Hemp and marijuana are both varieties of Cannabis sativa L. The law differentiates the two by their THC content: hemp contains less than 0.3 percent THC, marijuana contains more.  When the public uses the term marijuana, it is usually in reference to a cannabis plant containing enough THC to be psychoactive. While the public may use the words hemp and marijuana interchangeably, hemp is usually reserved for varieties of the plant that have such a negligible amount of THC, they won’t produce any psychoactive effects.  Both hemp and marijuana are incredibly versatile and can be used in an array of industries, from health and wellness to construction. 

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What's the difference between hemp and marijuana?

Marijuana is Federally Illegal

Marijuana has been de facto illegal since the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. It became strictly prohibited with the passage of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970. According to that law, marijuana refers to “all parts of the plant Cannabis Sativa L., whether growing or not; the seeds thereof; the resin extracted from any part of such plant; and every compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of such plant, its seeds or resin.”  The CSA classifies marijuana as a Schedule I Controlled Substance, or one that has “no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse.” Marijuana is accompanied by heroin, LSD, peyote, methaqualone, and ecstasy in this category.  Despite federal legislation clearly defining marijuana as a dangerous and illegal substance, the statewide movement to legalize cannabis has infiltrated all but 3 states:

  • 11 states have completely legalized weed 
  • 22 states have legalized weed for medicinal use 
  • 14 states have legalized the use of CBD products 

Idaho, South Dakota, and Nebraska are the only states that continue to uphold total cannabis prohibition.  As long as marijuana remains federally illegal, the market and industries built around it are at risk of being shut down by the federal government. This is an unlikely scenario, especially since legal weed has bipartisan support. The immediate effects of federal prohibition are the inability of cannabis businesses to use banks or insurance. Medical patients are unable to use their health insurance to cover the costs of cannabis-based medicine. Federal prohibition also makes it difficult for researchers to study the substance

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Hemp is Federally Legal

The CSA excludes hemp from the definition of marijuana. Marijuana prohibition is enforced by the US Drug Enforcement Administration, but hemp cultivation is regulated by the US Department of Agriculture. Hemp products are regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration.  The Farm Bill of 2018 distinguishes hemp from marijuana by THC content. Cannabis sativa L. varieties containing more than 0.3 percent of THC are considered marijuana. Cannabis sativa L. containing less than that is considered hemp.

The language of the law is a bit more detailed:  “the term ‘hemp’ means the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of that plant, including the seeds thereof and all derivatives, extracts, cannabinoids, isomers, acids, salts, and salts of isomers, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.”

Unlike marijuana, the hemp industry is federally legitimate. The 2018 Farm Bill expanded the legality of hemp, the cultivation of which had been illegal between 1937 and 2013. The 2013 Farm Bill made it possible for US farmers to cultivate hemp as a part of special pilot programs. Now, all farmers are welcome to apply for state and federal hemp growing licenses. The legal definition of hemp provided by the 2018 law also makes it possible for hemp farmers to access protections under the Federal Crop Insurance Act.

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Finally, all CBD products derived from industrial hemp cultivated in accordance with the 2018 Farm Bill are legal.    Federal legality means that hemp industry professionals are likely to avoid the logistical hurdles complicating the marijuana business including access to banks and insurance. It is also much easier for researchers to study industrial hemp than marijuana. 

Marijuana contains THC and has psychoactive effects

In addition to their legal differences, hemp and marijuana can also be distinguished by the ways they are consumed.  The most common use of marijuana is recreation. Today’s marijuana strains contain an average THC content ranging from 10 to 19 percent. This is enough THC to induce psychoactive effects. While these effects are enjoyable in their own right, they are also responsible for the therapeutic benefits of cannabis.  Though more research is needed, the evidence of cannabis’ medicinal properties is extensive.

There is conclusive evidence that cannabis is an effective antiemetic for adults with chemo-therapy induced nausea and vomiting, analgesic for adults with chronic pain, and spasticity treatment for adults with MS. There is promising evidence suggesting that marijuana is also an effective treatment for sleep disturbances, weight loss associated with HIV/AIDS, Tourette syndrome, social anxiety, PTSD, and traumatic brain injury.

Cannabinoids and terpenes are responsible for the plant’s medicinal effects. These substances can be consumed through the inhalation of smoke or vapor produced by heating cannabis plant matter or concentrates, ingestion of cannabis-infused food and beverages (edibles), or the application of cannabis-infused ointments (topicals) directly to the skin.   

Hemp does not contain THC and is more multi-purpose

Hemp is such a versatile and profitable crop, its cultivation was required in colonial America. Hemp can be used to make medicine, food, textiles, plastics, and fuel. In fact, hemp may even be able to save the bees.  Hemp’s multifunctionality is a result of its chemical makeup and hardy anatomy. Hemp seeds are rich in vitamins, minerals, and essential fats. The seeds can be eaten on their own or pressed to make oils or other derivatives that can be infused into cosmetic or medicinal products.

Hemp bark and stem cores can be used to produce clothing, coarse fabrics, paper, plastics, and construction materials. The whole plant can also be processed into fuel, alcohol, and silage. Hemp produces flower which, like marijuana flower, can be used to extract cannabinoids. Most commonly, hemp is used to extract CBD.