Cannabis legalization is spreading like wildfire across the U.S., which means more adults than ever are gaining access to psychoactive weed. Even better, industrial hemp has been legal at the federal level for several years, and the availability of hemp-derived products is increasing to the benefit of the economy, the environment and consumers.
Yet, as marijuana and hemp grow in popularity and spread around the country, a question is arising: What’s the difference? And, once you understand the difference, is there any easy way to distinguish between marijuana and hemp? Before knowing the actual difference between marijuana and hemp, let us know some other facts about them.
What Are They Used for?
Easily the most important difference between marijuana and hemp is what these cannabis products are intended to do. Because it is unlikely that you will see a cannabis field that is intentionally mixed with hemp and cannabis, understanding the applications of these cannabis varieties is the best way to differentiate between them in the real world.
Marijuana is cannabis used to get a user high — or, at least, it is cannabis bred for psychoactive cannabinoids. Plenty of marijuana users rely on the compounds within marijuana for medical treatment, but many others enjoy marijuana’s compounds recreationally, as a means of relaxing and enjoying the experience of being stoned. Marijuana often takes the form of dry flower and smokables, but marijuana is also present in products like edibles, oils and even topicals.
It might be worthwhile to note here that the term “marijuana” is passing out of favour in the cannabis community because of its controversial history. Americans have long used the term “marijuana” to persecute People of Color, especially Latin immigrants who used cannabis recreationally in greater numbers than other groups at the beginning of the 20th century. In contrast, the term “cannabis” has a less negative connotation, so plenty of psychoactive cannabis products use this term instead of the outdated and potentially problematic “marijuana.”
In contrast, hemp has many applications, but none of them is to get users high. Hemp crops are cultivated for their fibre, for their seed and for their non-psychoactive compounds, like CBD, but hemp is not grown to contain psychoactive THC. In fact, the law permitting the cultivation of industrial hemp expressly limits the amount of THC allowed in hemp to a trace amount, 0.3%, which is not a concentration high enough to generate any effects.
Hemp products take all sorts of forms. Hemp fibre can be used to make textiles for clothing or linens, or it can be used in disposable products like hemp paper or hemp plastic. Hemp seeds are rapidly becoming a beloved superfood thanks to their high levels of nutrition, and some seed is pressed into oil for cooking or cosmetics. Finally, a good amount of hemp grown in the U.S. is cultivated to make CBD products, which you can usually identify with labels like “Hemp CBD.”
Where Are They Sold?
Because marijuana contains compounds that affect one’s mental and physical experience, marijuana products are much more tightly controlled than hemp products. In fact, at the federal level, the sale of any kind of marijuana remains illegal. Fortunately, in most states, you can find marijuana products in legal dispensaries, either for recreational or medical use.
In contrast, hemp products are available almost anywhere. Because they do not contain THC or other psychoactive compounds, hemp products are sold in drugstores, grocery stores, cosmetics stores, health and wellness stores and more. A good rule of thumb is that if you didn’t need to show your ID to enter a store with a cannabis product, there is a good chance that the cannabis product you are looking at is made from hemp.
How do They Look Like?
Finally, the big question: Can you tell the difference between marijuana and hemp by the look of the plant alone? For the most part, the answer is: no.
Though some experienced cannabis breeders claim that there are variations in growth patterns between psychoactive and non-psychoactive varieties of cannabis crops — especially when it comes to leaf shape, with most claiming that hemp leaves are skinnier — the truth is that science cannot confirm this as yet. In fact, research on different cannabis strains has found no discernable genetic difference between cannabis varieties that look different, indicating that the presence or lack of psychoactive compounds is such a minor change that it isn’t tied to any physical features of the plant.
There is a difference between marijuana and hemp — but it isn’t one you can identify without labels. Fortunately, as the cannabis industry grows, cannabis labels will become clearer, and it will be easier than ever to determine whether your product comes from marijuana or hemp.