When we think of marijuana, we think of smoking a “fat joint” in the parking lot before we go see a movie. In contrast, when we think of hemp, we think of clothes, rope, paper, and other products we use in everyday life. One is (for the most part) accepted in society, while the other is still clawing its way out of a negative stigma. It’s hard to believe that both of these plants are at opposite ends of the culture spectrum.
In reality, the terms “hemp” and “marijuana” are not accurate descriptions and do not refer to two different plants and at their grammatical inception both referred to a widely cultivated plant known as Indian Hemp. In a nutshell, “marijuana” (marihuana) is a racially charged term that came out of the 1910’s and 1920’s when Mexican immigrants arrived in the States to escape the Mexican Revolution. In a deliberate attempt to tar two birds with one slur, Harry Anslinger, America’s first “drug czar”, mounted a PR campaign to frighten Americans into an anti-marijuana position.
He was supported in this effort by William Randolph Hearst, a newspaper and mining magnate whose large forested lands were threatened in value by cheap hemp paper. Sadly these two men were successful in tying racist tropes, anti-immigrant fear mongering, and capitalistic greed together under the banner of “marijuana”. As the stigma of cannabis as a bad drug evolved and “Reefer Madness” became a common term, these words arrived at the forefront of how to classify the plant(s).
Scientifically speaking, cannabis is a genus of flowering plants in the cannabaceae family. The species of cannabis are Indica, Sativa, and Ruderalis. Where the names “hemp” and “marijuana” come into play is based on the THC content of the given plant (marijuana and hemp are both cannabis sativa). If a cannabis plant contains less than 0.3% THC, it can be considered hemp. Any cannabis plant that has greater than 0.3% THC would culturally be considered “marijuana”.
Because both high and low THC plants can appear similar, it’s important to break down some core differences between the two.
Composition: As explained above, the difference between hemp and marijuana is the THC content. While both plant types can produce good amounts of CBD (non-intoxicating compound), THC content is the key difference. Cannabis utilizes enzymes (THC synthase and CBD synthase) to synthesize cannabinoids; these enzymes combine precursor molecules (cannabigerolic acid or CBGA) and amino acids to create either CBDA or THCA which eventually lose their carboxyl groups and become our familiar cannabinoids. The genetic heritage of a plant determines the amount of THC vs CBD synthase present in the plant, and therefore how much THC or CBD the plant will produce. This is the only biological difference between “hemp” and “marijuana”. THC synthase and CBD synthase are antagonistic to each other because they use the same precursor molecule; therefore increasing levels of one necessarily decreases the other even if both enzymes are present in a given plant.
Legality: Because they have different THC content, hemp and marijuana regulation are drastically different. Hemp was just recently removed as an illegal substance under the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018, making it and its derived products legal under federal law as long as THC content does not exceed 0.3%. Meanwhile, marijuana is still considered a controlled substance and is federally illegal under the Controlled Substance Act of 1970.
Cultivation: Hemp and marijuana are grown and harvested for different purposes, so it’s only natural that they would have different approaches to how they are cultivated. Marijuana growers manipulate and enhance elements such as light, temperature, and humidity to enhance the plant’s characteristics as well as to ensure plants are female that give flowers. On the other hand, hemp is grown to maximize size and yield. In order to accomplish this, hemp is usually grown outdoors and does not require the level of attentiveness that marijuana does.
Usage: Famously, marijuana is used recreationally by many to achieve mind-altering, euphoric effects, what we know as a “high”. Further, marijuana and THC are being used and tested in the medical field in a variety of ways. Hemp is used to create products like rope, clothes, paper, hemp seed oil, and housing materials. It’s also great for creating CBD-infused products.
The terms hemp and marijuana have become deeply ingrained in our culture, despite the inaccuracies of their definitions. At the end of the day, whether the plant contains THC or not, it’s still cannabis sativa. The main defining characteristic that separates the two types is whether or not it is above or below 0.3% THC, and even then, these two terms should be taken with a grain of salt as they are not of scientific origin in the first place. So, the next time you hear these terms, remember that these are interchangeable with the core word, “cannabis”.