What’s the Difference Between Hemp and Marijuana?
Answer: Not a whole lot.
Hemp and marijuana are actually the same plant𑁋Cannabis sativa.
While variations in genetic makeup and physical characteristics occur between the two types, the only difference that plays a factor in legality is the total amount of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) present. For legal classification, any cannabis plant containing more than 0.3% THC by dry weight is labeled marijuana, any less, hemp.
THC is part of a group of 100+ compounds called cannabinoids. They were first discovered in cannabis in the 1940s, and more recently, in some flowering plant species, fungi, and mammals¹. Cannabinoids hold extensive medicinal properties, leading to a handful of FDA approved drugs that treat nausea and epileptic seizures, one of which is a cannabis-derived CBD isolate².
Terpenes and flavonoids (other compound groups in cannabis responsible for its smell and taste) are reported to have their own range of therapeutic benefits that positively contribute to those caused by cannabinoids in a theory called the Entourage Effect³.
All cannabis plants have the potential to express any and all of these compounds whether they’re grown for industrial or medicinal use. Variation occurs based on the plant’s genetic history, cultivation practices, and environment. New research suggests that genetic variation even occurs amongst cultivars (strains) bearing the same name (ex: Zkittlez)⁴.
SO HOW CAN YOU TELL THE DIFFERENCE?
Looks can be deceiving.
While you may be able to make a reasonable and correct guess based on cultivation techniques and certain plant characteristics, without a chromatography or mass spectrometry test, it’s impossible to know the exact concentration of THC in cannabis.
For industrial hemp plants, the federal government only requires tests to report THC levels (measured by the sum of %THCa/weight multiplied by 0.877 plus %THC/weight). Hemp found with greater than 0.3% THC by dry weight faces non-compliance and destruction².
Because marijuana is federally illegal, it escapes FDA regulation, meaning states with medical and recreational marijuana programs control what level of testing is required. Some states require a three panel third-party test that reports on cannabinoid concentrations, harmful contaminants (chemical, microbial and physical), and heavy metal levels. Other states require nothing beyond the THC potency test for hemp⁵.
When purchasing cannabis products, it’s important to check for an available Certificate of Analysis (COA) to ensure you’re getting a product that is safe and free of harmful contaminants.
Check out our Lab Reports page to learn more about COAs and how to read them.
Having an understanding of the unique cannabinoid and terpene profiles of the products you consume can help you choose the best product for your needs. Some patients, for example, turn to cultivars with higher amounts of CBD, a cannabinoid known to reduce the intoxicating effects of THC without hindering its other benefits⁶.
Read more about cannabinoids here.
CULTIVATION DIFFERENCES BY INTENDED USE
Cultivation practices for growing cannabis primarily vary based on the intended use of the product, as well as the growing location.
Hemp grown intentionally for its cannabinoid and terpene content is cultivated similarly to medical and recreational marijuana, with an emphasis on producing large, resinous flowers. To encourage this type of growth, cultivators will space plants farther apart, allowing for more flower-producing branches⁷.
Indoor cultivation has increased in popularity because it allows for all growth factors to be controlled; the amount of light, water, nutrients, and pests are all managed with an indoor facility.
For fiber use, tall plants with long stalks are the desired outcome. To achieve this, rows are spaced more tightly, like corn, encouraging plants to skyrocket in height as they compete for sunlight⁷.
Like all plants, sowing and harvest times, fertilizer types and amounts, and water needs will vary based on the growing zone.
WHAT IS INDUSTRIAL HEMP USED FOR?
Historically, hemp was grown as a multipurpose crop used for everything from fiber and food to medicine⁸. In the US, hemp was an important crop whose fiber was used to make canvas sails for the Mayflower and wagon coverings for the pioneers⁹.
During WWII, the government launched a “Hemp for Victory” campaign to aid war efforts. It provided hemp farming licenses and encouraged Americans to grow the crop for use in canvas, rope and uniforms¹⁰. In 1942, the Department of Agriculture released a short film titled “Hemp for Victory” that taught the basics of hemp growing, referencing Missouri, Kentucky and Wisconsin as states where Hemp was an important crop and grew easily⁹. By 1945, the campaign had resulted in the planting of over 400,000 acres of hemp and the construction of 42 hemp mills in the Midwest¹⁰.
A recent resurgence of industrial hemp growth was spurred by the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill which authorized hemp growing and removed hemp and hemp seeds from the DEA’s list of Controlled Substances¹¹.
Here are a few ways hemp is used today:
Long used for its fiber, hemp rope and fabrics have been found dating back millenia. Hemp as a fabric is extremely durable and softens with wear without sacrificing strength. It is one of the most sustainable natural fibers when grown organically¹².
Food & Supplements
Hemp seed and hemp seed oil are highly nutritious and packed with protein, omega-3s and vitamins, which help protect the brain, heart and more¹³.
Biodiesel & Building Materials
Using hemp oil, scientists have created a viable and sustainable diesel fuel that can power any conventional diesel engine¹⁴.
Hempcrete is a sustainable building material made from limestone and the inner core (hurd) of hemp stalks. The solidified material is rot-proof and fireproof and offsets its carbon footprint by sequestering CO2 as it solidifies¹⁵.
PLANT AS MEDICINE: MEDICINAL PROPERTIES OF CANNABIS
Long present in Eastern Medicine traditions, cannabis was historically used as a pain reliever, anesthetic, anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, antiparasitic, antispasmodic, and more. In India, it reached a highly revered status, labeled in the religious text, Atharva Veda, as one of 5 sacred plants¹⁶.
Cannabis wasn’t present in Western Medicine until the late 18th, early 19th century, where it soon found its way into an estimated 2000 different patent medicines¹⁷.
The first actions to regulate marijuana began in 1937 with the Marijuana Tax Act. Laws and regulations escalated until the peak in 1970 with the passage of the Controlled Substances Act. After thousands of years of recorded medicinal and industrial use, all cannabis, including hemp, was classified by the US Government as a Schedule 1 Drug with high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use.
15 years later, the FDA approved the first synthetic THC medication𑁋Dronabinol¹⁸𑁋while cannabis stayed on the Schedule 1 list.
Originally prescribed only for cancer patients to ease nausea from chemotherapy, uses for Dronabinol eventually expanded to treat anorexia related to AIDS and as a substitute for opioids after surgery to relieve pain. To date, the FDA has approved three cannabis-related drugs and one cannabis-derived drug².
Today, 36 states have passed initiatives allowing for the medical use of marijuana, of which, 18 allow for adult recreational use¹⁹. Medical and recreational programs vary by state, each having different regulations on the allowance of personal-use cultivation, dispensaries, possession limits, and whether or not they accept patients from other states.
Regardless of its classification, it’s clear that cannabis has the ability to provide for us as only The Giving Tree could, relinquishing every single part of itself to clothe, feed, and nurture us.
Looking towards a promising future, cannabis as a sustainable and multipurpose crop seems like a path that’s both cleaner and greener.
- Phytocannabinoids: Origins and Biosynthesis: Trends in Plant Science
- FDA and Cannabis: Research and Drug Approval Process | FDA
- Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects
- Large-scale whole-genome resequencing unravels the domestication history of Cannabis sativa
- Third Party Cannabis Testing Regulations – Modern Canna Science
- A tale of two cannabinoids: The therapeutic rationale for combining tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol
- The Ultimate Guide to Growing Hemp
- Industrial Hemp Program Frequently Asked Questions
- Hemp For Victory (1942)
- Hemp | Materials Index
- Hempcrete Resources
- History of cannabis as a medicine: a review
- History of medical cannabis - Wikipedia
- Development of Cannabinoid Drugs - Marijuana and Medicine - NCBI Bookshelf
- State Medical Marijuana Laws