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  • Rohan Hiatt

What is the difference between hemp and marijuana, Cannabis?

Cannabis. Intentionally reduced to its psychoactive form, folks most commonly associate the term with weed, pot, or marijuana. Pop culture and the political zeitgeist have focused society’s attention on a small part of this plant’s much larger tapestry.

Cannabis sativa L., the scientific name for the base plant, expresses itself in two primary categories, commonly distinguished as hemp and marijuana. Designating between Cannabis varieties in general is a uniquely difficult task at multiple levels, because the plant exhibits the atypical characteristic of having the ability to cross-breed between species. To distinguish between hemp and marijuana varieties, the most commonly utilized indicator is relative tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels.

In general, hemp is a low THC variety of Cannabis and marijuana is a high THC variety. Hemp tends to contain higher levels of cannabidiol (CBD) and other cannabinoids, whereas marijuana contains lower levels of cannabinoids relative to THC levels. Further, hemp is cultivated for three main purposes–grain, fiber, or flower production. Grain and fiber hemp production is geared toward industrial uses for the plant–with little to no “risk” of THC contained in the resulting end products. Hemp produced for its flower or cannabinoids, on the other hand, is more tailored for cannabinoid concentration in the harvested flower and plant.

Much of the public confusion between hemp and marijuana surrounds the potential psychoactive properties of the Cannabis plant. Even though industrial hemp existed as a commodity for centuries prior to World War 2, the post-War environment and subsequent turn to a hardline stance on psychoactive substances by the government resulted in the conflation and banning of the two forms of cannabis. Prior to its prohibition, the United States used industrial hemp for a number of truly industrial purposes seemingly without any significant societal consequences and the federal government itself acknowledged the differences between the types of uses of Cannabis in its statutes and regulations.

Only recently, with the passage of the 2014 and 2018 Farm Bills, has the federal government returned to an approving stance on hemp and industrial hemp, in particular. However, even with federal hemp legalization complex questions still arise. Since marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance, the Drug Enforcement Agency maintains authority over its enforcement. Hemp is regulated primarily by individual states or the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While industrial hemp is visually and chemically distinguishable from marijuana in a number of ways, regulators continue to assert difficulty in differentiating between cannabinoid hemp and marijuana Cannabis varieties in practice. Industrial hemp is also arbitrarily subjected to all of the same regulatory and testing requirements as cannabinoid hemp, despite its nature as a fundamentally different product. Proper treatment of industrial hemp at the regulatory level requires a qualified understanding of the relative risks–or lack thereof–associated with hemp fiber and grain production.

Significantly, under the current federal definition (and under most other accepted definitions), it is almost impossible to get “high” from hemp plants themselves. THC in sufficient quantities to produce psychoactive effects only exists in marijuana varieties of Cannabis plants, or potentially in the extracts manufactured from hemp. But with industrial hemp grown for the plant’s grain or fiber, there is little to no risk of anyone getting “high” from the harvested or processed material. Not only does the harvested material not contain THC, but THC and other cannabinoids are also typically destroyed during the harvesting process itself. The acknowledged risk of government misidentification resulting in overenforcement necessitates a robust and consistent education campaign surrounding industrial hemp and its differences compared to cannabinoid or floral hemp and marijuana.

With regards to visual differences, industrial hemp is typically grown outdoors using traditional agricultural practices as a large-scale row crop and allowed to mature for ideal stalk or grain properties. Hemp flower, while often grown outdoors in widely spaced arrangements, can also be found growing indoors in greenhouses, hoop houses, or other agricultural buildings to ensure a uniform environment for optimal flower production. Hemp flower growers implement horticultural practices to achieve specified end-product results. Marijuana, on the other hand, is mostly grown indoors or in greenhouses as a more boutique flower crop. Marijuana grows focus on developing the plant’s flowers to encourage THC production. As such, the risk of cross-pollination, and thus contamination of a crop’s genetic characteristics, means that industrial hemp–which is grown for both male and female plants–and marijuana–grown solely for females–are almost never grown together. Furthermore, it is easy to tell if an individual farmer is growing industrial hemp versus cannabinoid hemp or marijuana because the difference in agricultural practices is immediately noticeable.

Industrial hemp represents an infinitely useful and sustainable commodity. Yet, its association with cannabinoid hemp and marijuana in light of public hesitancy and the continued reluctance of the federal government to fully deregulate cannabis create severe barriers to the industry’s growth, and emphasize the need for the development of nuanced regulations in order to ensure a robust industrial hemp market.


Think Hempy Thoughts, Middlebury Institute

David P. West, Hemp and Marijuana: Myths & Realities, North American Industrial Hemp Council (1998),

Jason Sawler et al., The Genetic Structure of Marijuana and Hemp, 10 PLoS One 8 (2015),


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