According to the National Institute of Health, about a third of Americans don’t know the difference between hemp and cannabis, or as it’s also sometimes called “marijuana.”
Acknowledging the confusion surrounding these terms, we’re here to help you understand the intricate realm of hemp and cannabis: exploring their similarities, differences, histories, properties, and the evolving legal landscapes.
In order to understand the difference between cannabis and hemp, let’s first break down the meaning of each.
What Is Hemp?
Hemp refers to a variety of the Cannabis sativa plant that is generally non-intoxicating. Hemp is defined by United States federal law as having a tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content of less than 0.3% by its dry weight. So, what does this mean?
THC is the primary psychoactive ingredient in cannabis–the cannabinoid responsible for the “high” you feel after consuming cannabis. Since it’s low in THC, hemp doesn’t produce the same intoxication marijuana does.
Hemp typically contains higher proportions of cannabidiol (CBD) as compared with cannabis, and CBD is the most abundant non-intoxicating cannabinoid found in hemp. CBD is thought to be a promising tool for managing a wide variety of physical and mental health concerns.
Hemp-derived CBD is now used in the majority of CBD products available today, making it the perfect option for those looking to reap the medicinal benefits of these plants without having to worry about getting high.
Hemp has been utilized by humans for thousands of years. It is also an extremely versatile plant and is used to make a wide variety of products, such as:
- Building materials
- Animal bedding
- Food and beverages
What Is Cannabis?
These days, you may see the words “cannabis” and “marijuana” used interchangeably, but these THC-rich plants are also known by various other popular slang terms such as bud or weed. Regardless of the name, the most abundant cannabinoid in most cannabis strains is THC, and these plants are known for their intoxicating properties.
This highlights the biggest difference between cannabis versus hemp: THC content. If a cannabis plant exceeds 0.3% THC by dry weight, it’s considered cannabis rather than hemp.
Currently, cannabis is still federally illegal in the US. Cannabis legalization is unfolding on a state-by-state basis, with the majority of states having passed some form of medical or adult-use legalization.
What Is Marijuana?
Marijuana is an older term used to refer to cannabis. However, it’s neither the scientific nor preferred term for the plant because of the racial undertones it holds.
The term was historically used by the US government during early 20th-century prohibition to fuel anti-cannabis propaganda, ultimately becoming associated with its criminalization. Anti-drug campaigns blamed crime and violence on ‘marihuana’ and the marginalized groups who used it.
Because of its controversial history, the term is not as commonly used today.
Cannabis vs Hemp: How Are They the Same?
In order to understand the nuanced differences between cannabis and hemp, it’s essential to recognize how they are the same.
Cannabis and hemp are actually quite similar botanically, belonging to the same plant family: Cannabis sativa L. When taking a look at the physical hemp and cannabis plants, they feature subtle differences that can be tough to distinguish at first glance. But perhaps the most important way cannabis and hemp plants are the same is in their production of resin glands, known as trichomes, that house each plant’s unique spectrum of “active ingredients.”
These trichomes produce cannabinoids such as THC and CBD, aromatic compounds known as terpenes, as well as flavonoids and other compounds that contribute to the plant’s scent, flavor, color, and potential therapeutic effects. Together, these chemical compounds are responsible for the effects and therapeutic benefits you experience when you consume cannabis or hemp.
Cannabis vs Hemp: How Are They Different?
While hemp and cannabis are part of the same plant family, there are some important distinctions between them.
As we’ve covered, cannabinoids like THC and CBD are the chemical compounds responsible for the variety of psychoactive effects and therapeutic benefits we get from hemp and cannabis plants.
The primary difference between cannabis and hemp is their cannabinoid profiles. Hemp plants typically produce higher proportions of CBD and lower proportions of THC, while cannabis typically produces higher proportions of THC and lower proportions of CBD. With that said, thanks to modern breeding, you can find cannabis cultivars (or strains) that contain more balanced levels of THC and CBD, too. By law, cannabis contains 0.3% THC or more by dry weight, and hemp contains less than 0.3% THC by dry weight.
Hemp Plant vs Marijuana Plant: Physical Differences
Hemp plants are typically tall and slim with fewer branches, while cannabis plants tend to be shorter, bushier, and have broader leaves. Unless you’re a cannabis or hemp grower, the physical differences might go unnoticed, so the primary distinction is based primarily on their THC content.
Cultivation and Usage
Historically, hemp has been commonly grown for industrial and commercial purposes, such as fiber, seed, and oil production. Since hemp cultivation became legal with the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, US hemp farmers are now growing high-quality hemp for the production of CBD-rich flower, tinctures, topicals, gummies, and more.
Cannabis is generally cultivated for medicinal, recreational, or therapeutic uses due to its higher THC content. Like hemp, you can access cannabis-derived, THC-rich flower, tinctures, topicals, gummies, and other products in states where cannabis is legal for medical and/or adult use.
Both hemp and cannabis have a long history of human use, dating back thousands of years.
Hemp has been utilized for textiles, paper, and industrial applications, while cannabis has been historically used for medicinal and ritualistic purposes. In the 18th century, hemp became a primary crop across the Americas after making its way over from other parts of the world.
Despite being a common medicine found on drugstore shelves for years beforehand, anti-drug and anti-cannabis cannabis sentiment began to rise in the early 20th century, with propaganda like “Reefer Madness” and other campaigns that painted “marijuana” out to be a symbol of violence and hysteria.
All forms of marijuana were outlawed at the federal level in 1937 with the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act. By the time the War on Drugs began and the Controlled Substances Act was introduced in 1970, hemp became grouped with its cannabis cousin and was also effectively prohibited. The War on Drugs continued to heavily stigmatize cannabis, leading to severe legal consequences and contributing to its classification as a Schedule I substance.
It wasn’t until the passage of the Farm Bill in 2018 that hemp gained its own legal definition apart from cannabis and was made legal for cultivation and processing in the US. Cannabis, on the other hand, remains illegal at the federal level, but in 1996, California became the first state to legalize it for medicinal use. Since then, and despite the complications federal prohibition imposes, there has been a renaissance in scientific research for its medical use, and most states have legalized cannabis for medical and/or personal use. Globally, cannabis legalization has also continued to grow.
As covered, a pivotal distinction between hemp and cannabis lies in their legal status. Hemp is currently legal federally. However, there are a few states that restrict or otherwise regulate hemp-derived CBD products.
Federally, cannabis remains a Schedule I substance—meaning it’s considered a substance with a high potential for abuse and no medical benefit—and it is currently more strictly classified than narcotics such as cocaine, fentanyl, and methamphetamines. Cannabis is legal for medicinal or adult use in most states.
In 2022, the Biden administration called for a review of the Schedule I classification. Since then, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has asked the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to ease restrictions on cannabis and consider its reclassification.
What Are the Benefits And Uses Of THC?
THC-rich cannabis plants have been used medicinally for thousands of years, and cannabis-based medicines were commonly available in pharmacies in the US until its prohibition in 1937. One of the many reasons states continue to legalize cannabis is because THC has been shown to have a number of potential therapeutic effects, such as:
- Pain relief
- Anti-inflammatory properties
- Appetite stimulation
- Anti-nausea properties
- Muscle spasm relief
- Symptoms of PTSD
These, among other therapeutic benefits being currently researched, provide relief for many patients who have hard-to-manage or treat symptoms. Medical research into the uses for THC continues, and this research is expected to expand if cannabis is reclassified out of Schedule I.
What Are the Differences Between Cannabis- vs. Hemp-Derived Products?
Hemp-derived CBD products are high in CBD and low in THC. Hemp-derived products, like CBD oil, are federally legal and widely available. Hemp is also generally legal for industrial use in many other countries. However, hemp-derived CBD products are not currently regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This means that the quality and safety of these products varies widely.
Cannabis-derived products sold in licensed dispensaries are subject to stricter state-level regulations. These products undergo third-party testing for safety and purity, and like good hemp-derived CBD products, these lab test results (often referred to as Certificates of Analysis, or COAs) are made available to consumers. When it comes to cannabinoids in cannabis-derived products, the amounts of THC and CBD can vary widely depending on the plant and the extraction or processing methods used. You can find high-THC products, balanced THC: CBD products, and high-CBD products with lower levels of THC.
Shop Quality Cannabis with Mission
We hope this guide to the major differences between cannabis and hemp has been helpful. While hemp and cannabis have some fundamental differences, they both belong to a plant family that our species has been making use of for thousands of years, and here at Mission, we’re excited to see where the journey to understand how these plants support our health and well-being will take us!
With a family of dispensaries spanning Illinois and Massachusetts, Mission is your trusted source for both high- and low-THC products, featuring an exciting assortment of cannabis to choose from. Find a location near you to start shopping today!