Hemp and Cannabis: What’s the Difference?

Hemp and cannabis are alike in that they share both genus and species: Cannabis sativa, but other than that, as you’ll see, the plants are more different than they are alike. Here are the main differences—chemical composition, cultivation, commercial uses and legal status—between hemp and cannabis.


Chemical Composition

Whereas cannabis grown for medicinal and/or recreational purposes typically contains 2-20% THC, hemp has less than 0.3% THC.


Cultivation and Harvesting

Hemp is planted in tight rows; plants are spaced approximately four inches apart. Male and female plants are grown together, and both are allowed to grow as tall as 20 feet. While some hemp is used for nutritional and medical products, the plant is primarily grown for industrial uses.

Cannabis plants are spaced approximately six feet apart and are encouraged to grow full and bushy.  In addition, male and female plants are separated. Only unpollinated female plants produce high-THC buds, which are the ones used for medicinal and recreational purposes.


Commercial Uses

Hemp is commercially cultivated around the world. The tall, thin plant is used as a food source and to make fabrics, paper, paints, plastics, cosmetics, building materials, biofuels, and other products. By some estimates, hemp can be used to make over 25,000 products.


Legal Status in America

From our country’s earliest colonial days until 1937, American farmers legally grew Cannabis sativa. Although most grew the plant for industrial purposes, the plant was also grown for its medicinal properties and was widely used to relieve pain. Even our country’s first president cultivated cannabis. While away from Mount Vernon, George Washington wrote to his plantation manager something along the lines of: “Make the most of the Indian hemp seed, and sow it everywhere!”

In 1937, the U.S. Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act. Not distinguishing between hemp and cannabis, it became illegal in America to cultivate cannabis of any kind, including low-THC, industrial hemp.

In 1942, in order to educate and encourage more farmers to grow hemp for the war effort, the U.S. government released the short movie, Hemp for Victory, 1942. Since it suited the war effort, it was once again legal to grow hemp in America.

In 1999, the “U.S. Drug Czar” Barry McCaffrey announced, “We will not permit American farmers to grow hemp.”

In 2014, even though cannabis was still listed as a Schedule 1 narcotic, President Obama signed into law the United States Agricultural Act of 2014. Section 7606 of that law authorizes states to license institutions of higher education to cultivate and research hemp.


Labeling Cannabis Varieties

While differentiating hemp and cannabis continues to confuse and frustrate people around the world, as Bob Dylan sang, “The times they are a-changin’.” Researchers and lawmakers are making progress understanding and separating low-THC hemp with its primarily industrial use from both high-THC and balanced THC-CBD cannabis with its medical and recreational uses. As Lucas Laursen reported in the journal Nature 525, S4–S5 (24 September 2015), in an effort to establish a legal framework that distinguishes hemp grown for industrial rather than medical or recreational purposes, “Researchers aregetting closer to answering the centuries-old question of how to label cannabis varieties — a necessary step to bring the plant into mainstream agriculture.”

We’ll keep you posted.

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