When people think of the word “cannabis,” the first thing that comes to mind for most is marijuana and its psychoactive effects. That word evokes images of teenagers sitting in a circle, passing a joint around and exchanging high thoughts that, when brought to the world of the sober, make almost no sense or have little merit. Cannabis, however, is a group of different plants, with a varying amount of effects and uses. Some can make you high as a kite, some are better suited for making things, and others can be medicinal. The most common two in the United States are hemp and cannabis.
But what are the differences? What is hemp and what is cannabis? In this article, we will explore the key differences between them and why they are distinctly different plants.
What Is Hemp?
Hemp has been used by humanity, basically since the beginning of time. It has been used to make fabric, ropes, paper, and any number of other uses. In fact, the oldest piece of human history found is a piece of hemp fabric. The point being this: hemp has a lot of uses.
Hemp seeds are often seen in granolas, animal feeds, or turned into flour for baking. The oils from the plant are used as cooking oil, in margarine, and in many other industrial uses such as varnishes, inks, and paints. The stalks of the hemp plant are turned into everything from canvas and rope to insulation and fiberboard.
Hemp also has a relatively high concentration of cannabidiol (CBD), which is the substance found in the cannabis plant that is generally regarded as a medicinal treatment. It has been used as a pain reliever, a sleep aid, and a number of other things that are generally chronic or ongoing conditions. While CBD has not been proven to cure anything, it has been proven to lessen symptoms and, as such, make the chronic conditions associated easier to cope with.
One thing hemp is not good for, however, is getting high. Hemp has an incredibly low tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content. THC is the psychoactive compound found in the cannabis plant, which means that hemp will not give you the high feeling other cannabis species with higher THC contents will. In fact, your body will process the THC in hemp faster than you can inhale it, which means that all it will do is dehydrate your body and leave you feeling worse.
What Is Marijuana?
Marijuana is another species of the cannabis plant. This one has also been used for millenia – just in different ways. Marijuana contains much higher concentrations of the psychoactive THC, which means that marijuana, unlike hemp, will get you high.
Because of this, it has seen less industrial or production use and more ceremonial or social uses. Many ancient Central American cultures used marijuana as part of their religious rituals, including both the Aztec and Inca cultures to some degree.
Marijuana also refers primarily to the “female” plant, most often after it is dried and prepared for use. This can be done through drying the plant to be smoked as is, removing its oils and waxes for use in e-cigarette pens (vaping), or using the resins within the plant as a smoking material (dabbing).
Recently, especially in the United States, there has been a large push to allow marijuana use for medical purposes. The biggest argument against this is the lack of research: there has not been enough proof of marijuana, particularly THC, being an effective medical treatment for much of anything. Though there are a couple of approved drugs on the market that contain THC, it is unknown how much the THC is actually doing in these medications. More thorough research is required before any conclusive arguments can be made in either direction.
Additionally, there was proven to be a substantial amount of fraud or fake medical diagnoses in states that did legalize medical marijuana. Anti-marijuana use parties interpreted this to mean that most of the people who want marijuana legalized for medical use just want a loophole to be able to “smoke dope within the law.” Meanwhile, pro-marijuana use parties continue to try to prove its effectiveness in medicine as a treatment and to disprove any of the negative propaganda and statistics brought to media attention regarding it. This debate is likely to continue for months, if not years, after the publication of this article. As of this writing, marijuana is still considered a Schedule I drug.
Is Hemp Marijuana?
The short answer to this question is “no.” Hemp is not marijuana, and marijuana is not hemp. However, they are two different species of the same plant, which means that they do share some similar traits both in appearance and in composition. In fact, to the untrained eye, a hemp plant would easily be mistaken for a marijuana plant (and vice versa).
Marijuana and hemp are both members of the cannabis family of plants, but they are distinct in a number of different ways.
So What’s The Difference?
Hemp and marijuana are essentially two different species of the same plant as discussed above. These differences make the biggest distinction in what they are used for, what they look like, and, equally importantly, their legality in the United States.
Physically, hemp plants are generally taller than marijuana plants, leaner and less bushy. Their leaves are also shinier when exposed to light. Marijuana plants are shorter and bushier, with duller leaves that are broader across in size.
Genealogically, hemp only falls in the cannabis sativa family whereas different strains of marijuana can fall under either cannabis sativa or cannabis indica.
It was briefly discussed before, but bears mentioning again. The chemical composition is really what sets the two apart in the hemp vs marijuana debacle, and makes the biggest distinction in why the two plants are not used for the same things or even looked at as the same.
Hemp contains roughly 0.3% or less THC in its dry weight. It also contains significantly higher amounts of CBD than most strains, which increases its medical uses but doesn’t do much to move the needle for its recreational usage.
Marijuana, on the other hand, can contain upwards of 30% THC in dry weight. This is assisted along by the selective breeding done by professional marijuana growers, who are consistently looking to maximize the THC content in their plant. This is usually driven by profit – if everyone knows your stuff will get them the highest, they’re going to come looking for your stuff and will be willing to pay more for it. Its CBD content is relatively low, which minimizes its recognized medical usage in many nations across the world.
So What’s Legal?
In the United States, another important distinction between hemp and marijuana is the legality of the plant and its byproducts. This is a complicated maze where nothing is quite clear, but there are some general keys to understanding this.
First, and the easiest one, hemp is federally legal in the United States. In 2018, the Farm Bill was passed which legalized hemp as a crop that could be produced for industrial purposes. By extension, it also legalized CBD oils and other treatments based in CBD – as long as the CBD is appropriately extracted from hemp, that is purchased from licensed hemp growers, and tested by relevant agencies and labs to confirm that the THC content is within acceptable levels.
Marijuana is where these things start to get a little sticky (no pun intended). Some states have legalized marijuana and its byproducts for medical usage, meaning that anyone with a prescription from a doctor can purchase and use marijuana from medical dispensaries. Other states have legalized it across the board for both medical and recreational use – so anyone who meets the age requirements can buy marijuana from a dispensary and their reason for purchase does not matter. At the same time, some states still have it outlawed entirely.
In the states where it is legal, some companies (particularly those with locations in states where its use is illegal) might still drug test and be able to remove any job offerings based on the results of the test. It is highly recommended to research the policies that will affect you before deciding to purchase or use marijuana.
Marijuana and hemp are two different plants from the same family. While they share many characteristics, they have enough distinctions that the two are recognized as separate plants by scientists and the public alike.
Hemp is generally regarded as the more “useful” of the two plants due to the numerous ways its seeds, leaves, oils, and fibers can be used. Marijuana contains the psychoactive materials and compounds commonly associated with cannabis, which means that it is the one people use to get high.
Hemp is also the more legal of the two in the US, which means it is generally the “safer” one to possess and use. While debates continue to rage on about marijuana, it may be some time before we see it become federally accepted.