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Cannabis vs Hemp: More Different Than You May Realize

Cannabis vs Hemp: More Different Than You May Realize

hemp plant with sunset
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“Hemp” and “Cannabis” are both terms we use to describe the same type of plant, a genus of the phytoecological family Cannabaceae. The plants these terms describe are similar yet not, and though marijuana and hemp may both look alike appearances can be very deceiving.

In today’s article we’ll talk about the differences between hemp and marijuana – Where each one stems from, what roles each serve in our global economy, and why the legal status of each matters. Let’s delve in.

Hemp, Cannabis, and the Cannabaceae Family

When talking about hemp vs. marijuana it’s important to understand their biological differences and similarities.

As mentioned above everything we consider “hemp plants” or “marijuana plants” are part of the Cannabaceae family, a wide grouping of plants that also includes the familiar genus Humulus (perhaps better known as “hops”). Ultimately the Cannabaceae family contains over 170 different species, often with few comparable traits between them – Individual species can range from herbaceous plants to large trees, and the chemical compounds produced by each certainly have a wide variety.

Even within the Cannabis genus of plants the exact number of species is questionable – We discuss this topic more in-depth in our article “Indica vs Sativa” but to say the taxonomic classification of Cannabis is “precise” would be a wide overstatement.

Cultivation Confusion

One of the more commonly held views is that Cannabis genus that gives us both hemp and marijuana contains three different species: Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis; conversely, there are also arguments that state all different varietals of the Cannabis plant are derived from Cannabis sativa alone, and that the other remaining marijuana species are actually just sub-species or even just varietals of their own.

Hemp and cannabis are, again, part of the same family and genus, and to separate them even in casual discussion implies that they have greater differences from each other than they do. Both plants have similar physical features, both plants grow tall, they each like sunlight, produce thick, woody stems with lots of fibers, both have big flowery colas of buds – The list goes on and on. And while both hemp and cannabis both produce similar chemicals, it’s the ratio in which they produce these chemicals that makes the biggest difference.

cannabis leaf in front of sunset

What Hemp Is Used For

Hemp, sometimes referred to as “industrial hemp”, produces only minuscule amounts of THC. What we call “cannabis”, “weed”, or “marijuana” are plants prized for their output of THC, often the higher the better. Through-out history mankind has cultivated the cannabis plant for both of these properties, leading to some individual strains that focus more on the psychoactive properties and some that focus more on it’s application as a textile and building material.

All hemp plants are a strain of cannabis that has significantly low amounts of THC content. Typically hemp of this variety has been cultivated for industrial use, as hemp plants can be turned into a wide variety of goods and products once harvested and processed. We talk about this in more detail in our article “Can You Smoke Hemp?” but to recap here: Once the hemp plant has reached maturity and been harvested it is then dried and stripped of excess plant material (including leaves and flower buds), leaving only the fibrous, woody stalk behind.

Retting Industrial Hemp into Tow and Fibre

Once thoroughly dried these stalks are then sent through a process known as “retting”, which strips the fibers away from the unused core of the stalk; this can be done either by hand or mechanically.

From here the fibers of the hemp plant are cleaned and straightened before being separated into two categories: “Hemp tow”, which consists of shorter, rougher pieces of fiber, and “line fibre”, which are longer and more fabric-like. From here the two can be used in a wide variety of applications, including (but not limited to): Paper, clothing and textiles, and, if combined with a mixture of lime, a building material.

Hemp seeds can be processed as well. Once stripped away from the flower buds of the plant the seeds can either be eaten or refined into hemp seed oil, both valued as a nutritional good for their high levels of protein and iron. It’s important to note that “hemp oil” and “hemp derived CBD oil” are two very different products, which we’ll talk about in greater detail shortly.

The Difference Between Hemp and Cannabis Plants

The major difference between hemp and marijuana comes down to one factor: THC. What we often call cannabis is typically not processed for industrial uses but instead recreational and/or pharmacological applications. Marijuana plants are cultivars of the Cannabis genus that have been bred, over time, to have have highly concentrated THC levels. It’s the THC content of some marijuaplants that has lead to legal troubles for both cannabis and hemp inside the United States.

Though once a lucrative crop for farmers during the pre-Civil War era of America, advancements in automation soon made processing hemp a bit too lucrative for some. Automated retting machines (referred to as “decorticators”) meant that processing of hemp could be done on a much wider, faster scale, and competing industries such as timber companies and cotton magnates saw hemp as a growing threat to their own livelihoods.

The Economic War on Drugs

After launching a coordinated assault of propaganda, often unfairly targeting migrant workers and other minorities, the deep pockets of the textiles industries in the United States were able to conflate usage of marijuana with the growing of the hemp, and a terrified populace easily passed the “Marijuana Tax Act of 1937”. This bill essentially outlawed all cannabis growth, both hemp plants and marijuana plants alike, where (with some brief exceptions) it would remain until the passing of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, AKA the 2018 Farm Bill.

Staying Within Federal Limits

Passed by the US Senate and House in early December, 2018 the Farm Bill removed hemp – as defined as a Cannabis plant containing less than 0.3% levels of THC – from the FDA’s Controlled Substances Act list. This means that it is now fully legal to own, cultivate, grow and process any Cannabis plant so long as it will contain less than 0.3% THC.

Cannabis plants that carry more than 0.3% THC are federally illegal, making them fall under the definition of “cannabis” rather than “hemp”. However, as is widely known by this point, individual states also have the right to set their own guidelines of what can and cannot be sold inside state borders, leading to a nation fragmented on whether marijuana (and THC) is illegal or not.

As of the time of this article’s publication fifteen states have made laws declaring marijuana usage completely legal (though not always without restrictions), and many more have varying levels of allowance, from medicinal marijuana laws to decriminalization.

However, with each state having its own laws and the federal government still carrying a blanket stance against cannabis usage, what may be legal in one state could get you jailed once driving over a state line. And if the federal government ever decided to throw someone in jail over cannabis cultivation or possession? There’s little-to-nothing the state laws regarding hemp vs marijuana could do to protect them.

macro shot of cannabis

THC vs CBD

As we mentioned earlier in the article, the chemical output of both hemp and marijuana are fairly similar – While hemp may not produce less THC than it’s marijuana relatives that doesn’t mean it produces zero THC. Hemp, instead, primarily produces CBD, a non-psychoactive cannabinoid. And even though it won’t get you high, when examining hemp, CBD has a wide array of potential medical applications.

CBD, Hemp and Medicinal Value

Hemp derived CBD is often found in the form of products such as CBD oil or CBD tinctures, both designed to be consumed; industrial hemp buds can also be smoked for their CBD content, if so desired. We talk more about the non-intoxicating properties of CBD in our article “CBD vs THC“, but CBD has been shown to have positive results in trials relating to a variety of medical conditions, from seizure to neurodegenerative diseases. And despite not getting someone high CBD is quickly becoming as important a part of hemp (and marijuana) cultivation as it’s uses as a textile.

It’s important to note, though both expressed from hemp, CBD oil and Hemp oil are not the same products. CBD oil and other CBD products are typically manufactured similarly to other THC concentrates, IE: from the flowering bud of the hemp plant. The buds of the plant are stripped of their cannabinoid content (typically via some fashion of chemical solvent) and sold as a concentrate of cannabinoids. Hemp oil is expelled solely from the seeds of hemp and, again, is often used for it’s nutritional value – Not because it contains any measurable amount of CBD.

Cannabis & CBD

Cannabis plants also contain CBD, though often in lesser percentages than their hemp relatives. This doesn’t mean the marijuana plant contains a minute amount of CBD, though, with ratios of up to 50% not uncommon. Though we know very little about exactly how these cannabinoids interact with each other it is believed they are both capable of working in greater harmony together, an action commonly and colloquial known as “the entourage effect”.

On their own both THC and CBD offer promising medicinal benefits, but research has commonly shown that both tend to work much more effectively in harmony, their combined effects equaling something greater than the sum of their individual selves.

Again, with what we think of as cannabis this isn’t much of an issue, as cannabis plants produce THC and CBD alike. For those taking a pure CBD product as a medicinal supplement, however, many have found that an additional ‘boost’ of THC helps magnify the medical properties of CBD several times over. An interesting conundrum, as CBD is also potentially a compound that can help people sober up from the effects of THC.

Though there are marijuana derived CBD products available rarely will they be 100% THC-free; CBD products that include THC are typically labeled as “full spectrum” on the market, and will only be available in areas where either recreational or medicinal marijuana use has been made legal. If keeping your medication free of intoxicating cannabinoids that will get you high is important to you, make sure to search out CBD products listed as “broad spectrum” or “isolate” instead.

Wrapping Up

Though the terms have been used interchangeably through-out history the modern definitions of hemp vs marijuana are one that deserve greater scrutiny, particularly as hemp and marijuana are used for vastly different things in our modern society.

Hemp and marijuana are both plants with great benefits, but confusing the two is to no one’s benefit, despite their genetic similarities and common backgrounds as Cannabis sativa cultivars. With hemp now federally legal for cultivation in the United States, and marijuana legalization spreading more and more every year, understanding the differences between these two plants has never been more important.

We hope our article on the difference between hemp and marijuana has been helpful – Remember, if you want to get high? Cannabis is your solution. But if you’re looking for a world of helpful industrial products, hemp plants have many things to offer. Until next time!

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