All too often you hear the terms hemp and marijuana used essentially interchangeably, as if they are the same thing. It is true that hemp and marijuana are both types of cannabis plants. It is also true that to the untrained eye, the hemp and marijuana plants look almost the same.
This may cause you to ask: what is the difference between hemp and weed?
The short answer: a great deal.
There are a large number of differences between the two plants, including some pretty significant ones. The plants vary in turns of genetic makeup, chemical composition, growing conditions, uses and legality, among other differences.
These two plants had common ancestors thousands of years ago, but have been bred by humans over the centuries to create very different varieties for completely different purposes. So much so, it’s a wonder that people confuse them at all! However, historically, hemp and marijuana were considered the same and were even given the same treatment under the law. To some extent, this confusion persists today, resulting in unfortunate stigma towards hemp and its products, including CBD.
So what exactly are the differences and why is it that hemp and marijuana are not the same?
Let’s examine the facts.
Hemp and marijuana similarities
Hemp and marijuana are not the same, and these two terms should not be used interchangeability. We’ll go into detail about why not in this article. But first, let’s look at what these two plants do have in common.
Hemp in marijuana are both members of the same plant species, both being classified under the official name Cannabis sativa L. Cannabis is a genus of plants belonging to the Cannabaceae family. There are three main species in this family: Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica and Cannabis ruderalis. Cannabis indica has traditionally cultivated to make a particular type of hashish, while Cannabis ruderalis is was used in Russian and Mongolian folk medicine.
Because they are the same species, you can understand why many people may think that they are exactly the same. However, being the same species doesn’t necessarily give the plants identical properties.
Hemp and marijuana plants have a number of important differences, which we will delve into later in this article. Most notably, the two plants are genetically distinct and have very different spectrums of cannabinoid concentrations, including vastly different levels of both THC and CBD. This means that they are more or less useful for extracting the CBD compound for its health benefits. If you know anything about THC, you’ll also know that the absence of THC in hemp and the much higher levels of THC in marijuana have many impacts on their comparative uses and legality.
If you’d like to learn more about THC, check this article on the differences between CBD and THC.
To really understand the differences between hemp and marijuana, you first need to know the basics about each of these plants.
And so, without further ado:
What is hemp?
Hemp is the term that we use to describe a particular variety of the cannabis plant. Generally speaking, hemp can be used to classify all varieties of the cannabis plant that have a content of 0.3% THC or less by dry weight. These non-intoxicating varieties are grown not for psychoactive properties, but for industrial use and for its derived products. In fact, there is historical evidence that hemp has been used for clothing and other uses for more than 10,000 years. This longevity means that it may be the first crop that people ever cultivated and it has certainly been instrumental in the development of new inventions throughout history.
Today, the hemp variety of the cannabis plant is grown for food and fibre to produce clothing, rope, paper, housing material and other products. This versatile plant is also used to produce CBD products. In fact, all legal CBD products are extracted from hemp. In the UK, for a CBD product to be legally sold it must be produced via an EU-approved strain of industrial hemp. Similarly, legal CBD products in the US need to be sourced from hemp grown by a licensed farmer. This is in order to keep the THC content of CBD oil at very low concentrations, because of the minimal THC found in hemp. In fact, this is a key difference between hemp and marijuana – more on this later.
Because of its negligible THC concentrations, hemp is not psychoactive. Because of the confusion between hemp and marijuana, hemp was a controlled substance in many parts of the world during the 1970s. However, today hemp is 100 per cent legal in most countries, including the UK and the US. Another important characteristic of hemp is that is a hyper-accumulator. This means that is absorbs pretty much anything and everything from the soil it is grown in. This is a two-edged sword: on one hand, farmers need to be carefully of where they grow their hemp plants to ensure that they don’t absorb toxic chemicals. On the other hand, hemp plants can be used to clean up the soil and protect nearby crops.
What is marijuana?
Marijuana refers to cannabis varieties which are grown in a way that enhance certain cannabinoids. Specifically, they are grown to have higher concentrations of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives users their “high”. Just as hemp is used to describe cannabis varieties with less than 0.3% THC content, marijuana refers to those varieties with more than 0.3% THC by dry weight.
The origin of the word marijuana, sometimes spelled marihuana, mariguana or marihuana, is disputed. Some people believe that it originates from a native South or Central American word, possibly from the Nahuatl or Quechua ethnic groups, and from there was adopted into the Mexican Spanish language. Others think that the word comes from a per-Columbian Spanish word, possibly “mejorana” meaning referring to the herb marjoram. Still others say that it comes from the Chinese “ma ren hua” for “hemp seed flower” and that Chinese traders brought both the product and the word to the Americas.
Certainly, it first came to prominence in the US in the early decades of twentieth century and was associated with Mexican immigrants at the time and it is viewed as some people as a racist term. For this reason, some marijuana uses started to drop the term in favour of the scientific name, broadly referring to marijuana as “cannabis”. However, this has only added to the confusion over the differences between hemp and marijuana, as the two varieties of the cannabis plant.
These days marijuana plant goes by many names: weed, pot, dope, herb, grass, ganga, bud, Mary Jane and countless more. It is used by many for its psychoactive properties produced by its THC content: the “high” that it produces when smoked in a joint, in a pipe or water pipe (bong) or ingested in edibles. There is also a growing acceptance in certain parts of the world of the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, particularly in the treatment of chronic and terminal conditions.
Marijuana was banned by many US states by the 1930’s, and from there came to be illegal through the US, the UK, and many other countries throughout the world because of its psychoactive and addictive properties. Although some countries and US states have legalized its use (often under specific circumstances) in recent years, it remains illegal in the UK as well as many other places. Again, we will explore this further later in this article.
Differences between Hemp and Marijuana
Given that hemp and marijuana are varieties of the same species of plant, you could be forgiven for thinking that the differences are minimal. However, there are a number of significant differences between hemp and marijuana, from what it looks like to how it is grown and what it can be used for. One of the biggest distinctions that underpins many of the other variables is the plants’ genetic and chemical composition.
So let’s start by looking at how marijuana and hemp vary genetically and chemically:
Even though hemp and marijuana are classified as the same species, this doesn’t mean that they are identical genetically. Hemp has been cultivated by humans for thousands of years as a source of oil, food and fibres for textiles. The hemp plant we have today is the product of centuries of breeding by people to obtain the most durable and most useful plants. They selected the plants that had the strongest fibres and other desirable properties and bred these plants together, and so the hemp variety of Cannabis sativa L. gradually evolved.
At the same time, people found that other cannabis plants had stronger psychoactive properties. Likewise, they bred these plants together to develop varieties that produced a “high”, in order to use them for medical or religious purposes. Over centuries of breeding, cannabis varieties emerged with strong psychoactive properties, which are today’s marijuana plants.
In both cases, this selective breeding was a form of gradual genetic modification, in the same way that humans have done with a range of plants since cultivation began. For example, early farmers selected the apple trees with the largest fruit and bred these together to create varieties that had larger fruit as a genetic trait. Similarly, the breeding and cultivation of cannabis varieties over time resulted in plants with different genetic traits.
This difference in genetic traits is what causes the different chemical composition of these plants, which we’ll discuss next.
Chemical composition & THC level
Most notably, the marijuana varieties that have been bred for their psychoactive properties now have a much higher concentration of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the cannabinoid that produces that famous “high”. Hemp plants, which were bred for their strength, oil and food, have very minimal levels of THC.
One of the most common questions people ask about different cannabis varieties is “is there THC in hemp?” The answer is yes, but in very small amounts.
Legal hemp varieties grown today contain no more than 0.2% THC by dry weight (or 0.3% in the US). These concentrations are so low that they do not have any psychoactive or addictive properties. Marijuana plants, on the other hand, can have a THC content of up to 30%, with most plants having somewhere between five and 20% THC.
THC is one type of cannabinoid, unique compounds that are only found in cannabis plants, but it is far from the only one – there are more than 100 different cannabinoids that can be found in cannabis varieties! Both hemp and marijuana contain a large number of other cannabinoids, including CBD. For more about this legal compound and its health benefits check out our complete guide here, as well as this article on the benefits of CBD. And if you want to learn about the other cannabinoids found in cannabis plants, other than CBD and THC, have a read of our Guide to Cannabinoids.
At first glance, hemp and marijuana plants look pretty similar, with that famous fan of pointed leaves. However, on closer inspection you’ll find that there are some pretty notable differences in how these two varieties look.
Firstly, hemp and marijuana have different leaf shapes. Marijuana leaves are broader. Hemp leaves, on the other hand, are narrower or skinnier. Additionally, the flowers and flower buds on each plant look different. Marijuana plants have a tight, dense bud that resembles a nugget with tiny hairs or crystals. Hemp buds are looser and less dense.
The overall shape of the bush also looks different. In hemp, the leaves are concentrated at the top of the plant, with sparse leaves or branches underneath. The plant is relatively skinny and tall, growing up to a height of 6 metres (20 feet). Marijuana bushes are much shorter and denser, looking like a squat, fat bush from a distance.
Another key difference between hemp and weed is that they have different optimal growing environments, as well as different growing techniques. This is not surprising given their differences in genetic composition and how they were bred and cultivates differently over time. More recently, modern growing methods have developed for each plant that optimise their distinct benefits and characteristics.
Commercial marijuana is generally grown inside in order to closely monitor growing conditions. The flowers (or “buds” as they are known in the industry) are the part of the plant that is harvested for recreational use. THC is found throughout the marijuana plant, but is it most concentrated in the resin-filled glands of the flowers, called the trichomes. For this reason, commercial marijuana is grown in such a way as to maximise the THC concentration in the flowers.
This includes ensuring that the female flowers remain unfertilized by the male plant’s pollen, as they will then produce more of the THC-rich resin. The male plants are removed in commercial marijuana operations, with the female plants cultivated only. These plants are kept inside under controlled conditions to eliminate the risk of cross-fertilization or pollination and maximise THC content.
As you can see, commercial marijuana cultivation involves some pretty extreme methods in order to keep THC levels as high as possible. As this is not a concern when growing hemp, hemp plants can be grown as close as possible to natural conditions.
On a hemp farm, both female and male plants are grown, and they are usually sown very close together. This means the plants can easily pollinate each other using only the wind, which improves seed production. Planting the crops close together also helps to control weeds, reducing the need for herbicides and chemicals. Additionally, the entire hemp plant is harvested and used, unlike marijuana production that usually harvests the flowers only.
This type of farming, combined with the low water and nutrient demand of hemp plants, is ideal for organic farming and has led to the availability of organic CBD products, like our CBD oil, balm and capsules derived from organically-grown hemp.
Of course, once of the biggest differences between hemp and marijuana is the legality of these plants and their products. In the UK, it is illegal to grow, distribute or possess marijuana. Marijuana is an illegal substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971, with the maximum penalty for possession of marijuana being five years in prison, an unlimited fine or both. Marijuana is classified as a class-B drug in the UK, which means that producing and distributing marijuana can be penalised with up to 14 years in prison, and unlimited fine, or both.
Marijuana remains illegal in many other countries, although in recent years it has been legalised or decriminalised in some countries and a number of US states. This includes the Netherlands, Canada, Argentina, Belize and the US states of California, Oregon, Colorado and Illinois. The exact details of legal marijuana usage varies significantly between countries and states: for example marijuana use is permitted in some US states only for medicinal purposes and only under medical supervision.
Hemp, on the other hand, has less legal restrictions placed on it. However, this does not mean that it is completely free to use it and distribute it everywhere in the world. Hemp and/or hemp-derived products (including CBD) is prohibited in a few parts of the world, including Russia, China and the US states Idaho, Nebraska and South Dakota.
However, in most countries hemp ad its products can be produced, sold and bought legally, as long as certain conditions are met. In the UK, hemp can be legally grown and distributed for commercial purposes, but only with a license. Likewise, UK companies can produce products made from hemp as long as they have the appropriate license and as long as their products meet certain requirements.
One notable set of products that are derived from hemp are CBD oil, CBD capsules and other CBD products. In the UK, licensed companies can produce CBD as long as it is derived from an EU-approved strain of industrial hemp and contains no more than 0.2% THC.
For more on the legality of CBD in various countries and US states, see this guide.
The final distinction we should make between hemp and marijuana is how these two plants are used, and the products they are used to make. Because of their different genetic makeup and chemical composition, each of these plants has range of vastly different uses.
The most obvious use for marijuana is linked to its high THC content and associated psychoactive properties. The THC cannabinoids in weed directly bind to the CB1 and CB2 receptors in the body’s endocannabnoid system, leading to euphoria and other mind-altering effects. These effects can be achieved when the marijuana plant is smoked, inhaled or ingested. These same properties mean that marijuana can be used for pain relief from chronic medical conditions, as it is now legal to do so in a number of countries and US states.
Hemp, on the other hand, is not consumed or inhaled in the same way as marijuana. Rather, the hemp plant is used to make a large variety of products. Hemp is commonly used to make food products such as hemp flour, cooking oil, and other foods and beverages made from hemp seeds. The strength of hemp fibres means that they are also highly useful in making industrial products including paper, clothing, plastic and even building materials.
Both hemp and marijuana plants can be used to extract CBD, although in the UK, the US and many other countries, legal CBD products are derived from hemp plants only. Non-reputable CBD producers may (illegally) derive CBD from marijuana plants in order to save on production costs, which can lead to higher concentrations of THC in CBD and may even cause you to fail a drug test.
Despite common ancestors thousands of years ago, marijuana and hemp plants have been cultivated and bred by humans, genetically modifying each variety so they are now vastly different.
Even though people have grown hemp for centuries for its many useful products, in more recent history, confusion between hemp and marijuana made hemp stigmatized and even illegal. Thankfully, this is gradually changing in many parts of the world so people are able to realise the benefits of hemp products, from environmentally-friendly industrial products to improving their wellbeing with CBD oils and capsules.Don’t forget to check out our other articles and keep up with the latest CBD-related news and advice on our blog!