What is the Difference Between Hemp and Marijuana?

CBDNerds Staff
Authored: Sep 28, 2018
Updated: Oct 13, 2020
The Difference Between Hemp and Marijuana | CBDNerds 2020

The difference between hemp and marijuana may seem minor, but this technicality has been the driving force that restricts the production of both varieties of cannabis in the United States. Hemp and marijuana are variations of the same plant species, Cannabis Sativa. Apart from that similarity, hemp and marijuana are cultivated and used in entirely different ways.  

The History: Difference Between Marijuana and Hemp

Hemp has been used in ancient cultures dating back as far as 8,000 BCE. Used to make rope, fabric, and ceramics, hemp proved to be a versatile raw material for a multitude of uses. Eventually, extracted forms of the plant were developed into hashish for its intoxicating properties.

 Although they belong to the same species of plant, there is a difference between marijuana and hemp, mainly how they are used: hemp for commercial use, marijuana for medical and recreational uses. Here’s a quick run-down of laws regarding hemp vs marijuana. 

  • 1937: Marijuana Tax Act places a tax on all marijuana sales, including hemp products.

  • 1970: Controlled Substances Act designates all cannabis species as Schedule I Drugs.

  • 2014: President Obama signed the Farm Bill to begin a pilot research program on hemp.

  • 2018: The Agriculture Improvement Act or 2018 Farm Bill is passed, making hemp agriculture and products legal in all 50 states.

What is are the Main Differences Between Hemp and Marijuana?

Generally, marijuana is used for the potent therapeutic effects it derives from its chemical compounds known as cannabinoids, like THC. Hemp, on the other hand, is used for thousands of industrial purposes favored for its sustainability and versatility in use. Hemp products available for purchase include: 

  • Protein powder
  • Oil
  • Seed
  • Soap
  • Clothing

difference between hemp and marijuana


Hemp and Commercial Use

Hemp has thin leaves that rise to the top of the long stalk. Since they are cultivated for industrial use, hemp tends to grow closer together than marijuana plants (which need room to grow short and bushy). From its seeds to its stalk, hemp has been used in a variety of products. Seeds can be hulled to produce powders and milk, or cold-pressed to be made into oils and paints. A thick outer layer called the bast fiber is a famously durable and renewable product that is used to make construction materials and apparel. 

The inner layer, called the hurd, is a soft and wooden stem that is plentiful in cellulose, a plant fiber that is used to create industrial raw materials. Its acoustic and thermal characteristics can be made into biodegradable paper, concrete, and plastic.

Marijuana Plant and Medicinal use

Marijuana plants have broad leaves and flower buds that are covered in sticky, resinous trichomes. They may only look like white hairs, but these glands contain cannabinoids and terpenes that give a marijuana strain its unique aroma and effects. There are many different strains of marijuana, like cannabis indica or sativa. Plus, the effects and THC content can vary by strain.

Medical marijuana plants are primarily grown to produce a high concentration of cannabinoids which create psychoactive and therapeutic results. Products like cannabis oil (and CBD) are extracted from the marijuana plant and can provide several benefits including relief from pain.

Smoking Hemp Won’t Get You High

A major difference between hemp and marijuana is that the former contains very small amounts of the chemical compound, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is responsible for the cerebral and hallucinogenic effects. Instead, hemp contains a high concentration of cannabidiol (CBD) a chemical compound that complements THC by tempering its psychoactive effects rendering it inactive.

Marijuana, on the other hand, has been specifically bred for higher amounts of THC, up to 35 percent in some flower strains. That means that smoking or consuming hemp products alone can’t get you high. Hemp’s high CBD content has shown to provide similar anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and anti-anxiety effects to THC, without the mind buzz. 

How is Hemp vs Marijuana Cultivated?

Grown closely packed together, as far as four inches apart from each other, hemp takes over acre upon acre of farmland. Hemp is a resilient plant that can grow in multiple climates and environments. A fully mature hemp plant that’s ready for production can take well over 100 days to grow. 

Marijuana is a much more finicky plant requiring moderate and warm climates. Flowering times can range between 60 and 90 days depending on strain and growing conditions. Cannabis plants require enough space to fan out their leaves to grow flower buds. Plants can be grown up to six feet apart and away from hemp, which can pollinate and ruin a marijuana crop.

The Chemicals in Hemp and Marijuana

The most widely recognized chemical compound found in marijuana is tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC for short. THC is a cannabinoid chemical compound that produces psychoactive effects that can improve your mood, reduce pain, and relieve inflammation. Cannabis flower strains can have anywhere between five to 30 percent THC, and beyond.

Hemp products, however, have less than 0.3 percent THC but are rich in cannabidiol (CBD). Consuming these small amounts of THC does not produce cerebral effects like THC. The high concentration of CBD can indirectly promote homeostasis, or balance, in bodily functions that regulate appetite, sleep, mood, and movement.

Many medical users are consuming marijuana and/or hemp products to reap their suspected anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving, and anti-anxiety properties. Many CBD products, however, aren’t regulated for quality or chemical content, so you must be wary when purchasing CBD oil online.

Marijuana Sativa vs. Indica Strains

In the 18th century, plant classifications divided marijuana into two species: sativa and indica. Sativas were found in Eastern Europe, grew tall, had loosely spaced branched, and long, thin leaves. This modern-variety of hemp was used for commercial and non-hallucinogenic effects. 

Cannabis indica strains came from India and were bred not just for industrial use, but also to produce hashish. In recent years, crossbreeding these variations in cannabis has developed strains with potent effects. Today, sativa and indica categories provide a rough classification of strains that have energetic or sedative benefits, respectively.



1. How do I tell the difference between hemp and marijuana?

At first glance, hemp and marijuana can be pretty indistinguishable from each other. However, a deeper look at their composition shows some significant differences. Marijuana has thick, broad leaves with tight buds that are usually covered in sticky resinous trichomes. The trichomes look like tiny white, orange, red, or brown hairs depending on the strain. 

Hemp is taller and has skinnier leaves that usually grow near the top of the plant. You will know the difference between hemp and marijuana immediately upon consumption because marijuana will get you high, but hemp will not.

2. What is the difference between hemp oil and medical marijuana?

Hemp oil is extracted from hemp seeds and is full of omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids which are beneficial for skin health. It is different from CBD (or full-spectrum hemp oil) which is made of whole plant extract and has many benefits including reducing anxiety or inflammation. Hemp oil and CBD are regulated by the food and drug administration.

Medical marijuana comes from the Marijuana plant and is also loaded with cannabinoids (or CBD), as well as THC. In addition to the beneficial features of CBD, THC can be used to reduce nausea, increase appetite, and reduce pain or muscle control problems. There is also ongoing research that shows medical marijuana might even slow the growth of cancer cells. However, it is not yet an FDA approved plant medicine, so legality varies from state to state.

3. Are Hemp and Marijuana Legal?

With all the confusion surrounding the legality of cannabis and hemp, consumers are left scrambling for high-quality products.

States have passed legislation to allow farmers to grow hemp and produce hemp goods. Still, the clashing state and federal laws put farmers in the U.S. in a tough legal position as hemp production is currently monitored by the food and drug administration. For this reason, a lot of raw hemp and other products are imported.

While cannabis is still illegal under federal law, medical and recreational patients have been able to buy cannabis and hemp-derived CBD freely at brick and mortar shops or online. Although the CBD industry is booming, not all sources offer the same quality hemp product.

One must do diligent research before choosing a trusted source and product. In its natural growing environment, hemp is effective at absorbing soil contaminants like microorganisms and heavy metals. Independent third-party lab testing ensures you are purchasing a pure product.



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