Are Hemp and Cannabis Different? What the Science Says

It’s a frequent question and one that is easy to get confused on – what exactly is different between hemp versus cannabis? Are they the same thing or not? We’ve put together a guide on this very topic and will help you get the understanding you need about these beneficial plants to help you on your journey – including the key physiological, chemical and physical differences (and how these are important for your health).

Our guide here will give you the lowdown on –

  • Whether hemp and cannabis are different or the same thing
  • Why the anatomy of the cannabis plant matters
  • Why countries like the US banned hemp
  • How to tell Marijuana apart from Hemp
  • Whether banning hemp really made sense in the first place

To understand more about hemp and its relationship with cannabis read more below!

Are Hemp and Cannabis the Same?

The short answer is yes. Cannabis is an umbrella species with multiple subspecies under it. Even within these subspecies there are thousands of types of breeds and forms (or cultivars) that individual growers across the world have developed through selective breeding and genetic variation. Cannabis is a highly useful crop both for its industrial and textiles properties (high strength and flexibility) as well as therapeutic and health effects. Because of this it’s seen huge adoption and use across the world through multiple cultures, from Asia to Africa and Europe for thousands of years. The plant originates somewhere in Central Asia (likely in the mountains of areas like Afghanistan where it has grown wild for thousands of years). Locals in these regions have known of its properties and used it extensively since recorded history – even empires like the Mongols documented its cultivation and use long ago. 

You may have heard Cannabis being called Marijuana. This term is not its scientific name but rather an informal slang term for Cannabis sativa subspecies that originated in Mexico (and was adopted in the US due to Spanish / Mexican influence). The sativa subspecies is typically psychoactive and has high THC/THCA content which is what causes a ‘high’ in users of it. That’s where the difference lies in the Hemp subspecies. Hemp has minimal or extremely low trace amounts of THC and usually higher levels of CBD/CBDA which is what really provides the therapeutic benefits of the plant.

There isn’t a specific definition for how much THC versus CBD a cannabis plant needs to contain to be classified as hemp (as opposed to marijuana) but the general rule of thumb and what most countries agree on is less than 0.5% THC. The subspecies and cultivars of Cannabis used to produce hemp are in turn, processed and extracted for its CBD (in the form of CBD oils) as well as hemp extracts, fibres, proteins and other whole food goods (eg. hemp seed oil). As hemp is a pure plant product and has no toxicity profile (ie it is completely healthy and non-harmful as a plant), its usage for its healthy fats (Omega 3 and 6) as well as GLA and other healthy by products is growing hugely.

What is the anatomy of the cannabis plant? (and why it matters)

Cannabis can be both female and male as an individual organism. This is called being dioecious, with both types of flowers being able to be active on one plant simultaneously. One of the biggest industrial uses of the plant is for its fibres that it naturally produces in its stems. The fibrous and incredibly strong stems of hemp can be used in concrete to strengthen it, for clothes and many other products (eg bags). Flowers and buds of the plant contain far more CBD and other beneficial fats and oils than the stems which are mostly just plant fibre. Hemp’s stems do contain cannabinoids however and are not completely useless for nutritional purposes.

Terpenes and phytocannabinoids are the other products generated in the leaves, flowers and buds of the hemp plant that provide other important benefits for the gut and immune system. Hundreds of types of cannabinoids (CBD and CBDA being just a couple examples) exist within the hemp plant. 

Most people only consume the leaves or buds of the plant in supplements like hemp protein powder and oils. The stems with its incredibly strong fibrous walls are much less appetising for consumption and difficult to break down. Products made from the fibers are highly sustainable, green and biodegrade organically which is great in reducing environmental impact. It’s also a crop type that germinates and grows to full height very quickly making its yield and material density very high per hectare of land used which is much more effective and efficient for both the land and water needs than comparable fiber crops like cotton. 

Most hemp is also fairly resistant to insects, mould and fungus which means minimal herbicide and pesticides can be used to further reduce environmental damage as well as potential harm or side effects to humans. Versatility and extremely high utility are the key tenets of hemp as a material – it can be strung into rope, twisted into yarn for thread and clothes, worked and developed into brick and insulation or added into concrete for reinforcement as we described. With very high tensile strength and ability to also flex under strain it’s ideal for a huge range of applications – even paper and textile goods for creative purposes.

Why did countries ban hemp originally?

The answer is complex and very likely has impacts from lobby groups and various industries with commercial incentives towards getting hemp banned in the US, Australia and similar countries for its medicinal and industrial uses (which would compete with their own products – a key example of this being pharmaceutical companies). Hemp subspecies of cannabis have been conflated intentionally by these groups who in turn influenced political bodies and leaders in the 1970s to conflate the plant with Marijuana (the psychoactive cannabis variety) in order to stifle its growth, use and development economically. The FDA banned the product and classified it as a controlled substance despite not being a drug or generating any high like Marijuana. As a result the US (with most similar Western nations like Australia following suit) didn’t have any usage of hemp and it was essentially blocked in progression and adoption for decades. 

Recent times have seen a huge shift in perception, legal treatment and commercial outcomes for hemp however, leading to a renaissance in its application in society both for health food and therapeutic use as well as industrially produced goods. Over time the US has relaxed its restrictive laws on hemp. This has come at the same time as its shift in mindset and laws on marijuana which was legalised in many US states such as California and Colorado for recreational use in 2018 (although it still remains illegal at a national level). With these changes the door was opened for hemp to become legal, with the government understanding its economic potential and highly useful capacity.

Whether you’re buying hemp protein, using hemp moisturisers and creams (which are excellent for your complexion), taking hemp as a dietary supplement or using it for hemp fiber shirts, bags or cloth, you can do so legally today without worry about the product. Its huge versatility has led to thousands of applications of hemp oils and fibers in countries with both advanced and emerging economics. 

How can you tell hemp and marijuana apart?

The key differences are the chemical makeup, appearance and how (as well as where) each plant is grown. Despite both being from Cannabis and having the same genetic lineage biologically as flora, their subspecies can have marked differences in the above areas.

Chemically, as we mentioned the difference is THC level. Hemp can’t get you high as it contains very low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) which is what provides the psychoactive effect and high of marijuana. It can still relax you however and help to reduce inflammation or bodily pains (eg in joints or from bruising in training) through its CBD content (which is legal in most countries). CBD can be ingested through smoked forms or oil and other ingestible forms of hemp. Marijuana can contain significant amounts of both THC and CBD depending on the subspecies or strain and how it was cultivated. The amount legally allowed in cannabis can vary by country and even states or regions within countries. In the United States this is particularly the case with certain counties and states having much more relaxed laws compared to others where low THC or even full THC may be allowed.

Looking at just the physical appearance of hemp and marijuana can be deceiving. They’re often mixed up but the subspecies of these two cannabis plants have some typical common themes in terms of their structure and looks that distinguish them. Height is a key one – varieties of hemp subspecies are typically much taller (almost tree like in stature) and can be meters taller than their marijuana subspecies counterparts. These look more similar to shrubs or short bushy trees with lower stem heights. Hemp also has differing leaf and bud shapes. Its leaves look much more thin and elegant, with less broadness to them and wider, longer reaching expanses end to end. Marijuana leaves and buds are shorter and stockier, with a tighter look and often have hairs and crystals which is not typical of hemp (called trichomes). Although they are both technical cannabis, compared side by side you would think they are completely different species as they look very dissimilar (hemp being much longer, taller and thinner as a plant).

Why did Hemp get banned alongside Marijuana?

America set the tone for marijuana and hemp laws globally since the mid 20th century. Marijuana was long demonised in conservative political movements for a very long time and outright banned under law as a scheduled drug due to its psychoactive effects. This was formalised within the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, effectively initiating the US’ long and bloody war on drugs which has lasted decades through both the Regan and Nixon eras. The seeds of fear were sown amongst the population of the US through propaganda and misinformation which lead to widespread mistrust and lack of understanding on the plant’s uses, effects and the actual science underlying cannabis species.

An unfortunate side effect of this action was that the non psychoactive and non dangerous hemp plant also became illegal due to being closely biologically related to marijuana (the two types of cannabis were grouped together). A similar stance was adopted in many other western nations such as Australia and within EU states like Britain which stifled the use and farming of hemp for almost half a century. Resultingly hemp was banned even though it had no high or psychoactive effects.

Leaps forward have been made in most of these countries since then however to open up and legalise hemp with stringent regulations on THC content. Organisations like the European Industrial Hemp Association have assisted this process by providing regulatory governance and oversight over hemp’s use and cultivation for commercial purposes including food and items. Particularly the key check and audit need is around THC content to ensure crops and subspecies being harvested don’t contain psychoactive THC levels that would categorise it as Marijuana. Despite this many territories globally continue to ban any kind of CBD containing hemp products as well as cultivation.

Why making industrial hemp illegal never made sense

Hemp has been known and used by numerous cultures and empires for thousands of years around the world. From Central Asia it spread globally to be used in Central America, Europe and the Middle East as well as Africa in some areas. Human societies have had long-standing and fruitful relationships with the plant for both food crops and use as an oil and moisturiser for the skin and hair as well as much more heavily for its fiber content to create baskets, threat and rope, accessories and other items (very useful in the ancient world). The Chinese had used the fibers of hemp across multiple empires and dynasties for thousands of years to create rope which may be the oldest discovered usage of the product for commercial means. The ancient chinese medicine practitioners knew of Hemp and its rich CBD content to be able to calm the body, reduce inflammation, help with anxiety and act as an analgesic compound. It would be brewed into tea and used for its medicinal properties by the Mongol and Steppe clans, as well as throughout Pakistan and Indian tribes through to the Persian empire.

Conclusions on whether Hemp and Cannabis really differ or not

As we’ve discussed, Hemp is Cannabis but only subspecies of the plant which contain low THC content. Marijuana is Cannabis subspecies which contain high THC content (typically more than 0.5% but this can vary by definition and location). There are other chemical and physical differences between the two plants but overall they are fairly closely related and easily confused. Hemp was banned due to being grouped with Marijuana by most western nations in the 1970s and has since been legalised for its commercial uses and abundance of helpful properties.