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Hemp vs Cannabis vs Marijuana: The Difference Explained

Hemp vs Cannabis vs Marijuana: The Difference Explained

With all the variance in cannabis nomenclature, things can get quickly get confusing. Cannabis, marijuana, weed, hemp: do all these words mean the same thing? 

Not exactly. Keep reading to get a crash course on the complicated world of cannabis terminology.

What is Cannabis?

Both marijuana and hemp fall under the umbrella of cannabis, but they aren’t different species of the plant per se. Cannabis is a genus of dioecious flowering herb, which means a plant that can be male or female in laymen’s terms. Inside the cannabis genus are three recognized strains: cannabis sativa, cannabis indica, and cannabis ruderalis. Researchers have determined that the plant originated somewhere in central or southern Asia.


There’s a rich history of cannabis cultivation by humans that dates back as far as 440 BC when the ancient Greeks took steam baths that utilized cannabis vapors. Early Arabic and Chinese cultures made use of the plant’s psychoactive properties, as well as harvested the fibers for use in rope and papermaking. Cannabis makes such a soft and durable fiber that it continues to be cultivated for these purposes today.


What is Hemp? 

The word hemp isn’t a scientific classification the way sativa or indica is. While many people believe that hemp is a unique species of cannabis, that isn’t actually the case. Hemp is simply a way of distinguishing cannabis with less than 0.3% THC content by dry weight. 

For those who may not know, THC is a chemical compound called a cannabinoid. There are over one hundred different cannabinoids that can be found in cannabis flower, but THC is notable because it’s the one that creates the “high” we associate with smoking a joint or hitting a bong. So in a sense, hemp is basically a way of describing non-intoxicating cannabis. While this usage of the word hemp has been common for decades, it wasn’t until the Agricultural Act of 2018 was passed that it became an official definition.

Hemp is a pretty useful cash crop. The cannabis cultivated today for use in making industrial textiles like clothing, canvas, and building materials is all classified as hemp. Though hemp does not contain enough of the psychoactive THC to get someone high, there are other cannabinoids with practical benefits. Chiefly CBD, which you’ve also probably heard of. CBD has quickly become the darling active ingredient for both the beauty and wellness industries. Products range from oils and tinctures all the way to skin serums. What hemp plants lack in the THC department, many make up for with potent percentages of CBD. For many manufacturers of CBD infused products, sourcing from hemp plants is a way to err on the side of caution regarding cannabis’s somewhat tumultuous legal status.

What is Marijuana? 

Here we have the inverse of hemp. Like hemp, marijuana is not its own sub-species of cannabis. It’s simply a classification of cannabis plants that do contain over 0.3% THC by dry weight. This is the stuff that gets you high!

The term marijuana is so ubiquitous it is easy to assume that people have been using it forever. However, its usage has only risen to prominence in North America during the last century. During the Mexican Revolution that began in 1910, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans fled their homeland and found refuge in North America. With this influx of migrants came a swell of anti-Mexican sentiments. It was during this time that what had been traditionally referred to as cannabis, became marijuana. Rumors founded in racism spread through the States that marijuana, or Mexican Cannabis, caused immigrants to become homicidal. This fear-mongering eventually led to the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, a bill that laid the groundwork for modern-day cannabis prohibition. 

Because of the prejudice associated with the word Marijuana, many organizations in the industry refuse to continue using it and opt to simply say cannabis instead. However, the term is still widely used in the culture. 

Most commercial marijuana cultivators are breeding plants with the express purpose of marketing a product rich with THC for either recreational or medicinal use. The attention to detail that goes into marijuana cultivation far exceeds commercial hemp growers, who tend to aim for larger plants with higher yields.

What’s the difference? 
To summarize, both marijuana and hemp are cannabis. We make a distinction between the two based on the presence of the intoxicating cannabinoid THC. Cannabis buds with less than 0.3% THC are classified as hemp and are grown primarily for industrial textiles. However, with the market for the non-intoxicating cannabinoid CBD growing as rapidly it is, hemp has found practical uses outside of paper and cloth. 

Marijuana, on the other hand, has a THC percentage greater than 0.3% and is grown primarily for that exact reason -- to glean the recreational and therapeutic benefits that THC can provide. 

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