What Is The Difference Between Hemp And Marijuana?

Not quite sure what the difference is between marijuana and Hemp? You’re not alone.

The two are alike in many ways, and lots of people get confused. Fortunately, it’s not very difficult to sort out the confusion. While they do have their similarities, Hemp and marijuana are actually very different. This is the first in a series of three articles that will explain how. We’ll start by taking a closer look at the plant itself. Read on to learn more about the widely misunderstood cannabis plant.

Hemp and marijuana infographic showing differences between the two plants

An Invisible Difference

Part of the confusion about the difference between Hemp and marijuana comes from the fact that these plants do look and smell very similar. That’s because Hemp and marijuana actually come from the same species of plant, Cannabis sativa L. The main difference between the two is not what they look like, but instead lies in something that you can’t see: their chemical composition.

All cannabis plants contain unique chemical compounds called cannabinoids. Researchers have found more than sixty different cannabinoids — closer to a hundred by some estimates — but the most well-known is one called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Quite simply, it’s the level of this chemical in a cannabis plant that determines whether it is classified as hemp or marijuana. Under federal law, in order to be classified as Hemp, a cannabis plant must only have trace amounts of THC. In the United States, the THC level must be less than 0.3 percent by dry weight. If it’s higher than 0.3 percent, then the plant is considered to be marijuana. 


Can Hemp Make Me High?

At a large enough percentage, THC stimulates certain parts of your brain and can make you feel high. The TCH concentration of 0.3 percent or lower that’s found in Hemp isn’t enough to get you high, though, no matter how much you smoke, ingest or otherwise use the Hemp. In fact, some people say that trying to get high from Hemp can actually give you a headache.

Hemp is not grown to get people high. Instead, it is cultivated for its thousands of other uses. This amazing plant can be turned into food, body-care products, medicine, cloth, paper, fuel, construction materials, and many more items. According to a 2017 report created for the U.S. Congress, more than 25,000 Hemp products exist globally.


So What Type of Cannabis Does Make You High? 

On the other hand, marijuana has a much higher level of THC, and it’s this form of cannabis that can get you high. The THC level of marijuana is typically somewhere between 5 and 20 percent. Over time, growers have used selective breeding to increase the levels of THC in marijuana plants, and research shows that average levels are significantly higher than they were years ago. Some strains now have close to 30 percent THC. Another percentage that has increased recently is marijuana-related emergency room visits in some states, and one explanation is that this may be partly due to these higher THC levels causing adverse reactions. 

Not all marijuana comes from Cannabis sativa. There is another popular strain called Cannabis indica. The two plants have some differences in both appearance and chemical effects. Cannabis indica plants are generally shorter and denser than sativa plants and have wider leaves. When smoked or ingested, the two strains can also affect people differently. Most people say that Cannabis sativa produces an energizing high, while indica strains are more calming.

There is also a third, less-common strain of cannabis called Cannabis ruderalis. These plants are even smaller than indica plants, and typically have a much lower THC level. While all of these strains have their differences, as a result of extensive cross-breeding, today many marijuana plants are not simply one type of strain but are actually a mix.


Another Powerful Chemical

If you’ve read anything about cannabis, in addition to hearing about different strains and THC levels, you’ve probably heard about something called cannabidiol, or CBD, which has been attracting a lot of attention lately. Like THC, CBD is a cannabinoid — a unique chemical compound found in the cannabis plant — however, unlike THC, CBD will not make you high. In fact, researchers have found that CBD can actually counteract the effects of THC. For instance, some people say that it reduces the feelings of anxiety or paranoia that THC sometimes causes.

The main reason for the recent surge of interest in CBD is its potential health benefits though. Many people praise it as an effective treatment for numerous health problems including inflammation, nausea, and anxiety. There is even evidence that CBD may help serious conditions such as epilepsy, Crohn’s disease, and multiple sclerosis. In contrast to THC, which is found in much greater concentration in marijuana than Hemp, there is more CBD in a Hemp plant than a marijuana plant. This means that CBD is usually harvested from Hemp. 


Very Different Plants

Whether it is grown for its CBD, its seeds or its fibrous stem, Hemp is cultivated quite differently to marijuana. Most people report that this crop is relatively easy to grow, flourishing in a variety of different soils and climates, and requiring little pest control or fertilizer. Plants are usually packed closely together, and grow taller and skinner than marijuana plants. They also have skinnier leaves. One writer explains the difference by saying that a Hemp farm resembles a corn or wheat field, while a marijuana farm is more likely to look like an apple orchard.

In contrast, marijuana is much more difficult to cultivate. Growers try to maximize the production of female flowers — or buds — where the THC is concentrated. This means that they must pay close attention to their plants and to growing conditions such as temperature and humidity. In order to maintain better control, marijuana is often grown inside a greenhouse.


The Difference Is Clear

Now that you’ve read about just how different Hemp and marijuana really are, you might be wondering why you were ever confused. With each having its own distinct appearance, growing needs and chemical composition, it’s clear that hemp and marijuana are two very different plants. So you might be wondering why hemp is so strictly regulated if it’s so different from marijuana. In an upcoming article, we’ll delve into the fascinating history of this controversial plant in order to answer that question.

Written by Andrea Nakaya

Author and Svn Space contributor. Andrea is a native of New Zealand, and holds a BA in English and an MA in communications from San Diego State University. She has written numerous articles and more than fifty books and anthologies, on a wide variety of current issues.

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