Cannabis, Marijuana, and Hemp: Do You Know the Difference?

Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t. For 80 years the U.S. government has lumped these terms together. If you weren’t specifically studying these substances, there’s no reason you would know.

But the truth is, cannabis, marijuana, and hemp are not the same things, yet so often they are used interchangeably. In a world where marijuana and hemp are finally being recognized, studied, and technically developed for the wide-ranging medicinal and industrial applications they offer, it is important that we make the many distinctions between them. Fortunately, cannabis, marijuana, and hemp are shedding the unjustly demonized connotations they once had. And it’s the perfect opportunity to understand and promote the use of these words with their correct, natural meaning.

We want people to know the truth about the relationship between marijuana and hemp and the properties that make them so wonderfully distinct from one another. The more people know, the more they will be able to make well-informed opinions and decisions about marijuana and hemp.

So why were these three words lumped together?

It began with the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937 and got driven home by the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. Even though it was called the Marihuana Tax Act, hemp was taxed heavily all the same. The government made no distinction between cannabis, marijuana (which it spelled “marihuana”), and hemp. In 1934 and 1935, hemp cultivation had increased, but the tax act facilitated a decline in the entire hemp industry. Previously, hemp had been an important crop in U.S. history for hundreds of years.

In 1970, the Nixon Administration signed into law the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The CSA defines a Schedule I substance as a drug “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Nixon’s “War on Drugs” not only unjustly put marijuana in a category with heroin, LSD, and peyote, it included all forms of cannabis, which includes industrial hemp. No wonder it’s so confusing. This one piece of policy created the broad misconception of both marijuana and hemp—two very different plant relatives. Let’s take a closer look.

So how are they different?

Cannabis is a family of plants with two primary classifications — Indica and Sativa. Marijuana and hemp are species of Cannabis that belong to the Cannabis Sativa family. Think of them as cousins; they have similarities, yes, but they also have very important distinctions. Once you read about these distinctions, you will see why the U.S. government’s policy for 80 years caused confusion and misunderstandings about these plants, and you’ll see why current advocates and lawmakers are changing the language we use regarding them.

Marijuana and hemp (cousins in the Cannabis family) differ in several ways:


At first glance, hemp and marijuana might appear similar. But closer inspection reveals that marijuana has broad leaves, dense buds, and a short, bushy structure. Hemp, on the other hand, has skinny leaves concentrated at the top of the plant and grows taller and slenderer than the marijuana plant.


Perhaps the most crucial distinction, hemp and marijuana have very different chemical compositions. So different that one is psychoactive, and one is not. Cannabis (the family to which both plants belong) contains a variety of compounds called cannabinoids, two of the most prevalent of which are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).

Both of these cannabinoids have been proven to offer profound therapeutic benefits for humans. THC, as you may already know, causes psychoactive effects when enough is ingested. CBD, however, has no psychoactive effects. The difference between industrial hemp and marijuana is that hemp contains less than .3% THC, an amount that can not get you high. Marijuana, on the other hand, can contain anywhere from 15% to 40% THC.

Knowing these facts, it becomes clear just how misleading it was to include hemp—a non-psychoactive substance—in the Schedule I category with all other psychoactive substances.

In How They’re Cultivated

Hemp is grown with minimal care, as it is a natural pest and weed resistant, can grow close together and is adaptable to most climates. Marijuana, however, requires a carefully controlled cultivation environment that is warm and humid. The plants cannot grow too closely together.

In Use

Because of its psychoactive properties, thanks to abundant THC, marijuana is used mainly for recreational and medicinal purposes.

Hemp, on the other hand, can be used for many industrial purposes along with the medicinal applications of CBD. It is capable of producing a surprising number of products, including paper, clothing, building materials, plastics, biofuel, food products, oils and more. Hemp-derived CBD is non-psychoactive and has many astonishing therapeutic and preventative health applications.

In the Law

After nearly 80 years, the 2014 Farm Bill officially defined hemp apart from marijuana, federally. This is thanks to the efforts of Kentucky legislators and Brian Furnish of Ananda Hemp, the first hemp farm to bring hemp cultivation back to the U.S. One by one, states that wish to grow hemp crops again have been adopting similar language, defining—as it should have been done all along—hemp and marijuana separately.

We’re still waiting, however, for the DEA to un-include hemp from the CSA. While the actual word “hemp” is not on the list, “cannabis” is, which, as you’ve just read, is the family to which hemp belongs.

The progress has been slow, but increasingly the misconceptions about hemp and marijuana are being shed. As people become more educated and have life-changing experiences with marijuana and hemp products, our policy regarding them will finally align with the amazing, natural resources they truly are.


Cadena, A. “Hemp vs Marijuana: The Difference Explained.” CBDOrigin. 10 September 2018. Web. Accessed 25 November 2018.

“Hemp vs Marijuana.” The Ministry of Hemp. Web. Accessed 25 November 2018.

“The Truth Behind Hemp in the United States.” The Ministry of Hemp. Web. Accessed 25 November 2018.

“Hemp Legal Status.” Web. Accessed 25 November 2018.

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