Many of us have been confused by the improper colloquial uses of the words hemp and marijuana, as they are often used interchangeably. Understanding the difference between hemp and cannabis begins with two primary distinctions – the scientific and the legal difference.
Interestingly, these differences dictate the way we use marijuana and hemp, which has been the source of much debate for hundreds of years.
Both marijuana and hemp come from the same species of plant called “Cannabis Sativa L”. Cultivators of the cannabis plant have manipulated it over the years to encourage specific traits to become dominant.
Hemp was originally cultivated nearly 10,000 years ago in what is modern day Taiwan. Ancient cultivators of the cannabis plant recognized that it was dioecious meaning that it had dual characteristics.
Cultivators grew one variety of the cannabis plant to be tall and durable this became what we now call industrial hemp. Upon discovering that the flower buds of the cannabis plant had psychoactive effects, cultivators began separating the hemp plants from the flowering plants in order to isolate their “medicinal” characteristics, these plants closely resembled what we call marijuana plants today.
Scientifically, we now know that industrial hemp plants tend to produce high levels of the cannabinoid CBD, while producing low amounts of THC. Conversely, the marijuana plant produces high THC levels and low CBD levels.
This chemical difference dictates the way we use the cannabis plant for medicinal purposes. CBD has been successful in treating people with arthritis, chronic pain, and epilepsy. While THC has been successful in helping people with similar ailments, each cannabinoid interacts with the user differently, making CBD more effective for some than others (the same for THC).
The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 banned the industrial cultivation of hemp by classifying marijuana as a schedule 1 drug. Though there were obstacles to cultivating the cannabis plant prior to the Act, this was the first time that the federal government created legislation that essentially grouped hemp and marijuana into the same category.
Hemp farmers knew that the variety of the cannabis plant they were growing had little psychoactive effects, but law makers were not interested. Proponents of the war on drugs were focused on eradicating a species of plant that they clearly did not understand.
The industrial hemp plant has always been cultivated for its strong fibers. For ancient civilizations the fibers were useful for textiles, building materials, and even fuels—we still use hemp for these things today.
Marijuana is cultivated specifically for the THC-containing flowers—yes the hemp plant does flower, but the THC content is so low that getting high would be a chore. Since 1970 many states have legalized the industrial cultivation of hemp, despite federal laws prohibiting it. Research and the persistent public pushed President Obama to sign the U.S. Farm Bill in 2014.
The Farm Bill acknowledges that there is a chemical difference between industrial hemp and marijuana, defining it as—
“The plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of such plant, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.”
The Bill allows state departments of agriculture and institutions of higher education to cultivate industrial hemp for research purposes.
Both hemp and marijuana have invaluable roles in society, a fact for nearly 10,000 years. Victories for cultivators like the Farm Bill have been few and far between, but progress is always welcome.
Hemp played a vital role in the early development of American society, but I suspect that as we begin to embrace hemp and marijuana, the future will reward us with benefits beyond our wildest dreams.