THC (by dry weight). Marijuana is the term to classify Cannabis that contains up to 30% THC. Wondering where the 0.3% figure came from? It originated from a 1976 taxonomic report by Canadian plant scientists who had no intention of creating legal demarcation.

Truth: Cultivation Methods are Usually Different

For years before hemp was illegal, the plant was grown industrially for fiber or as a seed crop for various nutritional purposes. When grown for fiber, hemp plants are harvested close together in dense stands to maximize stalk production. When grown for seeds, the plants are grown farther apart to encourage branching. For these purposes, hemp is generally grown outdoors to promote maximum output.

More recently, hemp has been widely cultivated for CBD, which is extracted from the plant’s flowers. Hemp grown for CBD typically uses the female plants to maximize CBD levels while decreasing seed production. The process is remarkably similar to marijuana except that growers must ensure the plant yields no more than 0.3% THC. 

Marijuana varieties are grown specifically for leaves, resin and flower buds, which contain THC (along with 100+ additional cannabinoids). To optimize the breed for desired THC content along with a full spectrum of cannabinoids, growers must pay careful attention to the environment. Marijuana plants are selectively bred, usually indoors where conditions such as light and temperature can be monitored. They are generally grown under low-density conditions to maximize branching.

Truth: Hemp & Marijuana are Used for Different Reasons

Hemp and marijuana are used for a variety of reasons that pertain to their overall composition. For example, marijuana’s THC content makes it a powerful psychoactive agent that directly binds with chemical receptors in your brain to induce the high feeling. But marijuana isn’t just a recreational mind-altering drug—it’s also a medicine. Several studies indicate that marijuana’s full spectrum of compounds including THC and CBD produce therapeutic effects that may relieve conditions like pain and sleeplessness. 

In comparison, hemp will not get you high, but it can be used therapeutically and industrially. Hemp stalks are harvested to produce a range of products such as paper, clothing, building materials, and plastic. Additionally, hemp seeds can be used to produce oils for cooking or cosmetics, or flour for baking. Finally, hemp flower can be manipulated to extract CBD for infused oils, edibles, topicals and more. In these cases, CBD may be consumed for its soothing and anti-inflammatory benefits.

Misconception: Since Hemp is Legal, So is CBD

Under the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp and hemp-derived products are legal across the country. However, that does not mean CBD is also legal. Under the Controlled Substances Act, CBD is still a Schedule I prohibited drug if it is extracted from marijuana—the cannabis variety that contains more than 0.3% THC. So even if the CBD product contains 0% THC, it is still illegal to consume, if marijuana-derived.

Bottom Line: Hemp vs Marijuana

If you are an adult consumer or medical patient, the most important differences to remember are the variation in THC content and legal status. If you’re not looking to get stoned and you want to abide by federal law, you’ll choose hemp. That said, the federal designation may not matter if you live in a state where medical and/or adult marijuana is legal. In these states, cannabis is simply cannabis. Rather than delineating hemp vs marijuana, cannabis may be named by the strain and its related cannabinoid composition. If you live in one of these states, you may want to test a wide range of strains in the cannabis species to find one that you like the best. The more you know and the more you test, the better equipped you’ll be to make informed decisions about what works best for your body and needs.

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