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Cannabis: Marijuana vs Hemp - Do You Know the Difference?

Did you know that 11 states now allow recreational marijuana, 33 states allow medical marijuana, and the U.S. government allows hemp grade CBD nationwide? Despite this, most people in the U.S. don’t even know the difference between marijuana vs hemp or cannabis. This may seem surprising, but legalization is spreading quickly, and nearly 80 years of prohibition has created quite the confusion amongst these terms.


Historically, the words “cannabis” and “hemp” have been used interchangeably, while “marijuana” is a term that was spread in order to fuel cannabis prohibition during the 1930s. More recently, however, these terms have been classified with distinguishing differences. To clear up the confusion between these words, let’s explore how we use them today.



cannabis marijuana hemp flowchart

What is Cannabis?

Historians point to cannabis as one of the world’s first crops humans began to grow. This is probably due to it being a valuable resource as well as a complete protein. Many civilizations throughout history have used the plant for shelter and food as well as for spiritual and even therapeutical reasons.


As history portrays, cannabis and mankind share a relationship that goes way back. In fact, some researchers advocate it’s been over 10,000 years since humans first sparked up this budding relationship. Although the word kannabis (cannabis) isn’t found in any written language until greek 440 BCE.


Today the word cannabis describes a genus of plant that comes from the Cannabaceae family. It’s an annual flowering herb with both male and female counterparts, which makes it a dioecious species. The males generally grow taller and thinner and they produce flowers with pollen-filled pods. Female cannabis plants are usually shorter and darker than males and produce resinous flowers with hairs.


Both hemp and marijuana fall under the category of cannabis. At first glance the two may appear similar, however, there are some key differences separating marijuana vs hemp. In short, this means that hemp is cannabis and marijuana is also cannabis, but hemp is not marijuana (and vise versa). Let’s elaborate on their qualities and those that differentiate them.


Related: CBD flower



marijuana hemp cannabis flowchart buds

What is Marijuana?

The word marijuana comes from the Mexican Spanish word “marihuana”. As stated earlier “marijuana” is a term that was used during the anti-cannabis movement. This word became so engrained in our vocabulary during the prohibition era that we still use it today. Back then those who opposed the cannabis industry began referring to recreational cannabis as “locoweed”, “killer weed”, or “marijuana”.


These derogatory terms were spread in efforts to create a stigma towards the plant in general. Anti-cannabis propaganda blamed the use of “marijuana” for increasing crime, poverty, and immigration rates (specifically Mexicans and Latinos). They would make outrageous claims of marijuana being distributed to school children by Mexicans and that “marijuana” gives users super-human strength.


This propaganda created widespread fear towards cannabis and led to the US passing the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937 which prohibited all use of cannabis on a federal level. Later in 1970 the Controlled Substances Act was passed formally banning cannabis of any kind and deeming it a schedule 1 drug (which is the same category as heroin and cocaine). These laws made it illegal to grow any cannabis crop (marijuana or hemp) in the United States.


Eventually, overtime names like locoweed and killer weed faded out and “marijuana” became the term that stuck. From this time on when people use cannabis to get “high”, we commonly refer to it as “marijuana”. Although some stoners still refer to a quality stash as “killer weed” but that’s beside the point.


To understand why marijuana gets users high we need to focus on the major difference between marijuana vs hemp. One must be aware of their chemical composition to distinguish the difference. So what is in marijuana that gets its users high? Well, that would be THC of course.


THC in Marijuana

During the prohibition era, nobody knew that cannabis contains over 100 different cannabinoids. All the different elements of the plant remained undiscovered. Scientists were unaware that the chemical compound delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) was responsible for marijuana’s euphoric feeling.


Today scientists are well aware of the THC content in marijuana and its intoxicating effects. In fact, the amount of THC in any strain of cannabis is the deciding factor that determines if it is indeed marijuana or hemp according to the US government.


When separating the two it helps to think of “marijuana” as the legal term used to describe any strain of cannabis with 0.3% THC or greater (as defined by the 2018 Farm Bill act). You see, 0.3% THC is the pivotal point at which the plant becomes a schedule 1 drug. As for cannabis containing 0.3% THC or less, it is considered “hemp” by the US government.



hemp marijuana cannabis flower chart

What is Hemp?

To reiterate hemp is a form of cannabis with extremely low concentrations of THC (0.3% or less to be exact). Hemp is not marijuana, people don’t use it to get high (because hemp will not get you high). Historically, it has been used to create rope, fabrics, industrial materials, canvas sails, and much more.


Unfortunately, as we mentioned earlier the Marijuana Tax Act and Control Substance Act made it illegal to grow hemp in the US for nearly 80 years. During this time all legal hemp products sold in the United States were imported from other countries where hemp production remained legal.


Then, came the 2018 Farm Bill. Upon approval it once again allowed some farmers to legally grow hemp as long as THC concentration levels do not surpass the 0.3% threshold. As you can guess hemp crops began popping up in farm fields almost immediately. Although, this time around, many farmers are growing their crops for its Cannabidiol (CBD) content rather than for industrial use. 


Although today, it’s not much of a surprise to still see hemp being used in a wide variety of industrial products such as biodegradable plastics, concrete, biofuels, etc. What may surprise you is that hemp has also been the key factor in creating a “thriving” CBD industry. “Booming” is probably a better descriptive word, the CBD industry is estimated to reach 20 billion by 2024! This makes hemp even more valuable, arguably it’s the most valuable crop in the world! 



CBD From Marijuana vs CBD From Hemp

CBD is a cannabinoid like THC. It comes from the cannabis plant like THC. However, CBD is not intoxicating and it has virtually no side effects. It works via interaction with the endocannabinoid system (ECS).


All humans, mammals and almost all living creatures have an internal ECS which helps monitor and regulate many systems within the body. CBD may help to improve the functionality of the ECS. This is why CBD is the main active ingredient in many human CBD products as well as pet CBD products.



marijuana vs hemp similarities and differences



In the past hemp has always been the term used to describe industrial cannabis. However, more recently it has also become the go-to source for legal CBD oil because of its high CBD concentrations. The low THC and high CBD ratios of hemp make it the perfect source for legal CBD. What is the illegal source of CBD you may ask? The answer is marijuana.


If you take a CBD molecule from the hemp plant and a CBD molecule from the marijuana plant and compare them you would see that their molecular structure is identical. However, the CBD molecule from the marijuana plant is 100% illegal. As for the CBD molecule from hemp that one is totally legal. Simply meaning any CBD product that uses marijuana as the source is illegal. Any CBD product using hemp as the source is legal.




Hopefully, this content helps to clarify the terms and legalities of cannabis, hemp, and marijuana. Remember both hemp and marijuana are types of cannabis. Marijuana is the illegal type of cannabis (0.3% THC or higher), it has high THC and low CBD concentrations. Hemp is the legal type of cannabis (0.3% THC or lower), it has low THC and high CBD concentrations. Cannabis can be legal or illegal depending on the THC content. Hemp is legal in all states. Marijuana is illegal in most states.