What is Cannabis? What is Medical Marijuana? What is Hemp?

When you’re new to the world of medical marijuana (or hemp or cannabis), you will read and hear it called a huge number of names. “Marijuana” is the most common term, especially as many state programs use the term “medical marijuana”.

To make it simple, this blog defines the three most common terms, “cannabis”, “hemp” and “marijuana”.

Table of Contents

  1. What is Cannabis?
  2. What is Hemp?
  3. What is Marijuana?
  4. What’s the Difference Between Medical Marijuana and Recreational Marijuana?
  5. What’s the Difference Between a Hemp Product and a Marijuana Product?
  6. Can You Simplify the Differences and Similarities Between Hemp, Marijuana and Cannabis for Me, Please?
  7. What are Cannabinoid Isolates, e.g. CBD Isolate?
  8. Is “Cannabis” the Simplest Term to Use?

What is Cannabis?

Cannabis is usually used as a shorthand to refer to Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica and Cannabis ruderalis. Whether it is called hemp, marijuana, weed, pot, or any other number of slang and non-slang terms, they are all cannabis.

We here at Leafwell generally prefer to call the plant cannabis, as it is generally the most scientifically accurate term, although “marijuana” has become ubiquitous and the most widely used and easiest understood.

What is Hemp?

Hemp is also a variety of Cannabis sativa. Instead of being grown for its flower, hemp is usually grown for its stalk as a material for rope, textiles, clothing and insulation, as well as food, biofuel and phytoremediation (sucking out the pollution in industrial areas).

As hemp is not grown for its flower, it means that it usually contains little THC, but may contain CBD and other cannabinoids and terpenes. Legal CBD products are usually derived from hemp. However, once THC levels go beyond 0.3%, the legal definition of “hemp” becomes “marijuana”. This makes the distinction between “hemp” and “marijuana” mostly a legal rather than a scientific or botanically accurate one.

Hemp, cannabis sativa plants growing outdoors.
Cannabis sativa plants. Hemp. From Wikimedia Commons. Author: H. Zell. CC BY-SA 3.0.

What is Marijuana?

Marijuana is a slang term derived from Spanish that has come to refer to cannabis that is consumed for its psychoactive effect. People usually refer to cannabis grown for its flower or THC content as “marijuana”, and the cannabis grown for its fiber as “hemp”.

Marijuana is seen as an inaccurate term nowadays, as it is a slang word made for demonization of the plant. However, as “marijuana” has become commonly-used  – even in scientific papers – and states have medical marijuana programs, it is the most easily-understood term.

A dried flower bud of the Cannabis / medical marijuana plant.
A dried flower bud of the Cannabis plant. The cannabis’ flowers contain many different psychoactive compounds that are used for recreational or medicinal purposes. From Wikimedia Commons. Author; Evan-Amos. Public Domain picture.

What’s the Difference Between Medical Marijuana and Recreational Marijuana?

Those who use marijuana for a particular condition are said to be consuming “medical marijuana”. Those who are using it for enjoyment are said to be using “recreational marijuana”.

A medical marijuana user is more likely to be using specific dosages of cannabis and cannabinoids at specific times of day, much like any other medicine. They may even be using cannabinoids with little or no psychoactivity at all.

Sometimes, it’s small, non-psychoactive amounts of THC being used for therapeutic purposes and to help cannabinoids like CBD work better via the entourage effect. In some instances, like with some kinds of cancer and chronic pain, higher amounts of THC may be required.

A non-medical user will not likely have the above concerns in mind. They will be using cannabis as a way to enjoy themselves, and very likely focus solely on THC and its psychoactive effects. Recreational marijuana consumers are often offered less potent THC products for this reason, as the highest THC is usually only ever required for medical applications. In fact, for non-medical and medical users alike, extreme amounts of THC can be uncomfortable!

There are a subset of non-medical users who are using cannabis as a way to prevent stress as opposed to just its psychoactivity. Yes, they may derive enjoyment from cannabis, but they also get some of its everyday, therapeutic benefits. Eating better, sleeping better, and recovery from strenuous physical and mental activity – all of these things are essential to a healthy life, and all of these things can be achieved with cannabis.

This has led to some claiming that all marijuana usage is medical, but this is an argument that makes things more confusing for newcomers, so we will mostly avoid it for now! However, we will say that some non-medical marijuana consumers are certainly using it for health and wellness, if not medically in the strictest sense of the word.

A CBD or THC tincture dropper on a white plate next to a marijuana nug and drops of oil made into a heart surrounding the tincture bottle.
Tincture. From Wikimedia Commons. Author: Sherpa SEO. CC BY-SA 3.0.

What’s the Difference Between a Hemp Product and a Marijuana Product?

Although hemp-derived CBD products are popular, they are not very well-regulated. There are some decent hemp-derived CBD products out there, but in general the CBD derived from cannabis grown for its flower (“marijuana”) is generally of much better quality.

This is because marijuana plants are a more ready source of cannabinoids and terpenes, and the testing requirements are arguably much more stringent for the federally illegal, medical versions of cannabis than the more widely available hemp-CBD versions. While some may find the hemp-derived CBD useful, many people may see much more benefit from medical marijuana.

In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be such a mismatch or difference between the two industries in terms of regulation or the high quality products that should be expected of them. Yet, there is, even if the plants share so much biologically.

Fully legalized cannabis/marijuana/hemp would probably help end the confusion and make many terms redundant. We could then start differentiating by the chemical content of the plant rather than a number of arbitrarily-picked colloquialisms. Until then, we only have far more onerous legal terminology to go by!

Can You Simplify the Differences and Similarities Between Hemp, Marijuana and Cannabis for Me, Please?

We sure can. Essentially, it is like this:

  1. There is cannabis that is legal, normally grown for commercial and industrial purposes, often called hemp; and there is …
  2. … Cannabis that is illegal, usually grown for its buds or flowers and called “marijuana”.

CBD derived from hemp stalks is legal in the US. CBD derived from marijuana flower is illegal, even if the product contains very little THC in it.

What are Cannabinoid Isolates, e.g. CBD Isolate?

Isolates are products where other cannabinoids – and sometimes everything else like flavonoids and terpenes, although these can be added afterwards – are taken away and you are left with a highly purified product. These are often then made into tinctures or vapes. CBD isolate is particularly popular, as it is a sought-after cannabinoid.

Isolates can be useful when it comes to determining how a single cannabinoid works, but this can also take away a number of its therapeutic properties as well. Cannabinoids tend to work better together (the entourage effect), not separately.

On the other hand, some people may require certain cannabinoids and/or sets of cannabinoids, and highly purified extracts can be a great way of creating products with highly specific cannabinoid and terpene profiles.

Cannabis, hemp, marijuana plant with CBD and skeletal chemical structure of CBD.
From Chemist 4 U. CC BY 2.0.

Is “Cannabis” the Simplest Term to Use?

Yes, we think so! Whether it’s legal hemp or illegal marijuana, both are cannabis. Both contain cannabinoids and terpenes, both are related to each other, and all that’s needed to change hemp to marijuana in a legal sense is a slight increase in how much THC the hemp contains.

Calling cannabis by other names other things can make understanding the plant more confusing, and it’s already a complex science as it is! However, we will cede that “medical marijuana” is an OK term as it is so widely used, easily understood and refers to the medical applications of cannabis.

Featured image by Zill Niazi. From Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Cannabis flower image By David Dewitt, The Cozy Coffee.

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Written by
Dipak Hemraj
Dipak Hemraj

Dipak Hemraj is a published author, grower, product maker, and Leafwell’s resident cannabis expert. From botany & horticulture to culture & economics, he wishes to help educate the public on why cannabis is medicine (or a “pharmacy in a plant”) and how it can be used to treat a plethora of health problems. Dipak wants to unlock the power of the plant, and see if there are specific cannabinoid-terpene-flavonoid profiles suitable for different conditions.

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