What’s The Difference Between Hemp and Cannabis?

Despite the growth of the legal cannabis industry all over the world over the past ten years or so, there’s still a lot about the industry that the general public doesn’t fully understand. The difference between cannabis and hemp is one of those frequently overlooked distinctions that cannabis aficionados take pride in knowing. But what exactly is the difference between a cannabis plant that produces the sweet medicine that more than 4 million medical patients around the U.S. rely on and a standard hemp plant?

Male cannabis indoca plant.

How they are used

To put it as simply as possible, the core difference between the two plants is what they produce. Hemp plants are selected for their sturdiness and robustness in order to make paper, fabric, rope, and a massive variety of other products made from hemp fiber. Cannabis, meanwhile, is selected for its medical and psychoactive properties. Though the two plants are definitely related, they are also quite different in several important and distinct ways.

Here’s a quick crash course  breakdown of some of the most important differences between the two plants to keep in mind on your next trip to your local dispensary.

Legal differences

While it’s easy to get stuck in the weeds when it comes to figuring out which cannabis-derived products are legal in every U.S. state, it’s much easier to remember the rules as they apply to hemp. Thanks to the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, any cannabis-derived product containing less than .3 percent THC is legally considered hemp and is perfectly legal to sell anywhere in the U.S.! If you’rethinking, “That number seems a little arbitrary,” then yes, you’re right, it is arbitrary but that’s the magic number for companies. In fact, since 2018 hemp has exploded from being a niche product to a thriving, ever-growing multi-billion dollar industry.

Legal cannabis, on the other hand, doesn’t have to adhere to the same THC limits. If the state legalizes a medical or recreational program they’re free to produce cannabis. Interestingly enough, cannabis remains federally illegal. So while the legal cannabis industry will explode into a 90.4 billion industry by 2026, the federal government doesn’t see a cent of that money generated. All of that profit is left to the states.

The difference in CBD

Another thing worth noting is that many people report a big difference between CBD derived from hemp and CBD derived from medical marijuana.

Despite the legal status of hemp-derived CBD, the FDA or other federal agencies have done little to regulate or set consumer standards for brands selling CBD products. Some brands go above and beyond to ensure the quality of their products via third-party testing and organic growing standards for their hemp plants. Other producers aren’t even putting real CBD into their products, are putting full-spectrum, THC-rich oils in there, or their products are otherwise mislabeled.

The same can’t be said for CBD derived from medical cannabis plants. When it comes to purity, there’s no comparison between the two. Unlike commercial CBD, medical-grade CBD is monitored by the state from seed-to-sale, tested at multiple points in the production and life cycle of the plant, and stands up to the purity standards required to be considered medical by that state’s Department of Health or Medical Cannabis Control Board.

At the end of the day, it comes down to experience when producing top-notch CBD. Medical programs have been distilling CBD-infused products under rigorous standards for nearly twenty years. The legal hemp-derived CBD industry has only been around for a few years and, outside of a few quality brands, has none of the oversight and accountability associated with medical cannabis. If someone is looking for the best quality, purest CBD they’ll need a medical card of their own.

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Growing Cannabis 

growing hemp vs cannabis

The conditions under which a cannabis sativa plant are grown also determines whether or not a plant will be considered “hemp” or “marijuana.”Hemp plants are usually grown outdoors, tend to grow tall, fast, and with lots of stalk. Medical cannabis plants, on the other hand, require a controlled environment of stable light, temperature, humidity and lots more, All the plants must be female in order to maximize THC and other cannabinoid levels.

Other than what they are used for and how they’re grown, is there any real difference in “hemp” and “marijuana”? Essentially, the answer is both “yes” and “no.”

If you take a female hemp plant, separate it from the male hemp plants, and grow it as you would a medical cannabis plant, you will essentially get a plant that grows buds. The buds from a hemp plant, however, contain seeds rather than trichome-laden bud you’d find on a standard medical marijuana plant. Seeds from a female hemp plant are edible, and are a source of omega oils and protein.

This means that “hemp plants are male and marijuana plants are female” is pretty much wrong. Hemp and marijuana both have male and female plants. In both cases, the female is the desired plant. Furthermore, both species cross-pollinate. You can breed the two together and produce a plant that is both “hemp” and “marijuana,” with distinct properties of both hemp and cannabis. Medical marijuana growers tend to want to plant their crops far away from hemp fields.

To put it simply: Hemp and marijuana are siblings both derived from cannabis sativa. They are not entirely the same. They are related. The biggest differences between the two plants are their legal status and what they’re used for. Nature provided a plant that’s both useful for producing fibers to make clothes, ropes and such, while also giving healing properties via it’s many cannabinoids. It’s all about how you choose to use it!

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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.

Leafwell medical marijuana card

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