What Is The Difference Between Hemp and Marijuana?

In the last few years, the use of CBD, hemp and marijuana products have increased significantly. States that have legalized marijuana are now booming with new business for bud, concentrates, and tinctures. Those states that have not yet legalized are still seeing a rise in non-marijuana products like CBD and industrial hemp, thanks to recent regulation changes on a federal level.

With a patchwork of legality and a growing market of useful products, right now is a critical time to know the legal and functional difference between the types of cannabis. The most crucial difference is between marijuana and hemp - two very different cultivation methods and resulting products that both use the cannabis Sativa plant.

Hemp vs. Marijuana - What is the Difference?

  1. How they are grown
  2. The composition of THC and CBD
  3. Legality
  4. Possible uses

Those are the primary differences between hemp and marijuana, though they both come from the same plant. The first is the methods used to grow hemp vs. marijuana. The second is how much TCH and CBD - the active and controversial components - naturally occurs in hemp vs. marijuana. The third is the patchwork legality of marijuana compared to the federal legality of hemp. The fourth is how these two very different organic products can be used or processed into new products. 

Cannabis Plants: Sativa, Indica, and Ruderalis

The first thing to understand is that there are three different subspecies of cannabis: Sativa, Indica, and Ruderalis.

Cannabis Sativa

Cannabis Sativa is the predominant subspecies of cannabis. It tends to grow tall and fluffy, with plants reaching over 5 feet tall if allowed to grow. Sativa strains of the cannabis plant are known for producing more THC than CBD naturally, though this balance can be adapted through cultivation. If grown and consumed as marijuana, cannabis Sativa is known for sharp and spicy scents and a mental, energetic high experience.

Cannabis Sativa can be cultivated for either marijuana or hemp.

Cannabis Indica

Cannabis Indica was discovered later as an isolated cannabis strain that developed on its own around India and the Kush mountains. This is why strains of Indica are often referred to with "kush" in their name. The Indica subspecies is a shorter and stockier plant that tends to produce more CBD than THC, with a reputation for sleepy, hungry, body high experiences.

Indica is only used for marijuana cultivation.

Cannabis Ruderalis

Cannabis Ruderalis is a subspecies most often found growing wild in Russia, Asia, and Eastern Europe. It is most often found in fields and on roadsides. Ruderalis is known for a tall and much less leafy appearance and is capable of auto-flowering reproduction. This subspecies is often used to strengthen other cannabis strains for use in marijuana or hemp production.

The Composition and Cultivation Differences Between Hemp and Marijuana

Legal commercial cannabis hemp warehouse top angle. Composition and cultivation of marijuana concept

From the three subspecies of cannabis, only Sativa is used to grow hemp. However, the way they are grown makes a huge difference in the final plant and its chemical composition. You already know that THC is the plant sub-component that gets you high, and you may understand that CBD is the non-psychoactive component that provides pain relief. What you may not know is how the composition varies between marijuana and hemp.

Cannabis sativa contains a combination of cannabinoids (THC and CBD) along with a range of other terpenes and flavonoids.

Marijuana Composition

When cultivating marijuana for medical or recreational purposes, the goal is to get as much THC or CBD to occur naturally as possible, which means separating the male and female plants to force bigger, more cannabinoid-rich buds to grow. Most marijuana strains focus primarily on THC, looking to get the percentage up. When looking at the products, you may find that they read something like 14% THC or 45% THC. This is a percent of the weight of the dried flower or concentrate. Marijuana may be cultivated with natural, high, or low CBD, though all Sativa contains some CBD.

Hemp Composition

In hemp, the composition is precise. Legally, cannabis Sativa plants must have 0.3% THC composition or less to be considered hemp. All Sativa contains both trace THC and trace CBD, but the ratio is very different. Anything with greater than one-third of one percent is legally considered marijuana. So how is such a big difference created between marijuana Sativa and hemp Sativa? It's all about cultivation.

Hemp plants are first chosen for their sturdiness as a textile and outdoor crop to grow in bulk. Then, the male and female plants are allowed to do what they normally do without separation - so flowers are not triggered or forced to produce. Finally, just like marijuana plants are interbred for THC strength, hemp plants are bred to lack THC and instead show the positive qualities of a textile crop. That said, hemp plants also tend to have a higher natural concentration of CBD, making their byproduct oil excellent for pain and stress management.

The Legality of Hemp and Marijuana

Now let's dive into the nitty-gritty of legality. The most important difference between marijuana and hemp is where each is permitted. Considering the potential misdemeanor and felony charges possible or possession of marijuana in the wrong state, this is what every user or cultivator of cannabis plants must know.

Legality of Hemp

It has been legal to grow and cultivate hemp in the US since December of 2018, and American farmers have embraced the sturdy textile crop. However, legally, those fields become a felony if the plants exceed 0.3% THC in the leaves, flower, or stem. Each crop of hemp is harvested and tested to ensure legality. Anything that accidentally grows too 'strong' must be disposed of immediately to avoid penalties.

With the legalization of hemp, we also get a federal acceptance of CBD, the cannabinoid component that is non-psychoactive but bears benefits like pain management and promoting a sense of well-being. CBD - without THC - is legal across the nation and is derived legally from hemp plants.

Legality of Marijuana

Marijuana is now defined as any cannabis product with greater than 0.3% THC composition. Marijuana is still federally illegal and not yet legal in all states. This means that crossing state lines with marijuana is prohibited, as is possessing it in states where it has not yet been legalized. Due to the conflict between federal illegality and state legality, those with government or government-funded jobs may not be able to partake in marijuana use even inside a legal state. 


What is the difference between hemp and marijuana? Hemp is a textile plant used to make fabrics - containing natural CBD and only trace amounts of THC. Marijuana is every other type of cannabis plant or product that contains more than 0.3% THC. One can be used for rope, canvas, and CBD extract; the other is used for medicinal and recreational purposes.

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