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What's the Difference Between Hemp and Marijuana?

The largely misunderstood distinction now has two correct answers.

Photo Credit: Yarygin / Shutterstock.com


What is the difference between hemp and marijuana? The short answer: semantics. The long answer: the difference is a largely misunderstood distinction that now has two correct answers, a legal one and a scientific one. And like all things proven by scientists, it is somehow up for public and political debate.

Thanks to nearly 80 years of federal cannabis prohibition, public knowledge on the topic is limited to rumors and misinterpretations perpetuated online—everything from “hemp plants are male and marijuana plants are female” to “one is a drug and the other is not.”

The legal definitions also have muddied the water as legislators have passed laws at both the federal and state levels defining hemp in the pursuit of both fiber and medicine.

So what exactly is the difference between marijuana and hemp? Let’s start with semantics.

Hemp refers to strains of  Cannabis sativa that have been bred specifically for fiber used for clothing and construction, oils and topical ointments, nutritional benefits and a wide and growing variety of other purposes that don’t involve intoxication.

Marijuana is a slang term used to describe strains of  Cannabis sativa specifically bred for the potent resinous glands (trichomes) that grow on the flowers and some leaves (buds).  While there is some dispute over the origins of the term “marijuana,” it was introduced into popular use by Hearst-era newspapers as a way to instill fear of pot-smoking Mexicans.

Wording aside, both hemp and marijuana are, in fact, the same thing. Although both “hemp” and “marijuana” as we know them are from the same genus,  Cannabis, they are also part of the same species,  Cannabis sativa. The scientific difference between what we refer to as hemp and marijuana comes from the purpose the strain was bred for.

“The [legal] definition of hemp is a plant that has low THC and perhaps has a higher level of CBD,” says publisher and marijuana cultivation guru Ed Rosenthal. Rosenthal is the author of the Marijuana Grower’s Handbook, which was first published in 1984.

“They are different varieties of the same species,” Rosenthal continues. “A hemp plant grown for seed isn’t necessarily the best fiber plant.”

1976 study by Ernest Small and Arthur Cronquist published by the  International Association of Plant Taxonomy, “A Practical and Natural Taxonomy for Cannabis” concludes that 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.

There are three known subspecies among these varieties of  Cannabis sativaC. sativa, C. indica and C. ruderalis. In this case the distinctions largely lie in the latitude at which the subspecies evolved, which in turn contributes to a plant’s physical characteristics and effects, to some extent.

As the cannabis plant was bred alongside the growth and collective knowledge of humans, it took on a variety of purposes. Strains of cannabis used for their potent medicine and intoxicating qualities have further evolved due to prohibition; over the last 50 years, growers have largely moved their operations indoors, fueling the innovation inherent in having the power to manipulate the atmospheric conditions of a gardening space. Today’s cannabis flowers are far more potent and perhaps a higher quality than much of the buds we have used throughout history as either medicine or  entheogen.

And here is where legal definitions and science intersect.

The female cannabis plant grows glands on the leaves of its flowers that contain at least 60 identified and active cannabinoids (among other beneficial compounds) that have a plethora of medical uses. Scientific testing and identification of cannabinoids and other compounds found in cannabis has generated two outcomes: a better understanding of the plant by scientists and researchers, and a slough of misinterpreted information used to set legal parameters to safe access to the cannabis plant.

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