Differences between Hemp and Cannabis Plants

The cannabis industry has exploded massively over the last few decades. 

It wasn’t long ago that cannabis was confined to the black market and the greenhouses of passionate connoisseurs. 

But through activism, the abject failure of the war on drugs, and the prospect of a huge emerging business opportunity, bit by bit the hardline stance on cannabis has been chipped away. 

The industry is now worth billions of dollars in the US alone. North of the border, Canadian cannabis cultivators are floated on the stock market and leading the worldfor large-scale production. 

And America isn’t far behind. 

The US Farm Bill brought in by the Trump administrations opened the door for widespread hemp cultivation and many farmers have dived straight in. The states that had decriminalized cannabis used to be the exception to the rule, but now that’s beginning to flip on its head. Medicinal cannabis is now legal in 32 states, and recreational use is allowed in a further 18. 

But with cannabis and hemp rapidly becoming mainstream products for businesses and consumers alike, there is still a lag while public knowledge around the plant catches up. So without further ado, let’s dive in. 

Cannabis vs Hemp – what’s the difference?

First of all – let’s get our terminology straight. There are a thousand different street names for cannabis – marijuana, weed, dagga, bud, herb, green – the list goes on and on. These differing names are the source of much confusion. 

But scientifically, cannabis and hemp are both the same things. 

They are two subspecies of the cannabis plant – part of the Cannabaceae family. And while science does not differentiate between these two strains of the plant, the government and law enforcement officers do. 

Here’s where the confusion starts. Technically cannabis can mean either marijuana or hemp. But in conversation, nine times out of ten if someone says cannabis, they mean the stuff you smoke to get high – not hemp.

For the sake of clarity, we’ll call the plant that gets you high marijauana from now on in this blog.


So you’ve probably guessed the key difference already. Marijuana gets you high, hemp does not. And this comes down to plant compounds found in cannabis plants called cannabinoids. 

Cannabinoids are what give cannabis its medicinal effects, as well as the psychoactive effects that we know as the “high.” There are over 140 different types of cannabinoids found in cannabis, and although it’s thought that together they collectively contribute to the feeling of being stoned, individually they all have different effects. 

Research is still underway into the individual cannabinoids but what we do know is that the majority of the high effect is caused by a cannabinoid known as THC. And on the medical side, it’s thought that most of the benefits come from cannabidiol, otherwise known as CBD. 

Over thousands of years, humans have been breeding cannabis to create countless different strains. They have different heights, colors, flavor profiles, and are adapted to different soil types and climates. But in the eyes of the law, the difference between hemp and marijuana is strictly down to the cannabinoid levels. 

What is hemp?

In 1979, an author called Ernest Small penned a book called “The Species Problem in Cannabis: Science and Semantics.”

From the title, it’s clear that common terminology and scientific terminology were already becoming muddled when it comes to cannabis, hemp, and marijuana. Small acknowledged the difficulty in distinguishing between the two because there’s no actual taxonomic difference. 

Because it is THC that produces the psychoactive effect which made marijuana a “drug” he decided that it should be the THC levels that separate between the benign hemp plant and the illicit and illegal cannabis plant.

He picked the arbitrary number of 0.3% THC. Anything at or below this level was classed as hemp, anything above is marijuana. 0.3% THC isn’t enough to get a person high, and so this classification remains to this day. 

The rise of the hemp industry 

So if it can’t get you high, you might be wondering why hemp is even part of this discussion, and why the humble plant is the center of a multi-billion dollar global market boom. 

The answer is two-fold and takes us all the way back to ancient China and the foothills of the Himalayas. Humans have been cultivating cannabis since before the birth of Christ. These ancient civilizations put hemp to many different uses – clothing, building, cooking, making paper, the list goes on. 

Even more surprisingly, ancient Chinese medical texts that date back thousands of years document the use of hemp to treat a range of ailments, everything from nausea to headaches to anxiety, depression, and stress. 

Fast-forward to today, and America is finally catching up on the century lost to backward laws around the cannabis plant. One of the key contributors to the turning back of these laws is the emerging scientific research into the medical benefits of cannabis. And it was CBD that was providing much of the medical relief. 

In 2018 the US Farm Bill was passed which made it legal for farmers to grow cannabis with less than 0.3% THC, which opened the floodgates for hemp cultivation. 

For farmers, hemp is somewhat of a miracle crop. The flowers are used for CBD extraction, seeds can be used to create hemp oil, the fibrous stalks can be processed and used for countless raw materials, and the remaining plant matter can be used to fuel biomass power stations. Every part of the plant yields a profit – there’s almost zero waste. 

Hemp and sustainability 

Now that growing hemp is fully legal and becoming more popular than ever with American farmers, innovators, experiments, and inventors are constantly on the lookout for new uses for the plant. 

Throughout history, the hemp plant has been used for making textiles, rope, building materials, and fuel. When it was outlawed, these industries died out and were replaced with unsustainable, dirty materials and methods of production, such as fossil fuels, plastics, and other synthetics. 

In contrast to messy extraction and chemical-heavy processing, hemp is literally a weed. It is an incredibly versatile and low-cost crop. It grows easily in a wide range of soil types and climates, requires less water and pesticides than other crops and has an almost endless list of uses. 

In a world on the brink of climate and consumption catastrophe, hemp is being championed as an alternative that has the potential to dramatically decrease human beings’ endless destruction of the planet. 

What is marijuana?

Hemp’s identical, slightly more chilled out sister, marijuana has had a very different rise to prominence. Any cannabis plant that contains more than 0.3% THC is classed as marijuana, known to many simply as cannabis. 

Just like hemp, marijuana has been crossbred and cultivated by human beings for thousands of years. Although the genetic history is unclear, it is thought that over the centuries of cross-breeding hemp, marijuana was accidentally created by humans and then selectively bred for its mind-altering purposes. 

The same Traditional Chinese Medicine texts describe the cerebral, ecstatic, and light-headed effects of smoking marijuana flowers. It seems that even at this point in history humans were already well aware of the difference between marijuana and hemp. 

Although cannabis was legal for most of the 20th century, it was still grown and smoked by millions of Americans. Many people smoke to ease anxiety and stress, others use it to help them unwind after a hard day at the office, and some use it as a way to enhance their enjoyment of social situations, films, tv, or trips to the museum. 

Even before decriminalization, cannabis pop culture references were impossible to ignore. Despite its illegal status, everyone from Snoop Dogg and Cheech and Chong was promoting marijuana use to the masses. It seems that cannabis and human beings are inseparable, regardless of what the government has to say. 

And if you dive deeper into the science of cannabis, it’s easy to see why humans can’t seem to leave cannabis alone. 

The truth is that the cannabinoids that give cannabis its power occur naturally in our bodies. Every animal on the planet has an endocannabinoid system. This system plays a vital role in many of the body’s natural functions, such as hunger, sleep, mood, fertility, hunger, digestion, and more. All animals naturally release cannabinoids into their bloodstream to help regulate these functions. 

It just so happens that when we consume cannabis, the cannabinoids in the plant cause our bodies to react in many pleasant and beneficial ways. 

The rise of the marijuana industry

The marijuana industry has taken a completely different shape to that of hemp. Although hemp plants are used to make CBD products, the majority of hemp businesses are focused on the industrial side. 

Marijuana on the other hand is a retail game. In the states that have legalized the medicinal and recreational use of marijuana, dispensaries are popping up in towns and cities like never before. This industry is providing the US economy with hundreds of thousands of jobs and millions of dollars of tax revenue

By making marijuana legal, thousands of medical patients have been given easy access to the relief they need without having to turn to the black market. And the gangs and criminal operations that previously grew and sold cannabis are having much of their power and wealth siphoned off by the legal industry. 

Marijuana and Hemp – What are the similarities?

Other than the name and a different level of THC, there isn’t all too much that separates the cannabis that gets us lit to the hemp that’s lighting up the bank balances of farmers around the country. 

If you looked at the plants as they grow, there are no physical signs that tell you how much THC is inside each bud. The leaves, stalks, flowers, even the smell are identical. 

If you go to your local dispensary and order a few grams of high THC cannabis and Hemp CBD flower that contains less than 0.3% THC, you won’t be able to tell the difference. They will look the same, feel the same, even smoke the same once you’ve rolled one up. The only difference will be the high you get from smoking marijuana.

So there we have it. Now you know the difference between hemp and cannabis. Now all that’s left is to work out which is best for you?

Do you need the relaxing, sedative, mind-expanding feeling of smoking marijuana? Or do the anxiety and pain-relieving properties of hemp and CBD suit you better? Whatever your needs, get down to your local dispensary and find out the difference for yourself!

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