Hemp has been used for thousands of years as a food, fuel, fabric and medicine. After a recent history of ups and downs, driven by confusion and fear, hemp is finally coming back into the light. Hemp’s intoxicating cousin, sometimes called marijuana and sometimes called cannabis, is making its comeback as well, now legal for medical or adult-use recreational purposes in many areas after decades of Prohibition.
As cannabis (both hemp and marijuana) re-emerges from the shadows, it brings with it terms and concepts that have long been foreign to much of the public. Chief among this confusion is the distinction between the plants themselves, and the products made from those plants. Both are members of the Cannabaceae family, they look and smell similar, and Cannabidiol (CBD) can be extracted from both. What are the differences between the two plants and their CBD extracts?
What is hemp?
Hemp is generally defined as cannabis that does not contain more than 0.3% of the intoxicating cannabinoid known as Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The distinction between hemp and marijuana is a legal one based on the content of that one compound.
Hemp usually contains an elevated amount of Cannabidiol (CBD), alongside other cannabinoids like Cannabigerol (CBG). Cannabinoids are unique to cannabis plants, including hemp and marijuana.
Hemp is one of the most versatile crops on the planet. Historically, the hemp plant’s fibers have been used in textiles manufacturing and to make goods such as paper and rope. The seeds are harvested for food and to make hemp seed oil, which is used in cooking and as a moisturizing ingredient in lotions such as our Skin Therapy ultra-rich body butter. Researchers are uncovering ways to utilize hemp as biofuels, to develop construction materials, to create plastic composites, and more. Altogether, there are an incredible number of products that can be made from the roots, stalks, leaves, seeds, and flowers of the hemp plant.
What are the benefits of hemp?
Hemp contains hundreds of beneficial active compounds, called phytocannabinoids and terpenes, that work synergistically with the human body.* These compounds interact with a series of receptors throughout the brain and body called the endogenous cannabinoid system (ECS), the body’s master regulatory system that helps us stay in balance.* The ECS plays an important role in regulating brain, endocrine, reproductive and immune function, appetite, mood, memory and more.*
While the ECS produces its own source of cannabinoids called endocannabinoids, cannabis and hemp plants are the only ones we know of that produce their own cannabinoids, called phytocannabinoids.* By supplementing our body’s own supply of endocannabinoids with hemp-based compounds and phytocannabinoids, we may be able to better support the body in maintaining health.*
What is marijuana?
The terms marijuana and cannabis are often used interchangeably. However, both hemp and marijuana are technically members of the Cannabis genus of plants. Due to the distinction between hemp and marijuana, based on THC levels, the term cannabis is often used to describe marijuana in contrast to hemp.
What is CBD?
The cannabinoid CBD is a non-intoxicating compound found in cannabis plants. Unlike THC, it neither creates a feeling of impairment. However, it is still considered psychoactive because it binds to the receptors of the ECS found in the brain.*
The phytocannabinoid CBD appears in both hemp and marijuana in varying amounts. Hemp plants that are low in THC tend to contain significantly higher levels of CBD than marijuana, and vice versa. However, CBD is always CBD; whether it comes from a hemp plant or marijuana plant does not change this fact.
The difference between hemp CBD and marijuana derived CBD
While CBD can be derived from either hemp or marijuana, it matters greatly which plant was used as the source for the compound. Though they are both flowering plants in the Cannabaceae family, hemp and marijuana are genetically different, they also differ in growing method, chemical makeup and function.
- THC content: The biggest distinction between hemp and marijuana is the THC content threshold of 0.3%. If a plant contains 0.3% THC or less, it is legally considered hemp; if it contains more than that limit, it is considered marijuana.
- The source of the hemp is important from a legal perspective. CBD extracted from marijuana is not federally legal. It cannot be sold or transported over state lines, and it can only be sold by licensed purveyors to adults or caregivers of underaged patients in states with medical or adult-use programs under state law. However, hemp has been descheduled on the federal level and is expressly excluded from treatment as "marihuana" under the federal Controlled Substances Act.
- Industrial uses: While hemp and marijuana can both be used in the manufacture of CBD products, hemp has many industrial uses as well. These include the manufacture of textiles, development of biofuels, creation of construction materials, and more. Marijuana is cultivated for cannabinoid consumption or as an ingredient in consumable products.
- Growing methods: Hemp and marijuana are cultivated in different ways. Hemp, for example, is often grown to maximize plant size and yield, so it is typically grown outdoors and allowed to grow naturally. Hemp is harvested for all its parts, from stalk to flower. Marijuana is much more closely monitored in a controlled environment, where cultivators work to optimize the desirable characteristics of a plant. In the cultivation of marijuana, an emphasis is placed on flowering female plants, since marijuana flower is usually the primary focus of cultivation.
There's another major nuance regarding hemp and marijuana when it comes to extracting CBD. When a cannabinoid like CBD is extracted from a plant like hemp or marijuana, the other compounds found within that plant come along with it. This is what is known as a "full spectrum extract." In addition to CBD, a full spectrum extract contains all the phytocannabinoids and terpenes found within the source plant in roughly the same proportions. This means that CBD extracted from marijuana is going to also include heightened levels of THC.
How did hemp get confused with marijuana?
Hemp is marijuana's sober botanical cousin: it's a different plant with a different purpose, although they are very similar. Genetically, they are part of the same genus and, in many cases, even the same species: Cannabis sativa. The difference between a hemp plant and a marijuana plant hangs on its THC content. So, when did the confusion surrounding the terms begin?
Historically, U.S. laws did not distinguish hemp from marijuana. This began to change with the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, when marijuana and hemp were both taxed, but the former at higher rates than the latter. The conflation was reinforced in the 1970s when President Richard Nixon declared a "War on Drugs" and signed the U.S. Controlled Substances Act (CSA) into law. The War on Drugs classified it as a drug and did not distinguish hemp from marijuana. As a result, people have continued to misunderstand hemp and its benefits.
Today, hemp is cultivated for its many uses, including the manufacture of a wide range of hemp-derived CBD products. From CBD topicals to CBD edibles, we have hemp to thank.