Hemp vs. Marijuana - What's the difference?

David Jadwin

With the dramatic rise of the CBD industry and the legalization of medical or recreational marijuana in many states, you might ask: "What is the difference between Hemp vs. Marijuana?". Other questions might emerge such as "Does CBD only come from Hemp?", "What exactly is legal?", "Does CBD get you high?", and on and on. Let's explore some basic answers to these questions by starting to understand the differences and similarities of hemp and marijuana.

The Plant Types and Genetics

Both hemp and marijuana are cannabis plants, with the primary difference being the level of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol). They both belong to the same genus, Cannabis. The diversity of the cannabis plant means that there are several thousand strains and dozens of categories, each with varying physical and chemical variations.

There are three primary sub-species, namely Cannabis Sativa, Cannabis Indica and Cannabis Ruderalis. The Sativa strains tend to induce euphoria, increase energy levels, and produce other effects that make it well suited for the recreational market. The Indica strain tends to produce an overall body effect to sooth muscles, reduce pain, support healthy sleep. Those and other characteristics make it better for medical use. The Ruderalis strains have lower THC and more fibrous stems, but have low-yield growth. Therefore they are best used for textile or clothing production.

3 marijuana leaves showcasing the different strains

But when it comes down to it, a cannabis plant with less than 0.3% THC is considered hemp, while anything over that is considered Marijuana. As you are probably aware, THC is the chemical responsible for marijuana’s psycho-active effects. Marijuana may typically have between 5-20% THC content. Some of the most potent strains can have 25-30% THC levels.

Despite careful breeding, it's not uncommon for an intended hemp crop to become "hot" and produce THC levels that are too high. In states where marijuana is legal, it can be converted, but others, the crops must be destroyed. An official in Hawaii, in 2019, said that over half of the hemp growers' crops where unusable due to high THC levels. Part of this was due to Hawaii's unique climate, but it can be a problem anywhere.

Hemp vs. Marijuana - What is Legal?

The history of the legal status of cannabis in the United States is quite interesting and began with the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. This was the first legal restriction on the use of cannabis which had been widely used and accepted in manufacturing, medicine and recreation until then. Then, in 1970, all cannabis plants and products became illegal under the Controlled Substances act of 1970. This stopped the cultivation of cannabis, killing the usage for medical or industrial use.

Then came the Farm Bill and the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018,  which made hemp agriculture and products legal in all 50 states! This is what really gave rise to the CBD Oil industry. It defined hemp as having less than 0.3% THC, and therefore legal.

The existence of terminology such as hemp vs. marijuana is a function of our legal history and relationship with the cannabis plant. The fact that the plants are really impossible to distinguish visually makes law enforcement very confused. This is because the plants may look the same but some may have THC (and therefore be marijuana) and some may not have THC (and therefore be hemp).

With the legalization of medical and/or recreational marijuana use expanding in many states, it seems only a matter of time before marijuana is federally legal. Once that happens, the legal differentiation of hemp vs. marijuana won't matter, but for now it does. To complicate matters, many states laws, banking practices and public perception have wrapped hemp and marijuana in one basket. This has created a view among some that CBD is illegal or illicit, which is not true.

This inconvenient association is a function of the long-standing laws of 1970 having dominating the current living generations and business regulations. These will adjust over the next few years as the legalization of hemp, and the growing CBD industry, requires.

Implications For CBD

CBD exists in all forms of the cannabis plant, and in both marijuana and hemp. CBD for Oils and other CBD products are typically labeled as "NO THC" or "<0.3% THC" so that they are federally legal. Pure hemp CBD products such as Hemp Flower or Hemp Pre-Rolls are available for smoking, and fit under those same guidelines.

When purchasing and CBD products, the brand should have available the Certificates of Analysis that show the full 3rd-party lab results. They should show not only the low level of THC but also the concentration of CBD and other major cannabinoids.

To recap, hemp and marijuana are the same plant, but defined differently based on THC levels. Hemp is federally legal while marijuana is only legal in some states, and to varying degrees. The breeding of cannabis continues to evolve with growers creating "high-resin strains" that have greater concentration of CBD and cannabinoids than ever before.

Hemp vs. Marijuana - What's the difference?
Learn about Hemp vs. Marijuana. Details about the cannabis plants, the history of legalization in the United States, and CBD production and purchase.
The Green Dragon CBD
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Hemp vs. Marijuana - What's the difference?
July 31, 2023
CBD Education