What is the difference between cannabis and hemp?

Do you know the difference between cannabis and hemp?
Do you know the difference between cannabis and hemp?

Surely no member of the vegetable kingdom has ever been more misunderstood than hemp.” -David P. West in a report for the North American Industrial Hemp Council in 1998.

What is the difference between cannabis and hemp? In a word, semantics. From a practical standpoint, it’s the THC concentration.

Cannabis and hemp are, scientifically speaking, the same plant. They share the same genus, Cannabis, and the same species, Sativa. Given that they are the same plant, it’s fair to ask why they’re viewed and treated so differently. The difference comes in breeding and use. Humans co-evolved with the cannabis plant. In fact, humans and cannabis are so intertwined that linguists often use a culture’s word for cannabis to trace the history of its language.

Humans have bred cannabis for different uses. It’s widely known that cannabis can produce fiber for clothing, paper, and construction. Its trichomes produce cannabinoids, including cannibidiol (CBD), which have multifarious medical uses. And, of course, the most well-known cannabinoid, delta 9 Tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly referred to as “THC”, is used daily across the world as an intoxicant, spiritual aid, and medicine.

THC is only produced in the female plant. For this reason, some people understandably assume that hemp only comes from male cannabis sativa plants. But, female plants can be “hemp” plants, too. The difference is what cannabinoid is predominant in the particular strain. Generally speaking, a cannabis sativa plant that is CBD dominant, as opposed to THC dominant, is a hemp plant. From a scientific perspective, this is probably the most accurate distinction. However, legal definitions, which matter in practical usage, tend to focus on pinning down the THC to a percentage point. In the 2014 US Farm bill Congress defines hemp as “the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of such plant, whether growing or not, with a [THC] concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.” Most states that have enacted hemp laws mimic the Federal definition.

Interestingly, this 0.3% THC ceiling, which is the current world-standard, is based on the work of Canadian scientist Ernst Small, who conducted research on cannabis and published “The Species Problem with Cannabis” in 1971. In his book, Small stated that there isn’t a natural point at which the cannabinoid content could be used to distinguish strains of hemp and cannabis. Despite this he drew an arbitrary line on the continuum of cannabis types, and simply decided that 0.3 percent THC was the proper line. The line has held.

Despite being a dubious and unscientific distinction, it is likely that the 0.3% THC level will become the norm as more states roll out hemp legislation. For this reason, testing and quality control will be vitally important to hemp farmers and manufacturers of hemp-based products.


2 comments on “What is the difference between cannabis and hemp?Add yours →

  1. If I’m reading this correctly, a strain of cannabis that has 0.3% THC or less and contains significant quantities of CBD can still be legally classified as hemp. Hemp products are legal regardless of what state you live in, as far as I know, as long as the hemp/hemp product is obtained by a legal means, such as a legal import or grown and processed in a hemp-legal state. I can for instance buy hemp clothing, hemp seed oil for cooking, hemp-crete building materials, etc. Could I not also then legally obtain and possess CBD oil or similar CBD extract products made from legal hemp, regardless of which state I reside in?

    For that matter, growing hemp is not legal everywhere, but if it were seedless, sterile, and no longer part of a live plant, is it legal to possess raw, unprocessed hemp plant material? At what point does hemp become a legal, not-hemp-anymore-but-a-processed-product-made-from-hemp thing?

    Are there state laws defining these points, are they all federal only, or both?

    1. Thanks for reading my post and for asking good questions. The legal status of hemp in the USA is far from clear. Hemp remains illegal and is classified as a Schedule I drug. The 2014 US Farm Bill authorizes states to set up hemp programs. Currently, some states have done so. We are hopeful that a good hemp bill will soon be passed in NC.

      As for importing hemp, it has to contain 0.00% THC. Whether CBD exists in these products is “product to product.” I cannot recommend CBD oil from foreign countries. Unfortunately, I’ve heard all sorts of horror stories about products that contained no CBD and others that contained large amounts of pesticides and other poisons. If you live in the Southeast, the best place to obtain it is in SC from Palmetto Harmony: http://palmettoharmony.com

      I hope that you’ll continue reading my blog and stay involved in the movement to legalize cannabis. Thank you again.

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