Materials & Use

Hemp Vs. Cannabis: What’s The Difference?

Gabi Antunes

Sep 20, 2019

For the uninitiated, hemp and cannabis may appear to be the exact same plant. They look alike, they smell the same, and similar products can be made from both cultivars. Upon closer examination, there is significant divergence in the details. While both hemp and cannabis have sister roots – they are both members of the genus Cannabis family – many important aspects from cultivation to its ultimate end use has different practical applications. Here, we’ll dive into what each plant is, how it’s used, and some of the key differences between them.


What is Cannabis?

Cannabis refers to cannabis plants bred to have high concentrations of THC for purposes of extracting these cannabinoids. Two species, cannabis sativa and cannabis indica, are cultivated for their THC, Cannabidiol (CBD), and other cannabinoids.

Cannabis is cultivated, processed, and distributed in states where it is legal to do so for medical or recreational purposes. There are thousands of cultivars, also known as “strains,” available to consumers in states with medical or adult-use programs. Each cultivar comes with a unique cannabinoid makeup and terpene profile which influences its scent and, flavor, for example.


What is Hemp?

Hemp is a cannabis plant bred to have extremely low levels of THC. In the United States, hemp is often referred to as industrial hemp, a legal definition which defines the plant as one bred to have 0.3% THC or less.

Hemp has a millennia-long history in human civilization, with evidence of its cultivation for fiber to use in textiles appearing as early as 10,000 years ago. The plant is commonly cultivated as a source of CBD, as well as a source of food through its seeds and oil, and fiber for textiles and other products. Current research explores hemp’s potential for a wide range of commercial and industrial applications, including as a fuel and plastic alternative.


Why is Cannabis the Preferred Term Over “Marijuana?”

Using the term “cannabis” in this context can get confusing. Cannabis plants cultivated to manufacture THC products such as dry flower, concentrates, and edibles are also known as “marijuana,” a term that has fallen out of favor in recent years. However, the hemp plant is also a member of the cannabis family. When the differences between cannabis and hemp are being discussed, it is important to note that cannabis is referring to “marijuana,” the plant species bred for its high concentrations of THC, and not to the genus Cannabis as a whole.

In America, marijuana extracts and medications were simply referred to as cannabis products throughout the 1700s and 1800s. The term “marijuana” gained notoriety in an anti-immigrant panic which swept the U.S. in the 1910s and 1920s, in response to an influx of new arrivals from Mexico. As part of this anti-Mexican sentiment, those leading the anti-immigrant charge began to use the term “marijuana,” the term for cannabis used by Mexicans, to further enforce these anti-immigrant attitudes. Effects of violence and hyper-sexualization were also falsely attributed to the plant during this time. The fervor eventually led to the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937, which ushered in the era of federal prohibition still enforced today.

Because of its sordid history, many consider the term “marijuana” to be racist in origin and prefer to not use the term. In its place, many prefer to use the proper term “cannabis” in place of marijuana, but colloquially, cannabis and marijuana are used interchangeably in many circles, with consumers and politicians alike still using the latter term.


Hemp vs. Cannabis: A Legal Distinction

Cannabis (“marijuana”) is federally illegal, classified as a Schedule I drug under the U.S. Controlled Substances Act (CSA). However, many states have created programs to cultivate, process, and sell cannabis for medical purposes or for adult use. Cannabis products from these states cannot be transported over state lines, nor can businesses in different states with legal cannabis programs sell cannabis products with one another. For example, cannabis flower grown in Nevada cannot be sold in California.

Hemp, however, is an entirely different story. Industrial hemp bred to have 0.3% THC or less is considered an agricultural product, and its extracts are not considered “marijuana” extracts. This distinction was made in the 2018 “Farm Bill,” passed December 2018, which clarified a long-standing discrepancy between hemp CBD extraction from industrial hemp and other cannabis concentrates. These hemp CBD extracts are legal in most states, and products can be sold across state lines.


What are the Main Differences Between Cannabis and Hemp?

Although both plants are members of the cannabis family, there are major differences between them beyond its legal status, related to the plant’s purpose, cannabinoid content, cultivation, and more. Here are some of the major differences between cannabis and hemp:

  • Cannabinoid content: Hemp contains much lower concentrations of THC than its cannabis counterpart, while cannabis is purposefully bred to have high concentrations of THC. However, there are cannabis cultivars available with high concentrations of CBD or more precise ratios of THC to CBD.
  • Intoxicating properties. Hemp, and particularly industrial hemp, does not contain enough THC to produce an intoxicating effect.
  • Cultivation. Cannabis and hemp require different growing conditions. Hemp is often grown outdoors for maximum size and yield, while cannabis is generally grown indoors so precise light, humidity, and other environmental conditions can be controlled at each stage of the growing process. Both cannabis and hemp can be grown in a greenhouse. Cultivation strategy is also influenced by the crop’s end game. Different strategies will be employed, for example, if the hemp crop is to produce CBD, hemp fiber, or both.
  • Usage. Industrial hemp has myriad applications and uses. Industrial hemp is harvested for its seeds and fiber, the latter of which has implications across several industries, including textiles, construction, and plastics. Cannabis, on the other hand, is cultivated specifically to obtain cannabinoids; plants are generally cultivated for consumption as dry flower or turned into concentrates for use in edibles or other cannabis products. While other parts of the plant can be used, it is quite rare to cultivate cannabis for any purpose other than for THC and other cannabinoids.


Understanding the Difference between Cannabis and Hemp

The distinction between cannabis (also called “marijuana”) and hemp is an important one for many reasons. Cannabis and hemp have different purposes in the marketplace. While cannabis is grown to harvest THC and other related cannabinoids, hemp is often also cultivated for its fiber and seeds to produce textiles, oils, food, and other products in addition to hemp CBD. Even how the plants are grown can differ, with hemp thriving in outdoor environments and cannabis benefiting from a tightly-controlled indoor grow operation.

Importantly, legal parameters define who can obtain cannabis products, how they can be purchased, and where they can be consumed. This definition also influences the sale and distribution of hemp, which can cross state lines, and THC, which must be contained within the state that allows its cultivation, processing, and distribution.

Before exploring the many product options available from hemp and cannabis, be sure to consider the product’s roots, no matter how similar those roots may appear. These small deviations make all the difference.