What is the difference between marijuana and hemp? Well, the answer to that question depends on who you ask, or more importantly, to which authority or in what context. From a taxonomic perspective, there really isn’t any. In the medicinal and recreational marijuana fields it’s very much a spectrum, coming down to THC percentages and cannabinoid ratios. Ask the Federal Government and well, things get a bit more black and white. At least as recently as 2018, that is. But let’s backtrack and talk about the taxonomy of this (or these?) wonderful plant(s).
When I previously mentioned that from a taxonomic perspective there really isn’t any difference between marijuana and hemp, what I meant is that it’s all considered cannabis. Cannabis is a term that refers to a kind of flowering plant in the family Cannabaceae. Traditionally, Cannabis is described as having three different species of sorts, those being: Sativa, indica, and ruderalis. That being said, because of prohibition and the limited amount of studies into the subject, there’s more debate and disagreements than hard answers when it comes to properly fleshing out species and sub-species groupings. Just know that whether it’s marijuana or hemp, it’s still cannabis.
In the medical and recreational marijuana spaces, everything tends to boil down to THC percentages and cannabinoid ratios. Meaning, depending on what your needs as a patient may be, or depending on your wants and desired effects as a recreational user, different “strains” with varying concentrations of different cannabinoids and terpenes deliver different results. Once again, because of prohibition, marijuana cultivation trended towards high THC percentages; Users wanted something with a kick. Because of this, the majority of popular marijuana strains have high concentrations of THC, upwards of 15-20% or even higher. However, through this process of breeding and selecting for higher THC content, cannabinoids such as CBD fell to extremely low levels (think 1-2% or even lower). While 1-to-1, 2-to-1, and 3-to-1 THC to CBD ratios ,and vice versa, are beginning to grow in popularity, most folks who use marijuana (for medical purposes or otherwise) are looking to take advantage of the defined effects of THC in higher concentrations. Somewhat outside of this space there is a growing number of people smoking high CBD cannabis. That is, cannabis with concentrations of CBD upwards of 10 to 18% and extremely low THC percentages (think the inverse of traditional "marijuana"). This “hemp bud” enables people to get the CBD that they want, all the while still enjoying a smoke. The spectrum of cannabis within and on the fringes of the medical and recreational “marijuana” domains is truly varied and further muddles our definitions of marijuana and hemp. Within this sphere, it’s all about preference. However, and maybe most important of all, there is one group that makes a clear distinction (albeit only since 2018). That group is the U.S. Federal Government.
Since the passage of the 1970’s Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, which includes the more recognizable Title II Controlled Substances Act (or CSA), marijuana has been effectively outlawed on a Federal level. Being classified as a Schedule I narcotic, marijuana (including all of its cannabinoids...a very important piece of this legislation) was deemed as having either no medicinal value and/or highly addictive with a high potential for abuse. While the obvious intent of placing marijuana in Schedule I was to prohibit the use of THC, because of the focus on “all of its cannabinoids,” all cannabis (including industrial hemp) was included and made illegal. This all changed, however, with the signing of the 2018 Federal Farm Bill. This bill created a sub category of cannabis dubbed “industrial hemp,” defined it as “the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of such plant, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis,” and officially de-scheduled it along with its cannabinoids (namely CBD). Both preceding and following this legislation, many states have enacted their own form of industrial hemp legalization with similar legal definitions and parameters. Here in lies the real answer to our question of the differences between marijuana and hemp: legality. While arbitrary, according to the federal government, the difference between the two is this: if the cannabis in question has a .3% delta-9 THC concentration or below, then it’s hemp. If the concentration is greater than .3%, then it’s considered marijuana. As the flood of marijuana legalization state-by-state continues, further research is conducted into the plant itself, and popular opinion forces itself into the consideration of both current and future administrations, even this definition will surely change over time. As for now, it is the law of the land.
So, there you have it. Well, “it” may be a bit too precise. What we have is a multitude of answers to our original question of “what is the difference between marijuana and hemp?” Basically, context is key. As it stands, however, in accordance with Federal law it’s safe to say that hemp is cannabis with a delta-9 THC concentration of .3% or lower. While we’ve delved into a multitude of opinions and classifications, this somewhat arbitrary yet clear-cut legal definition is certainly the best at this current time.