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What is the Difference Between Hemp and Marijuana/Cannabis?


Hemp and cannabis are fundamentally connected terms, and so it can be confusing to understand the real difference between the two. What makes something hemp versus cannabis? Is it a different plant or species? What are the real definitions of these two widely used terms?

The words “Hemp” and “Marijuana” are actually not technical biological classifications of plant species, but they do have a meaning when we say them, and are viewed and treated very different from a legal perspective as well.

Let’s start with the basics. The word “Cannabis” refers to a genus of flowering plants in the family Cannabaceae. The main three species within this category are Cannabis Sativa, Cannabis Indica, and Cannabis Ruderalis. Whether you are talking about hemp or marijuana, genetically speaking, you are really talking about one plant. So what is the difference then?

“Hemp” and “Marijuana” are terms that we have adopted as a society to describe the difference based around one main characteristic – the presence and amount of a specific cannabinoid, THC.


Table of Contents

What is a Cannabinoid?

THC Makes the Difference

What’s in a Word: Marijuana

Are There Any Other Differences?

In Summary


What is a Cannabinoid?

A cannabinoid is a chemical compound found in cannabis. There are at least 100 different cannabinoids that are found in varieties of the cannabis plant. The most prominent and notable are THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (Cannabidiol). We have a whole system of receptors in our bodies that interact with cannabinoids, called the Endocannabinoid System.


THC Makes the Difference

THC is the compound that causes a psychoactive effect and gets you “high”, while CBD is non-psychoactive. The main difference is that “hemp” is a cannabis plant that is grown to have less than 0.3% THC by dry weight basis. Even before this law was formed in the 2018 Farm Bill, the general distinction was that hemp is cannabis that does not have a psychoactive effect. Even though hemp cannot have above 0.3% THC, marijuana could be high in THC or THC and CBD.

The term “Cannabis” is really just the name of the plant itself, and doesn’t have anything to do with the cannabinoid potency and content. In society though, saying cannabis tends to refer to high-THC cannabis. Hemp really is cannabis also, but for the sake of distinction, “marijuana/cannabis” are used to refer to high-THC varieties, while “Hemp” is the main term to describe cannabis that is not psychoactive.


What’s in a Word: Marijuana

But let’s talk about the word “Marijuana” for a second.

Before about 1910 the term “marijuana” did not exist in America. Americans had been using the cannabis plant medicinally for years and it was referred to as just “cannabis”. Starting in 1910, many Mexicans entered the US seeking refuge from civil war, and the term became adopted in the US – but it took its roots as being linked to campaigns in the 1930’s to both demonize the plant, and tie its reputation to the Mexican immigrant society, as well as other minority groups. It is, by many, viewed as a term with derogatory roots and a word that should be phased out of our common use, replacing it with the inherently neutral term of “Cannabis”. We include both terms in this article for the purpose of effectively explaining the differences between cannabis and hemp, and touching on all terms that one might be familiar with.


Are There Any Other Differences?

While both hemp and cannabis can be utilized for their cannabinoids (THC, CBD, etc) and their therapeutic effects on the mind and body, hemp is also cultivated and used for a wider variety of applications – including clothing, building materials, paper, cooking oils, hemp seed, and even hemp plastic. When hemp is grown for its industrial uses, the growing environment will focus more on the plant fiber, and increasing the total yield, and will not focus on maximizing CBD content or on producing full flower buds.

When it comes to growing THC cannabis, the main purpose is to produce smokable flower, where the focus is on the quality of the buds, with tender care being taken to produce the highest quality plant, and cultivating strains for catered effects and characteristics.

Although hemp can be cultivated for a larger variety of uses, it can also be grown for it’s premium smokable buds. When this is the case, you will notice that physically you cannot see much of a difference between premium hemp buds meant for smoking and THC flower that you think of as “pot”. That’s because it is really the same plant, just grown differently to not have any THC.


In Summary

  • When we talk about Hemp or Cannabis/Marijuana, we are actually speaking about the same plant.
  • Hemp is cannabis that contains less than 0.3% THC by dry weight basis.
  • “Hemp” and “Marijuana” are not official taxonomy categorizations, but rather our society’s language used to distinguish cannabis that has psychoactive effects from cannabis that does not have psychoactive effects.
  • Varieties of the cannabis plant can be bred and cultivated to have varying levels of THC, CBD, or other cannabinoids, as well as other characteristics like smell, color, and bud structure.
  • Hemp has many additional uses in addition to medicinal depending on how the plant is grown and what characteristics are desired.


Interested in learning more about CBD? Check out these other articles:


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