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What’s The Difference Between Cannabis And Hemp?

cannabis hemp
Written by Steven Bridge

With the legalization of cannabis across many states in the U.S., together with the 2018 Farm Bill, allowing the industrial cultivation of hemp, there’s a lot of confusion around when it comes to the differences between the two.

Some people call it pot, some call it weed, while others call it ganja. There are probably more than two dozen nicknames for this much loved and recently legalized plant, but some people don’t even know the striking differences between cannabis and hemp. However, probably the main reason it’s so important to know the differences between the two now is because of the rising popularity and rapidly ballooning market for CBD.

CBD, short for Cannabidiol, is a fairly recently isolated compound inside both cannabis and hemp plants which many people use medicinally. Unlike THC, the compound abundant in cannabis (but not hemp), CBD carries no psychoactive or disorienting (stoned) effects. It does, however, help many people suffering from anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, and chronic pain, to name a few conditions CBD is considered effective for.

Cannabis is a flowering plant (although technically it’s a herb according to some) from the Cannabaceae family. This family consists of three main species: Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis. Due to decades of prohibition, the terminology became warped, and general terms were given to “weed” whether cannabis or hemp. As the era of legalization moves forward in leaps and bounds, patients, recreational users, doctors, and police officers are all equally confused as to which is which.

Let’s take a closer look at cannabis and hemp and understand the differences between them.

Hemp Explained

cannabis hemp

Industrial hemp growing outdoors

The reality is that hemp is essentially just a variety of the plant that grows wild, almost always outdoors. According to the strict definition, hemp is cannabis that contains around 0.3% of THC (when dried). This represents only a tiny trace amount of the THC compound that makes you feel high. As such, hemp does not get you high, and it’s not such a pleasure to smoke or vaporize when it comes to taste. It is, however, a fantastic herb from Mother Nature which contains CBD and other cannabinoids.

Hemp is usually cultivated mainly for the industrial use of its derived products. These include hemp seed oil, which is used as a food additive and is considered to be very healthy. Hemp seed oil contains a bunch of minerals and also has the perfect ratio or Omegas 3.6 and 9. Hemp has also been used for more than 10,000 years to make clothes, rope, paper, and building materials.

The main difference that needs to be made clear is that CBD products derived from hemp are legal (as long as they contain <0.3% THC). CBD products that derived from cannabis are not always legal and could contain >0.3% THC, meaning they could make you feel high or fail a drug test.

Cannabis Explained

Cannabis is also called “marijuana” – although we in the industry consider that derogatory – among several other names. Cannabis contains more than 0.3% THC in general, and usually a lot more. Cannabis is different from hemp as the mature flowers on a female plant can contain up to 25% THC. This means that smoking or ingesting it will get you high, and in some cases, very high.

cannabis hemp

Detailed view of a flowering cannabis plant – A Cola

To expand on what I mentioned above, many people feel that the word Marijuana is racist. During one mass migration of Mexicans to the US between 1910 and 1920, they brought cannabis with them to cultivate, and the word Marijuana started being used as a racist word against them. By the 1930s, US authorities had all but totally prohibited cannabis cultivation, possession and use in most states.

In short, cannabis is hemp that contains high or relatively high amounts of the THC compound. The issue, especially for law enforcement, is that it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between cannabis and hemp visually. That’s no surprise after so many decades of brutally enforced prohibition, but now it’s time for people to get reeducated about cannabis and hemp, and the what the right and wrong terms are to use for them.

Main Differences Between Cannabis and Hemp

  • Both cannabis and hemp contain high amounts of CBD in general. There are, however, many specially cultivated cannabis strains which are grown to include a lot of THC but only small amounts of CBD.
  • The Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 (also known as the Farm Bill 2018) made the cultivation of low THC hemp legal for the first time in decades. Cannabis is still classed as totally illegal on the federal level.
  • Cannabis and hemp are cultivated differently. While cannabis is usually grown indoors under a carefully controlled environment, hemp is generally grown outdoors in large fields or on farms.
  • Cannabis is used recreationally and medicinally for different things. THC is useful for pain, and other symptoms and CBD is also thought to have several health benefits (just without the high). Cannabis is grown for people who want THC in general. Hemp is grown for industrial uses more commonly.

Cannabis Vs. Hemp Derivatives

cannabis hemp

Terminology is important when it comes to cannabis and hemp based products

The issue surrounding terminology is one thing, but when it comes to the derivatives of the two, it’s even more vital to have five finger clarity. CBD used to make CBD oil tinctures, CBD vape juices and CBD topicals can be extracted from either cannabis or hemp as previously mentioned.

While the CBD itself is the same – whether from hemp or cannabis as the structure of the molecule doesn’t change – it matters in terms of legality which plant it was extracted from. The Farm Act in the states permitted hemp and derived products from it, but not for CBD that comes from cannabis. As long as the CBD from the hemp contains less than 0.3% THC, it’s legal even federally.

Other Cannabinoids

Researchers in Israel identified more than 100 different chemical compounds in the cannabis plant. While THC and CBD are the two most popular and best known, other cannabinoids such as CBG and CBN are also considered to offer therapeutic effects.

The other main factor here is something called the “Entourage Effect“. This effect is to with the intricate, symbiotic relationship that exists between the various cannabinoids as well flavonoids and terpenes also present in the plant. Some people like to benefit from the unique qualities of CBD by itself.

There are others who are more interested in what’s called “full spectrum extract,” which includes those other cannabinoids and terpenes which are reintroduced when it comes to the final part of the manufacturing process.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to the words used to describe cannabis and hemp, there remains a lot of confusion in most countries in the world. It will, no doubt, take time for people to become educated about the terminology more accurately.

Until then, people possessing hemp and not cannabis could still find themselves in a fix with the long arm of the law. Take Canada as a prime example; having fully legalized cannabis and hemp recently. The tax authorities in Canada are thrilled with legalization as it’s proved so far to be a highly lucrative source of income.

A massive chunk of that tax revenue is being plowed into educational programs on cannabis. These are intended to teach people – both young and old – that neither cannabis nor hemp are harmful plants, even if taken in high doses. It may take a generation, or even two before a proper and well-rounded understanding of the various aspects of cannabis and hemp are understood thoroughly and in a clear way.

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About the author

Steven Bridge

Having been a cannabis and CBD aficionado for many years, Steven spends much of his time opposite a shiny MacBook, researching, exploring, understanding and creating interesting reading for people interested in knowing more about CBD, Vaping, Cannabis Strains and Delivery Methods, and just about anything related to magical green herbs that help people with anything from sleepless nights to pain.