What's The Difference Between Hemp and Marijuana?

As cannabis legalization spreads throughout the globe, you're going to want to know the basics of the plant. First things first: learning the difference between hemp and marijuana.

We note that the subject contained in this article represents illegal activity in certain jurisdictions. Whilst we do not condone any acts which are contrary to any such laws, we understand that readers in those jurisdictions which have decriminalised cannabis may find this article of interest.

Marijuana is being legalized at a rate never seen before. The drug is now legal for medicinal purposes in 33 U.S. states, while also being recreationally legal in 11. And, as of last year —thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill—hemp is now legal in the U.S. on a federal level, and can be used to create medicines like CBD, as well as fabrics, paper, and plastics.

Cannabis is now the fastest-growing job market in the U.S., providing nearly 65,000 jobs in 2018 alone. And with more and more states legalizing the plant, it's becoming increasingly important to stay up to date on all aspects of the cannabis industry. Today, we're going to look at the differences between hemp and marijuana.


Mary Jane, Kush, Ganja, Reefer, Bud, Weed, Pot… this plant goes by many names, but the ony thing you'll need to remember is three letters: THC.

THC stands for tetrahydrocannabinol, and is the infamous active compound that gets cannabis users high. In a marijuana plant, you can expect to see THC levels anywhere between 5% up to 40%, and even higher in marijuana edibles and extracts.

Visually speaking, marijuana and hemp look quite similar, and their leaves are virtually indistinguishable. However, these two plants shouldn't be mistaken for doppelgangers.

Firstly, and most importantly, marijuana remains a Schedule I substance – meaning it is federally illegal and can only be used or possessed in certain states.

If you carry this plant into a state where it's illegal, you could be looking at anything from a slap on the wrist, to a fine, or even imprisonment.

Cannabis Reefer Madness
Reefer Madness movie poster

Though as many will know, the illegality of marijuana is no new issue. The plant has faced decades of propaganda and stigma, beginning as early as the 1930's with Harry J. Anslinger, a politician who used marijuana to demonize minority groups. This was then carried forward with US President Richard Nixon in the '60s, who formally launched the War on Drugs.

When the U.S. declared the War on Drugs, many smaller nations followed suit—such as Australia and New Zealand—taking on a similar tact towards marijuana, which is still largely in effect today. However, we're finally beginning to see a loosening of marijuana laws globally, as more states and nations see the benefits of legalization.

Ironically, the Schedule I status which marijuana sits under, states that any drug in that category has no recognized medical value. Although one of the biggest driving forces of marijuana legalization has been the medical benefits which we're seeing through the use of the plant.

While studies have been stifled due to the plant's uncertain legal status, we're still seeing enormous potential for marijuana to assist those suffering from PTSD, chronic pain, eating disorders, epilepsy and some even believe the plant may be a potential substitute for opioids, which are leading to tens of thousands of overdoses each year.

In fact, marijuana is seen as such a huge benefit to the medical community that some estimates peg the global medical marijuana industry to be worth a titanic USD 56.70 billion by 2026.

Even in countries where medicinal marijuana isn't easily accessed or remains illegal, many citizens are illegally procuring the plant to self-medicate health issues that they have.

Though of course, many people's experience of marijuana will simply boil down to toking on a joint at a party or having a bowl with friends, with no desire beyond simply getting high.

Recreational cannabis use has been the topic of many songs like Snoop Dogg's subtly titled 'Smoke Weed Every Day,' and movies like 'Friday,' 'Pineapple Express' and the Cheech and Chong franchise in its entirety.

Despite being illegal, marijuana use has worked its way into mainstream culture and found a groove. And now, as the plant becomes legal, many of those same figures—such as Snoop Dogg and Seth Rogen—are jumping on the green rush bandwagon and entering the marijuana space to create businesses and products for consumers.

The green rush, as we call it, has been hugely beneficial for recreational cannabis users. Consumers of marijuana previously had to simply take what they could get off a black market dealer, with essentially no say in the matter.

Though the times, they are a-changin'.

For those lucky enough to live in a state where marijuana is recreationally legal, they can go to dispensaries and speak to their local budtender, who can give them a strain and ingestion method of choice to suit their mood.

Whether it be Indica or Sativa, or perhaps a specific strain like OG Kush or Lemon Haze, users can now curate what kind of experiences they want to have when ingesting the plant. Consumers can now also choose whether they'd like to smoke a joint, a bowl, or perhaps ditch the plant matter entirely by going for an edible or extract.

In fact, an interesting aspect of marijuana legalization has been this movement away from smoking, and toward more healthy methods of consumption. This shift is likely the result of increased awareness around the negative effects of smoking, along with the growing awareness of the health benefits achieved from cannabis use.

As a result, more people are turning towards smoke-free methods of ingestion such as eating edibles, using cannabis oils or vaporizing cannabis through a vape or dabbing rig. Researchers estimate that the market for concentrates will be roughly on par with smokeable flowers by 2022, and worth USD 13.78 Billion globally by 2026.

Though be warned, concentrates contain much higher rates of THC than raw flower, and can cause some people to freak out.



Did you know the Declaration of Independence was drafted on Hemp? Or that George Washington asked for citizens to "sow it everywhere?"

Hemp has been deeply embedded into human society and agriculture, and is even considered to be one of the very first crops grown by humans. The earliest evidence of hemp usage traces all the way back to 8,000 BC in Taiwan, where hemp cords were found in pottery.

Archaeologists also found traces of hemp cloth in Mesopotamia—what is now Iran and Iraq—around a similar time period. In 6,000 BC records show hemp seeds and oil were also used as a food source in China, and in 4,000 BC textiles made from hemp have also been found in the same region.

Today however, many use the term hemp and marijuana interchangeably, not realizing the stark differences between the plants. Unfortuneately, this isn't by accident, but rather was  an intended effect of the War on Drugs. While Anslinger sought to use marijuana to persecute minorities, a man named William Randolph Hearst worked alongside Anslinger to lump in hemp as a prohibited substance.

W.R Hearst owned an acreage, as well as a newspaper company, which he used as a platform to promote anti-cannabis propaganda for Anslinger. Scholars believe that Hearst feared the cultivation of hemp, as it posed a threat to his profits.

While trees can take up to 80 years to grow, hemp crops can be harvested at just four months. On top of this, hemp contains less lignin and higher concentrations of cellulose – both of which make hemp a much more viable paper source than trees.

Knowing that hemp would pose a serious threat to his industry, as well to his own acreage, Hearst began to publish anti-cannabis propaganda to dissuade people from using the plant.

The pair were successful, passing the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 which made marijuana possession and distribution illegal, and taxed the production of hemp. This still meant that hemp could be legally cultivated, however, it didn't last long. In the 1970s the Controlled Substances Act was passed, and hemp was lumped alongside marijuana as a Schedule I substance.

Everything changed in 2018 after President Donald Trump passed the US Farm Bill, which legalized the cultivation and distribution of Hemp at the federal level.

The legalization of hemp opened the floodgates for hemp products in wellness, as well as hemp clothing and even hemp plastics. And most notably, the Farm Bill allowed for the hemp-derived CBD craze to begin in earnest.

CBD stands for Cannabidiol, and is a compound found within cannabis plants. While it appears in marijuana as well, hemp plants have a much higher concentration of CBD than marijuana plants, without a sufficient amount of THC to get users high.

CBD use has been associated with many of the same health benefits that marijuana users enjoy like better sleep, less chronic pain, reducing inflammation, assisting with PTSD and depression.

Though most notably, CBD has also made strides in improving rare forms of childhood-onset epilepsy such as Dravet Syndrome, for which traditional medicines don't always work. As a result, GW Pharma has released 'Epidiolex,' the first CBD-based drug to receive FDA approval.

Brightfield estimates the CBD industry will be valued at an enormous $22 Billion by 2022 in the United States alone.

So there you have it, the differences between hemp and marijuana. While they both fall under the same family, they certainly aren't identical twins.

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Louis O'Neill
Louis O'Neill

Louis is a writer based in Sydney with a focus on social and political issues. Having interviewed local politicians and entrepreneurs, Louis now focuses on cannabis culture, legislation & reform.

There are 3 Commentsin this post

  1. some very good information here, but fundamentally missing one major point. Botanically it is all cannabis. the only actual botanical difference between hemp and 'marijuana' is a legislated difference! meaning that an arbitrary % of THC content contained in the cannabis plant decides if the plant is hemp or 'marijuana'- that amount can and does vary around the world but is usually 0.2 % or 0.3 % thc content. thats it! apart from that botanically it is all cannabis.

  2. The line "Though be warned, concentrates contain much higher rates of THC than raw flower, and can cause some people to freak out." could use a better medical explanation for those who don't understand the hallucinogenic issues which vary tremendously from mild to extreme. Many people are still scared of what they don't understand, specifically because of the propaganda all these years.

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