Hemp and marijuana may look and seem similar or even identical, but the fact is that they are different plants that both happen to exist in the Cannabaceae family. Hemp and marijuana have both factored into human life for a long time, with hemp primarily functioning as a source for materials such as rope, while marijuana has primarily functioned as both a medicinal and recreational substance. Learn more about hemp vs marijuana differences and similarities!
What is Hemp?
Hemp is a form of the cannabis plant within the botanical class Cannabis sativa, grown specifically for industrial or medicinal use. One of the most resourceful plants in the world, the stalks of the hemp plant can be used in everything from textile manufacturing to biofuel development, the seeds are used to produce hemp seed oil, and the flowers are used to extract the CBD cannabinoid for use in all kinds of CBD-infused products, from gummies and oils to help you sleep to self-care products like under eye balm and bath bombs.
What is Marijuana?
Marijuana is another form of the cannabis plant and exists in three botanical classes: Cannabis sativa alongside hemp, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis. You likely know the terms sativa and indica from the recreational and medical marijuana industries, as those are the two main classes of strains. (Sativas are known for a headier, more creativity-inducing high, while indicas tend to be more relaxing and even sleep-inducing.)
One of the reasons it can seem confusing is that the words ‘marijuana’ and ‘cannabis’ are often used interchangeably, even though cannabis can refer to the entire genus of plants that includes both hemp and marijuana. This is why we’re focusing on the hemp vs. marijuana difference here, since technically they are both forms of cannabis.
And that major hemp vs. marijuana difference is this: marijuana is intoxicating, while hemp is not. This is due to the cannabinoid THC (tetrahydrocannabinol if you’re fancy), the main psychoactive component of cannabis and one of at least 113 total cannabinoids. (CBD, of course, is one of the others.) In other words, marijuana has higher levels of THC, while hemp has virtually none. This chemical distinction is strong enough to inform the legal distinction that made the Farm Bill possible – more on that below!
Legal Status for Hemp and Marijuana
In the United States, the legal status for hemp vs. marijuana differences is all about the level of THC. Hemp is typically defined as Cannabis sativa plants containing 0.3% THC or less. Any plants that exceed that limit are considered marijuana.
Some states have fully legalized all forms of recreational and medicinal marijuana, others have only legalized medicinal marijuana, and some still have bans on both set in place. But as far as hemp is concerned, the Farm Bill of 2018 (also known as H.R. 2: The Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018) legalized the use of non-THC cannabinoids from the hemp plant grown according to the specifications laid out by the legislation. Some states do have their own hemp laws that don’t match the Farm Bill, though. This handy chart from Leafly includes each state and explains the specific restrictions. In Maine, for example, CBD must be extracted from licensed Maine hemp growers, while Kentucky bans only CBD-infused tea, for some reason. There are only three states in which CBD is illegal in every form, and those are Idaho, Iowa, and South Dakota, but federally, CBD is legal everywhere.
On the federal level, marijuana is still fully illegal, as THC is (still, somehow) considered a Schedule I substance within the Controlled Substances Act. But as we mentioned above, many states have rightfully seen the folly of this outdated designation, changing state laws to legalize marijuana to varying degrees.
How CBD and THC Play a Role
As we’ve discussed, one of the major hemp vs. marijuana differences is in their chemistry and characteristics. The amount of THC within a plant will essentially determine whether or not it is marijuana or hemp. While they can both contain varying amounts of CBD as well, hemp is historically known to contain higher levels of CBD. Within the industry, the respective plants are both now bred to favor specific amounts of THC and CBD, which will determine how they are used. High-THC plants will go to recreational and medicinal facilities, while high-CBD plants can be used in the CBD industry to infuse everything from gummies to body cream.
To learn more about how and why cannabinoids like CBD and THC have the effects that they do within the human body, read up on the endocannabinoid system.
Uses for Hemp
Hemp is popularly used in CBD-infused products, but its many other industrial uses include paper, clothing, textiles, animal feed, food products such as hemp milk and hemp protein powder, and even plastic! Hemp actually grows faster than many trees and other crops, so it is viewed as a more sustainable way of producing paper and similar materials such as textiles.
In addition to its industrial applications, hemp that is used to infuse products with CBD has a nice variety of applications, able to potentially help with everything from sleep issues to anxiety to simply promoting a calming sense of well-being and relaxed mindset.
Uses for Marijuana
Marijuana is only available in those states which have legalized it. As with the CBD laws by state, check out these lists from Leafly to find out if you’re not sure about your location:
Recreational marijuana is often used in social settings like alcohol, with different effects. Euphoria is a common desired effect, with other psychoactive effects including things like a distorted experience of time and space. Medical marijuana has a wide variety of well-documented uses for issues as serious as cancer and multiple sclerosis to more common experiences like chronic pain.
Buying Hemp vs Marijuana
Hemp is fairly simple to purchase, with items like hemp seed oil available in all the places you’d expect to find herbs, vitamins, supplements, and skincare. When it comes to CBD-infused products, these are pretty easy to find now too, available at a wide variety of stores as well as dispensaries in states where recreational or medical marijuana is legal. And, of course, there’s the Internet, where you can find the widest variety of CBD-infused products of all – including on this very website.
In states where marijuana is fully legalized, anyone can stroll into a dispensary and purchase marijuana in a multitude of forms: flower (the smokable plant), tinctures, concentrates, vape oils, and a wide variety of edibles.
As you can see, the hemp vs. marijuana differences are both simple and complex. Simple in that there are only really two major differences (THC content and legality), but complex in that those two differences make a huge deal in terms of effects and availability. For more information about CBD, check out our CBD 101 guide. Stay up to date on all things CBD and wellness by reading our blog. If you’re curious about trying CBD and not sure where to start, our CBD quiz can help guide your way. Happy hemp-ing!