The Difference Between Hemp and Marijuana

Cannabis Sativa L is believed to be one of the oldest cultivated crops in history. This plant species is a long-running favorite and has been planted and harvested by various cultures around the world for centuries. Of the Cannabis plant species, there are several subspecies that fall underneath it. Two of the most famous are hemp and marijuana.

There are some differences between the two, but they’re still the same plant. So, what gives?

David P. West holds a Ph.D. in Plant Breeding from the University of Minnesota. Since 1993, he’s been one of the top advisors in the hemp industry. In his paper Hemp and Marijuana: Myths and Realities, West asks the question:

“Has there ever been a plant so fraught with confusion and controversy?”

Hemp vs. Marijuana: What’s the Difference?

What is the difference between hemp and marijuana, really? Broken down simply, it sounds something like this:

Sack made out of hempHemp refers to the variety that has been bred specifically to produce fiber used in clothing and other materials, oils, lotions, and seeds and other foods. Hemp contains very low levels of the psychoactive compound THC.

Marijuana is the variety of cannabis sativa that has been bred specifically for its medical or psychoactive effects. This is the cannabis plant that produces those beautiful flowers laden with sticky, dense buds. Where hemp is used for fuel and fiber, marijuana is used to get you high.

The Controversy of Hemp and Marijuana

Ed Rosenthal, cannabis activist and author of The Marijuana Grower’s Bible, explains it like this:

“The [legal] definition of hemp is a plant that has low THC and perhaps a higher level of CBD. There are different varieties of the same species. A hemp plant grown for seed isn’t necessarily the best plant for fiber.”

West explains that botanically, the genus Cannabis is made up of several variants. He notes the long-standing debate about hemp and marijuana and “how to classify these variants into species.”

Anslinger is the reason cannabis is illegalCannabis is the only plant genus that contains the unique class of molecular compounds called cannabinoids,” West explains. “Many cannabinoids have been identified, but two preponderate: THC, which is the psychoactive ingredient of Cannabis, and CBD, which is an anti-psychoactive ingredient. One type of cannabis is high in the psychoactive cannabinoid THC, and low in the anti-psychoactive cannabinoid CBD. This type is popularly known as marijuana. Another type is high in CBD and low in THC. Variants of this kind are called industrial hemp.”

In 1971, Canadian research scientist Ernest Small published the book The Species Problem in Cannabis. Although Small recognized there wasn’t a natural point where the cannabinoid content could be used to differentiate hemp and marijuana, he drew a random number regarding different Cannabis varieties. From then on, 0.3% THC became the magic number that separated hemp and marijuana.

Dana Larsen is one of Canada’s most respected and well-known advocates for cannabis reform. In his book, Cannabis in Canada: An Illustrated History, Larsen explores this magic number separating hemp and marijuana.

“Small’s arbitrary 0.3 percent THC limit has become standard around the world as the official limit for legal hemp,” writes Larsen. “Small clearly noted that among the hundreds of strains he experimented with, ‘plants cultivated for fibre [sic], oil and birdseed frequently had moderate or high amounts of THC’… thus the worldwide 0.3 percent THC standard divider between marijuana and hemp is not based on which strains have the most agricultural benefit, nor is it based on an analysis of the THC level required for psychoactivity. It’s based on an arbitrary decision of a Canadian scientist growing cannabis in Ottawa.”

While there is a bit of controversy about what constitutes as hemp and what constitutes as marijuana (both legally and scientifically), one thing is clear. They’re both from the same species of plant, Cannabis Sativa L. There just so happens to be several variants of the single species of Cannabis.

When distinguishing between the two, the following differences are basically universal in determining whether a Cannabis plant is hemp or marijuana.

3 Major Differences Between Hemp and Marijuana

Genetics

Hemp and marijuana are both from the plant species Cannabis sativa L. They contain a different genetic makeup however that makes them a “different version” of the same plant.

In early history, cannabis was cultivated to make food, oils, and fibers such as rope and fabric. Throughout the years, these plants were bred with other plants with similar characteristics, resulting what we now refer to as hemp.

Then there were other similar plants that were recognized for their psychoactive properties. These plants were used mainly for medical and spiritual or religious purposes, manipulated and bred throughout time to come to what we now refer to as marijuana.

Same plant. Different genetics. One gets you high. One is used for fuel and fiber.

THC/CBD Content

zOne of the biggest factors that separate hemp from marijuana is the amount of THC the plant contains. Where marijuana typically contains copious amounts of THC (5-20% on average), hemp contains almost none. That magic number of 0.3% THC is a general guideline as to what constitutes a plant as hemp.

Hemp and marijuana also both contain the cannabinoid CBD. And while hemp plants generally contain higher amounts of CBD, hemp isn’t considered a medicinal plant like marijuana. The CBD found in hemp isn’t medically beneficial like the CBD found in high-CBD cannabis strains. According to one report from Project CBD, “We believe that industrial hemp is not an optimal source of CBD.”

How It’s Grown

There is a huge difference in the way hemp and marijuana are grown. Yes, both fall under the species of Cannabis sativa, but the way they are grown and the end result come harvest are worlds apart.

Marijuana is grown to produce flower, which are those beautiful, sticky buds that are famous for getting you high. Female plants are preferred, as they are the species that produces these flowers laden with THC. Marijuana is grown indoors and out, always with the goal of producing budding flowers for recreational or medical consumption.

Hemp, on the other hand, is typically male and don’t produce any flowers during their life cycle. It is most often grown outdoors in large fields where it grows basically like a weed. With hemp, it’s all about large yields where tall, rapidly growing plants are harvested for their fiber, not their flower.

Jen Keehn

About the author: Jen Keehn is a Colorado-based writer focused on inspiring others to live their best lives. She writes regularly about recreational and medical cannabis, holistic health, addiction, and psychedelic therapy.