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Hemp vs Marijuana: The Differences Explained

The CBD industry’s quick adoption by the public has been driven due to the market’s unique identity outside of recreational and medicinal marijuana. The success of CBD oil can be traced to it’s non-psychoactive properties and the related legalization of hemp.

Still, CBD exists within the larger cannabis industry and is almost always identified in part by it’s relation to marijuana. This relation often creates confusion when it comes to the classifications, definitions, and legalities around the two primary social identities of cannabis.

In this article, we cover the scientific, legal, and practical differences between hemp and marijuana to help you understand these two types of cannabis.

What is Cannabis?

To understand hemp and marijuana, you need to start with cannabis.

Cannabis is a genus of flowering plants that belongs to the Cannabaceae family. There are three primary species of cannabis: Sativa, Indica, and Ruderalis. These three species can be traced back via their geographical roots and are often grouped together as subspecies of Cannabis Sativa.

Hemp and marijuana are often labeled as being unique “species” or “strains” of cannabis, but this is not accurate. Instead, they are broad-reaching cultural classifications of cannabis primarily driven by the chemical makeup and ultimately the way the plant is used.

Because these definitions are based on the cultural perception of the plant, they have been used to specific ends and have changed over time due to public perception and political progress.

What is Hemp?

Hemp is a word with Germanic and Old English origin meaning cannabis. Hemp has a long history of use for it’s fibers and seeds to create tens of thousands of products. During the mid-19th century, hemp was widely grown in this way the United States for use in the production of textiles.

The public perception of hemp is simply non-psychoactive cannabis. In the USA, hemp is now defined as any cannabis plant that contains 0.3% THC or less by dry weight. This specific chemical classification was largely driven by the resurgence of hemp farming and the CBD industry.

What is Marijuana?

In 1900 the practice of smoking cannabis began to appear in Texas border towns. The introduction was made by Mexican immigrants in the area who cultivated cannabis for its medicinal and intoxicating properties. In a matter of years, the plant became so popular that it was widely sold at markets and drug stores in Texas and was even shipped to other states.

The plant was demonized in popular culture and subsequently restricted by many states. By the 1930s the plant was racially and politically charged. The Spanish term “marihuana” grew to popularity during this time. It’s suggested it was used as an exotic-sounding alternative to the term cannabis used to stigmatize the use of the drug.

The first major marijuana prohibition act was passed soon after: The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. This act regulated the importation, cultivation, possession, and/or distribution of marijuana. It wasn’t until 1970 that cannabis, as “marijuana” was made illegal through the Controlled Substances Act.

Today, the federal laws and the associated “marijuana” terminology born of these racist and xenophobic times persist. There are strong movements towards legalization as state and federal progress is made, but there is still much to be done.

It may not be surprising that many companies and organizations choose to refrain from using the term marijuana. The lack of public knowledge of the history of the term and practical need to quickly characterize psychoactive vs non-psychoactive cannabis has led to the continued widespread use of the word.

Legally marijuana is now defined in relation to hemp as any cannabis plant containing 0.3% THC or more by dry weight.

The Key Difference Between Hemp and Marijuana

The mainstream growth of the CBD industry has pushed hemp across previous boundaries. The rise in popularity of hemp has led it to become a go-to crop for sourcing cannabinoids and terpenes – a role previously only held by marijuana. This has created increased confusion around the difference between the two types of cannabis.

Furthermore, while historically the use of the two plant types led them to look much different, today hemp and marijuana can visually appear identical. Hemp has even grown to popularity as a smoked flower, joining marijuana in this previously unique role.

To determine the difference between hemp and marijuana today, you must look to one specific criterion: the chemical makeup.

As you’ve learned, hemp and marijuana are classifications of cannabis driven by culture, not by science. With the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, politics have drawn a clear separating line between the two.

Hemp is now defined as any cannabis plant containing 0.3% Tetrahydrocannabinol (Delta-9 THC) or less by dry weight. Marijuana fills the remaining space as any cannabis plant containing more than 0.3% THC by dry weight.

Secondary Differences

While the new legislation is clear, hemp and marijuana still do have some secondary traits which can be commonly used to separate the two. These traits are not universal, but can be generally relied upon to tell the difference:

The Growing Process

Hemp can be grown in a wide variety of climates with minimal care. Often the plant is grown in large greenhouses or in outdoor farming operations. Depending on it’s application hemp can be grown in closely planted rows to encourage tall, slender plants designed to produce fiber.

Marijuana on the other hand is grown in precisely controlled indoor environments to increase the flowering yield. Tight control of the growing environment means that grow operations are generally smaller in scale than hemp operations.

Again, because of the popularity of consumable hemp, some hemp may be grown in a similar fashion to marijuana, just with a different resulting chemical profile.

End Uses of the Plant

Hemp has long been known for its wide variety of uses thanks to it’s fibrous makeup and versatile seeds. These uses are unique to hemp and only recently have low-THC, high-CBD varieties of the plant been used to create CBD-rich extracts and flower.

Marijuana is most commonly grown to be trimmed of its leaves and stalks down to the flowering buds which are then smoked or consumed as a recreational, medical, or spiritual psychoactive drug.

Sourcing for CBD Products: Hemp vs Marijuana

As should be clear by now, hemp and marijuana are both cannabis and thus the chemicals produced by each plant are the same. The CBD found in hemp is chemically identical to the CBD found in marijuana. What differs is simply the quantities of each.

This means that in practice, CBD products could be sourced from either hemp or marijuana, but take a look around and you’ll find that almost every product on the market is hemp-sourced. There is one simple answer to why this is the case: legality.

The 2018 Farm Bill which created the legal definition of hemp explicitly applies to “hemp and hemp-derived products.” This means that in order for a product to be legal for sale on the general market, it cannot be sourced from marijuana, even if the THC is removed after the fact.

The result is that CBD products sold freely to the public are exclusively extracted from hemp. If a CBD-rich product started as high-THC marijuana, it would have to be sold at a dispensary under either medical or recreational regulation.

In Conclusion

Hopefully, this article has helped you paint a clear picture of cannabis, it’s history, and it’s classifications. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to leave them down below in the comments.

Here at Big Sky Botanicals, we source our product line exclusively from hemp grown within the federal regulations outlined in the 2018 Farm Bill. Furthermore, after extraction, we remove all of the THC from the final product. For more information, see our product creation information page which dives into how our product line is crafted from seed to hemp to end product.

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We take a look at the similarities and differences between hemp and marijuana – two types of cannabis with very different applications.