Hemp vs. Marijuana - What is the difference?

How to Know the Difference Between Hemp and Marijuana

Despite being used for thousands of years, it can easily be argued that cannabis is one of the most misunderstood plants on the planet.  One of the largest points of confusion is the difference between marjiuana and hemp. These common terms for two different types of cannabis are often wrongly used interchangeably. This leads to confusion, misunderstanding, and many questions, such as, “Is marjiuna and hemp the same thing?”  “Can you get high from hemp?” “Is hemp illegal?”, and “What is the difference between hemp and marijuana?” Hemp vs. Marijuana

It is often assumed that because marijuana and hemp may look very similar that they are the same plant. Let’s be very clear. Marijuana and hemp are not the same plant. There is actually significant differences between the two. Hemp and marijuana are “cousins” or variants of the cannabis plant, but are genetically different and have different characteristics and uses.  Hemp is produced for fiber, fuel, and CBD oil, while marijuana is used for recreational or medical consumption. 

Similarly, field corn and sweet corn are variants of the corn plant, but they are genetically different and are used in different ways. Field corn is used for animal feed and ethanol, while sweet corn is used for human consumption.  There is a tremendous difference in genetics and usage when it comes to both corn and cannabis. 

Much of the confusion comes from the fact that hemp and marijuana both come from the cannabis family and are variants of the cannabis sativa plant. But, it is extremely important to understand the significant differences between these two types of cannabis, because these differences have a substantial impact on the plant’s cultivation, usage, and legality.

What is Cannabis?

Like animals, plants are categorized into various groups based on their attributes and characteristics. Cannabis is a category or genus of flowering plants in the Cannabaceae family. In 1753, Linnaeus, the father of plant taxonomy, officially designated the Cannabis genus of plants. Within the Cannabis genus there are three primary species Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis.

Hemp and marijuana are both different variants of the Cannabis sativa species.  Scientists have long determined that although marjiuana and hemp are both from the same genus and species, they are different varieties, have different genetics, are used for different purposes, and are not the same plant.

 In 1918 Dr. Andrew Wright, an agronomist with the University of Wisconsin's Agriculture Experiment Station and an early pioneer in the Wisconsin hemp industry wrote, "There are three fairly distinct types of hemp: that grown for fiber, that for birdseed and oil, and that for drugs." A 1976 study published by the International Association of Plant Taxonomy concluded “both hemp varieties and marijuana varieties are of the same genus, Cannabis, and the same species, Cannabis Sativa. Further, there are countless varieties that fall into further classifications within the species Cannabis Sativa.”

Marijuana and hemp are both a type of cannabis. They look similar and share many characteristics, but it is clear that they are genetically different plants. The genetic differences between the two plants impact the THC content, cultivation, usage, and ultimately the legality of the plant and its products.  

The THC Difference

One of the main differences between hemp and marjiunana is the THC content. The cannabis plant produces cannabinoids, a variety of chemical compounds that directly impact the Endocannabinoid system found in humans. The most well known cannabinoids are THC and CBD.

THC or Tetrahydrocannabinol is the psychoactive compound that is found in most cannabis. THC is the cannabinoid that produces the mind altering euphoric state or high that is associated with marjiuana. Marijuana is typically 5-30% THC with the preferred strains and concentrations being over 10% THC. 

Industrial hemp on the other hand is non-psychoactive and can not produce the high that comes from marjiuana. In 1971, a Canadian researcher named Ernest Small, defined hemp as cannabis that contains less than 0.3% THC. Small published his definition of hemp in his book, The Species Problem in Cannabis and it quickly became the international standard for the official legal THC limit. The United States has legally adopted this standard and all industrial hemp must contain less than 0.3% THC.

This trace amount of THC has no intoxicating effect on a person. It is similar to the trace amounts of alcohol found in non-alcoholic beer, or the trace amounts of psychoactive chemicals found in nutmeg. It is impossible to get high from the 0.3% THC found in hemp. 

While the amount of THC is very low in industrial hemp, the other well known cannabinoid, CBD or cannabidiol is  found in much higher concentrations. Marjiuna plants produce high THC and low CBD while industrial hemp is opposite. Hemp produces high CBD and very low (0.3%) THC. This is an important distinction and helps further understand and separate the two plants. 

CBD is harvested from the industrial hemp plant and is used in CBD oils, creams, and tinctures for medical purposes. Many people and research studies have used CBD for pain, inflammation, anxiety, sleep issues, mood disorders, etc. Studies have also found that hemp derived CBD combats and reduces the psychoactive effects of THC found in marijuana. This has led many experts to call hemp the “antimarjuana” plant. 

The Cultivation Difference

According to Dan Sutton of Tantulus Labs, a Canadian company that specializes in cannabis cultivation technology, “the core agricultural differences between medical cannabis and hemp are largely in their genetic parentage and cultivation environment.” 

Over time the different types or species of cannabis have been specifically and selectively bred to ensure the desired characteristics of the hemp or marijuana plant. Centuries ago, tall, ruddy, and strong cannabis plants were used for fiber,  textiles, and food. These plants were bred with other plants that offered similar characteristics and eventually became what is now known as hemp. In a similar way, people thousands of years ago discovered the psychoactive and euphoric effects in some cannabis plants and used it for medicinal and religious purposes. These cannabis plants were bred with other similar plants and eventually became what we know as marijuana.

These two types of cannabis, marjiuana and hemp,  require very different grow operations, environments, and cultivation techniques. These cultivation differences further delineate between the two different types of cannabis. 

Medical and recreational marijuana is grown in controlled environments that help ensure the best and largest flowering bud. Male plants are immediately eliminated since only female plants produce the desired flower. These female plants are most often grown in greenhouses that have controlled lighting, humidity, and temperature. Growers must pay close attention to the carbon dioxide and oxygen levels as well. Different growing techniques such as cloning, hydroponics, aquaponics, etc are also commonly used.    

Although some hemp derived CBD producers grow their female hemp plants in controlled greenhouses using a similar cultivation environment to marjiuana, industrial hemp grown for fiber, fuel, and seed is cultivated outdoors. Hemp seeds are sown into large fields much like wheat or other grain crops. Male and female hemp plants grow close together and naturally pollentiate. These plants grow tall and sturdy and are harvested for the entire plant including the stalk, seeds, leaves, and buds. 

The Usage Difference

Another major distinction between marijuana and industrial hemp is the use of each plant. 

Experts estimate that the industrial hemp plant has over 50,000 different uses! The entire plant is used for a wide variety of products. The stalk is utilized for fiber, textiles, rope, pet products, etc. This hemp biomass is also used for fuel and many different types of building materials. The hemp seed is highly nutritious and found in many human and animal food products. The bud and flower from the hemp plant is processed for CBD oil and hemp oil and can be found in many medicinal supplements and cosmetic products. With modern technology and full plant utilization many scientists believe that there could be over 100,000 uses for the hemp plant. 

Marijuana is used for medical and recreational purposes. Many people use medical marijuana in addition to, or instead of, prescription drugs such as opioids, psychiatric drugs, and sleeping aids. Other people use marijuana for recreational purposes much like tobacco or alcohol. 

Finally, the other important distinction between marijuana and hemp is the legal status of these two types of cannabis. Due to the difference in THC levels, marijuana and hemp are regulated very differently by the law. 

The Legality Difference

In 1970 cannabis was regulated as Schedule 1 illegal substance under the Controlled Substance Act. There was no distinction made between industrial hemp and marijuana, therefore both types of cannabis became illegal. For decades farmers, activists, and legislators have worked to show why this lack of distinction between hemp and marijuana was unjustified and to change the legal status of hemp.  

The 2014 Farm Bill allowed states and universities to participate in industrial hemp pilot and research programs. Four years later the 2018 Farm Bill, or The Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 was signed into law and officially legalized hemp and hemp-derived products that contain less than 0.3% THC. The 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp as an illegal substance and legalized the transportation of hemp and hemp products across state and tribal lines. Industrial hemp is now federally legal,  and 47 out of 50 states have already updated their state statutes and regulations in the first half of 2019 to align with the federal laws. 

Over the past decade there has been a movement to legalize and decriminalize marijuana as well.  While 33 states currently have legalized medical marijuana and 10 states have legalized adult use/recreational marijuana, marijuana is still a Schedule 1 controlled substance and federally illegal. There is little doubt that the legalization of medical and adult use marijuana will continue to be an important issue on the state and federal level.


Although industrial hemp and marijuana look similar and are both varieties of the cannabis sativa plant, scientists, farmers, and government officials all recognize that they are distinct and different plants. Hemp and marjiuana are genetically different, have different chemical (including THC and CBD) makeup, are cultivated in different ways, and are used for vastly different purposes. These distinctions delineate the difference between federally legal hemp and federally illegal marijuana. 

For far too long the terms hemp and marijuana have been used interchangeably and this has caused many people to wrongly believe they are the same plant. It is also important to educate the public about the difference between marijuana and hemp in order to combat the misconceptions, confusion, and stigma between these two types of cannabis. 

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