What's the Difference Between Marijuana and Hemp?

Cannabis: The oldest, most controversial crop on the planet

Cannabis is one of the oldest domesticated plants on the planet. But in the last century, the powers that be turned the idea of cultivating the crop on its head, shrouding it with myths – so much so that the true identity of the plant was nearly lost with time.

The spread of misinformation in one key area muddied the waters significantly – that key area being the difference in the words cannabis, hemp, and marijuana.

A lot of people have been led to believe that these three words are interchangeable. However, they are in fact markedly different from each other in various respects, from their appearance to their chemical profile, applicability, and legality.



The
relationship between Cannabis, Hemp and Marijuana

The first thing you need to know about the three terms is that they're not one and the same thing. While both hemp and marijuana are members of the Sativa class of the Cannabis family, the properties of marijuana also qualify it as a member of the Indica class – the other of the two main classes of Cannabis. Herein lies the source of the misinformation, because hemp is lumped into a class featuring marijuana, although its properties do not overlap into two different classes like those of marijuana.


The botanical difference between cannabis, marijuana and hemp. Source

Hemp and Marijuana do share certain qualities. However, the difference in their biological structure nearly eclipses whatever similarities they share.



The
physical differences between hemp and marijuana

The differences between the appearances of hemp and marijuana might seem hidden from plain sight. But to a trained eye, the physical differences are stark.

Marijuana features stout, bushy stalks with broad leaves and thick buds, whereas hemp comes with slimmer, taller stalks covered in thinner leaves, with the leaves concentrated the most around the top and scantier around the bottom of the stalk.

This physical difference becomes even more glaring when the two plants are examined side by side.



The chemical difference

Cannabis is replete with a vast range of chemicals. However, the major difference between the chemical profile of hemp and marijuana lies in the quantities of the two most abundant cannabis compounds –   THC and CBD – available in each plant.


While hemp and marijuana are both cannabis plats, they are quite different. Source

While THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (Cannabidiol) have both been shown to exhibit a myriad of medicinal properties, THC intoxicates; CBD does not. And while hemp contains just trace amounts of THC (0.3% or less) and relatively smaller amounts of CBD, marijuana is replete with both compounds, featuring between 15 percent to 40 percent THC.

As such, hemp is more befitting for industrial purposes while marijuana is best-suited to human consumption.



How
both physical and chemical differences dictate usages of hemp and marijuana?

Due to its relatively richer psychoactive contents, marijuana is cultivated for medicinal and recreational purposes. Marijuana is usually smoked, inhaled, or ingested.

Hemp, on the other hand, is usually grown for the production of industrial materials, including building materials, paper, clothing, bio-fuels, and hundreds of other basic resources. Since it contains only trace amounts of THC, it has become the legally preferred source of CBD, the other dominant compound in the cannabis plant that's fast-becoming in-demand due to its impressive medicinal properties.



How the distinction between hemp and marijuana became practically eroded?

If it took you a few minutes to read this article down to this point in order to learn about the difference between hemp and marijuana, you’re not alone. However, it seems most policymakers in the past century have lacked such patience. 

In the 1970s, President of the United States, Richard Nixon, instituted the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), ushering in the “War on Drugs” era. However, one clear sign that this move was grossly miscalculated was the inclusion of hemp among Schedule I drugs, which identifies the crop as one with zero medical or industrial benefits and with a high potential for abuse.

But as we've seen, hemp hardly harbors any amounts of the psychoactive THC compounds. The Ministry of Hemp, a prominent pro-hemp website, puts things into a clearer perspective with one simple, factual sentence: “Your lungs will fail before your brain attains any high from smoking industrial hemp”.

However, in December 2018, the United States finally came to terms with their policy blunders and made amends with the passage of a federal Farm Bill that declassified hemp as a controlled substance.



Final words

Cannabis, marijuana, and hemp are quite different. Both marijuana and hemp are cannabis species, but they bare stark differences in their chemical and physical structures, as well as their effects and uses. Where marijuana has high concentrations of THC, hemp barely has any amount of the same. Thus, marijuana gets you “high”; hemp does not. While they both contain CBD, hemp’s lack of THC sees it being used for industrial purposes as opposed to marijuana’s recreational purposes. However, both cannabis plants contain CBD, making them both appropriate for some medical applications.