Published on October 25, 2021 by Kristina Willis
Most people use the terms marijuana and cannabis interchangeably with an occasional splash of hemp. Even government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention substitute one for the other. Though similar and certainly related, marijuana, cannabis, and hemp do not refer to the same substance.
Marijuana and hemp are both variations of the cannabis sativa plant species; however, their chemical composition differs drastically. The primary chemical compound in marijuana is THC, a psychoactive ingredient that produces a high, while hemp contains mostly CBD, a non-psychoactive compound valued for its many therapeutical benefits.
Subtle differences in definitions are often inconsequential but in the case of cannabis products, misunderstanding the distinction can have legal ramifications for users.
In this article, we clearly outline the disparities and why they matter.
Distinguishing between types of cannabis plants comes down to the chemical compounds that are present, otherwise known as cannabinoids. The cannabis plant contains over 540 chemical substances, with more than 100 identified cannabinoids. By interacting with the endocannabinoid system, cannabinoids can affect change in the human body and mind.
Though other compounds like delta-8-tetrahydrocannabinol have recently gained media attention, the primary compounds in cannabis are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). They are also responsible for the difference between marijuana and hemp.
The main difference between THC and CBD is that THC produces psychoactive effects and is responsible for the “high” component of marijuana. THC works by binding with cannabinoid receptors, while CBD affects the body and mind through other means, such as interacting with enzymes, transporters, and proteins. CBD is highly regarded for its promising therapeutic properties that can help with health concerns such as anxiety and inflammation.
Cannabis plants that are high in THC and low in CBD are called marijuana. Marijuana contains substantial levels of THC and is typically grown for recreational rather than medicinal purposes. It is a Schedule I substance as well as the most commonly used federally illegal drug in the United States. Historically, marijuana is most often smoked via hand-rolled cigarettes or pipes. However, it can also be consumed in edibles or with a vaporizer or e-cigarette.
Colloquially, people use marijuana as a substitute for cannabis, which encompasses all products made from any cannabis sativa plant. While marijuana is a variation of cannabis, not all cannabis products are made from marijuana. Before the wave of legalization, honoring the distinction between marijuana and cannabis wasn’t quite so important as using the terms interchangeably had no foreseeable consequence. Today, cannabis’s chemical makeup is crucial for determining product legality.
Converse to marijuana, hemp is high in CBD and low in THC. Industrial hemp is primarily harvested for its fibers to make cloth, paper, and other textile products. However, it is also grown specifically for CBD, which is utilized for its therapeutical benefits in topical creams, lotions, oils, and edibles. Most importantly, it must contain less than 0.3% THC to be legally considered hemp.
Unlike marijuana, the products derived from hemp are non-psychoactive and non-intoxicating. Legitimately grown hemp cannot be used to get high and is therefore not considered a recreational drug.
Visually, there is no notable difference between marijuana and hemp. The variability is at the molecular level and requires special tests to detect. For example, crime labs have historically identified cannabis through unique botanical characteristics followed by a color test for compounds exclusive to cannabis.
In order to distinguish marijuana from hemp, a secondary color test is performed to estimate the THC to CBD ratio. Marijuana’s higher ratio of 9:1 turns the test blue while hemp comes up red. Unfortunately, though the color test is inexpensive, it does not reveal the exact percentage of THC or CBD. Obtaining a quantitative percentage is a time-consuming process requiring expensive equipment.
Under the 2018 Farm Bill, cannabinoids derived from legal hemp are acceptable. Though the bill relieved hemp-derived products of their Schedule I status, cannabis at large remains federally illegal. Moreover, the hemp must be produced according to regulations outlined in the bill, including harvesting from a licensed grower. On the other hand, marijuana and THC products are wholly illegal under federal law. Medicinal and recreational legality depends on the state, and you should check regional law before purchasing or consuming cannabis.
As more states embrace cannabis laws, it becomes evermore imperative to straighten out definitions for cannabis products. Without first defining the terms we use, clarifying what is legal or illegal becomes increasingly challenging. Particularly as researchers discover new beneficial uses for CBD and other cannabinoids, using terminology interchangeably can damage progressive agendas regarding medical applications.
One of the primary factors holding back current cannabis research is the classification of cannabis as a Schedule I drug. As a result, researchers struggle to get their hands on approved supplies to conduct proper studies and clinical trials. It can also affect how cannabis products are viewed by the public. If the harmful, psychoactive properties of marijuana and THC are attributed to hemp and CBD, we may limit our discovery of potential benefits.
Understanding the difference between marijuana and hemp and other cannabis products is essential for consumers looking to stay within the law and stay informed.
► Identification is key to legality.► Legal hemp is high in CBD and must contain less than 0.3% THC.► Marijuana is high in THC and not the same as cannabis.► Cannabis refers to all plants and products from the cannabis sativa plant.► The 2018 Farm Bill made hemp federally legal under specific conditions.► Marijuana is still federally illegal.► Testing methods to calculate the exact percentage of THC or CBD are expensive and time-consuming.