Article written by
Shanti RyleContent Writer
Content reviewed by
Dr. Lewis JasseyMedical Director - Pediatric Medicine
Table of contents
A common misconception in the world of cannabis is that hemp and marijuana are two different plant species. But they are actually two different names for the Cannabis sativa plant, a flowering plant in the Cannabaceae family.
While both hemp and marijuana are Cannabis sativa, they could be considered subtypes of the cannabis plant. Hemp is bred and grown with industrial processes and materials in mind due to its stalk and fiber. In contrast, marijuana is grown for its recreational and therapeutic properties and high cannabinoid production.
The other difference between hemp and marijuana lies in the eyes of the law, where hemp is defined as marijuana with less than 0.3% THC content per dry weight, making it federally legal in the United States (as opposed to marijuana, which is a Schedule 1 Drug).
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What Is Hemp?
Hemp is a cannabis variety that differs from the more intoxicating type of cannabis called “marijuana.” It is cultivated for its fiber and seeds to be used as building materials and food sources.
Hemp is a highly versatile plant with many parts that create various foods and materials. Its fibers produce textiles, clothes, and materials for papers, ropes, and building supplies. (It is often referred to as “industrial hemp” in these instances.) Farmers harvest the short woody fibers, called hurds, inside hemp stalks to make everything from ceiling panels to bedding materials. The thicker fibers outside the stalks, called basts, are sorted into groups depending on thickness, which impacts their potential uses.
CBD oil can be extracted from hemp leaves and flowers, and because it’s made from hemp, it’s considered federally legal. This has driven a surge of CBD-focused hemp cultivation among farmers. Hemp oil is also valuable for cooking, and its seeds are a handy source of protein and healthy fats.
CBD oil from clean hemp plants offers an impressive résumé of health benefits for individuals, including anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective elements. Different kinds of hemp-derived CBD oil — such as CBD isolate or full-spectrum CBD — contain many other cannabinoids and terpenes, so it’s worth exploring which product type may be best for your needs.
As noted above, hemp seeds and hemp seed oils feature high nutritional value, but these are different from CBD oil. The protein, fiber, minerals, and vitamins found in hemp seeds help maintain a healthy brain and can be consumed in various ways, such as in smoothies or hemp milk.
Risks and Drawbacks
While hemp has its benefits, those looking for the medicinal benefits of CBD when THC is absent may not get as high a dose as they need from hemp only. Hemp plants aren’t bred or raised for cannabinoids, so a hemp CBD product could contain very little of what the label claims.
What Is Marijuana?
Marijuana is a variety of cannabis cultivated for the production of its flower and trichomes, which contain higher levels of cannabinoids. Breeders of marijuana plants select strains and parent plants for THC content, specific terpenes, and other cannabinoids to obtain flavor profiles, increase psychoactive effects, or achieve particular health goals. And they have recently selected CBD, cannabigerol (CBG), tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV), and other minor cannabinoids as focal points for unique therapeutic targets.
Marijuana’s cannabinoids and other compounds interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS), which is responsible for maintaining functions such as fertility, immunity, appetite, memory, and other processes involved with maintaining balance in the body.
While many use marijuana to achieve its euphoric high, cannabis does much more. Research has implicated cannabis in the management and treatment of a wide variety of medical conditions, with many of the following approved as a treatment in different states:
- ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease)
- Anxiety disorders and depression
- Cachexia or wasting syndrome (some states also consider anorexia or bulimia a qualifying condition)
- Cancer (and chemotherapy side effects)
- Chronic pain (for some states, this can include migraines, headaches, and arthritis)
- Hepatitis C
- Inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis
- Neurodegenerative diseases (e.g., Alzheimer’s, Multiple sclerosis, Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease
- Persistent muscle spasms and cramps from certain medical conditions
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Seizures (e.g., from epilepsy)
- Severe nausea
- Spinal cord injuries or diseases
Research is just scratching the surface of the possible health benefits of marijuana. Aside from its legalized medical uses, cannabis offers several general benefits to one’s overall health, such as helping relieve chronic pain and soothing anxiety.
Risks and Drawbacks
Marijuana’s drug profile is unlike any other medicine in that there is no known lethal dose, but it does carry some risks and adverse side effects, including:
- Anxiety or paranoia
- Sleepiness or lethargy
- Feeling hot and sweaty or cold
- The “munchies” (extreme hunger pangs)
- Sense of a loss of self; dissociation from the body
- “Cotton” or “dry” mouth (i.e., a lack of saliva)
- Short-term memory loss
- Dizziness and nausea
- Dry, red eyes
- Increased heart rate
- In rare cases, psychotic episodes
These side effects increase in severity based on various factors. For example, marijuana products with high concentrations of THC may cause someone with a low tolerance to experience more adverse effects than someone with a higher tolerance for the cannabinoid. So, if you’re new to using marijuana, be careful about consuming products with a high THC content.
What’s the Difference Between Hemp and Marijuana?
From a legal perspective, the main difference between hemp and marijuana is the amount of THC inside the plant. According to the 2018 Farm Bill, the hemp must contain less than 0.3% THC on a dry weight basis. Farmers also need a license to raise hemp plants that meet this legal criterion.
Hemp features many of the same chemical elements found in marijuana, such as cannabinoids and terpenes, but in smaller amounts. Hemp is also intentionally bred for industrial purposes. In contrast, marijuana is grown to optimize for large flower buds and plentiful, resinous trichomes, which store the bulk of THC and other cannabinoids.
How to Decide Which Is Best For You
When to Use Hemp
CBD products from hemp plants offer a federally legal path for people to experiment with CBD as a health supplement. It is an entry point if you are starting your cannabis journey or reside in a state without a legalized marijuana program. The health benefits of hemp seeds and oil, too, are a valuable addition to the average diet and make for helpful cooking tools
When to Use Marijuana
If you have a medical condition that could benefit from higher doses of THC, using marijuana may be a better option than a hemp-derived CBD product.
Cannabis is legal state by state, so if you reside in a state with legalized medical or recreational marijuana, it’s worth connecting with a medical marijuana doctor to see if marijuana can help you.
The Bottom Line
Hemp and marijuana are practically the same, outside the legal definitions governing each plant. Hemp flower is also bred for its materials, whereas marijuana is bred for its phytocannabinoid content and can produce intoxicating effects.
Depending on your medical needs, hemp may be as much as you need to improve your overall wellness. But if you have a more serious medical condition, marijuana with higher THC levels may be better suited. It’s worth knowing your options to make an informed decision regarding your health.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Will hemp come up on a drug test?
Hemp is a plant and is hardly ever bred for its high cannabinoid content. Drug tests check for metabolites from cannabinoids — specifically THC — but a test would not register positive because, by federal law, hemp products cannot legally contain more than 0.3% THC, which is lower than most drug tests can detect.
Is CBD the same as hemp?
Hemp contains CBD, but it differs from pure or isolated CBD as it has many other cannabinoids and terpenes that can affect it. CBD can also be extracted from marijuana.
Is smoking hemp safer than tobacco?
Smoking any substance carries risks due to the formation of carcinogens when you combust plant matter. However, smoking hemp offers smokers an alternative that can help them avoid the harmful aspects of tobacco and nicotine in cigarettes.