Hemp vs. Cannabis – What’s the Difference?
As cannabis and hemp both continue to grow in popularity, there are still many questions people have regarding the plants and their differences. In fact, many people are unaware that hemp and cannabis both refer to the same plant species. Both are considered cannabis sativa plants, but their individual properties result in some very different uses.
What is Hemp?
Hemp is one of the oldest known industrial plants in the world and has been used for a multitude of applications throughout the centuries, from textiles to pain relief. Over the past few decades, the industrialization of hemp has brought a great deal of attention to the plant and its variety of beneficial properties. The biggest difference between hemp and cannabis, however, is their legal status, which has a great deal to do with cannabis’ THC levels.
Is Hemp Different from Cannabis?
Plants of the cannabis family are generally thought to come in three major species, Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis. Hemp and its popular cousin, medical or recreational-grade cannabis, are both varieties of Cannabis sativa. While many people still believe that hemp and cannabis are two separate plants because of their varying properties, hemp is just a specific variety of Cannabis sativa that contains extremely low amounts of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Meanwhile, the Cannabis sativa varieties used for medical and recreational cannabis are often prized for their levels of THC and cannabidiol (CBD).
Cannabis has yet to be made federally legal across the United States, so jurisdiction over legality is up to each individual state. Hemp, on the other hand, is legal to grow and use around the country - that’s why you can find hemp clothing and even CBD sold almost anywhere while cannabis products remain strictly constrained, with some local and state-level growing restrictions, of course.
Hemp has a long history with a multitude of uses that can be traced back to different places around the world. As time has gone on, the benefits of hemp have proven themselves time and time again.
Tracing Hemp’s Roots
Hemp has been around for thousands of years, with its earliest known roots being traced back to almost 10,000 BCE. Its earliest recorded uses can be seen within central Asia in countries like India, Thailand, China, and Malaysia. There, it was harvested for common resources such as textiles.
During this time period, there still wasn’t a large amount of knowledge surrounding the plant and its benefits beyond fiber and textiles, but people were slowly beginning to understand it as they grew and harvested it in larger quantities. Hemp harvesters realized that the plant itself had calming properties that could help relax a person deeply, which is why they began using it in some of their medicines.
As the years passed, hemp’s popularity began to grow, and it spread across countries through trade.
Not only could the plant be used as a durable material to create rope, clothing, and other textiles, but it also had therapeutic capabilities that were often hard to come across in native plants.
Hemp soon became a popular ingredient in a variety of medicines, especially in China, where it was used for pain relief and relaxing the body and its different muscles. By the time the 18th century came around, hemp was a popular resource. At this time, most of the clothing and textiles being created around the world were being made from hemp.
Hemp in the 19th and 20th Centuries
Though it’s estimated that around 80% of the fabric industry was using hemp during the 18th century, the 19th century initiated a drastic decline in the popularity of the plant. Because hemp was quite difficult to turn into fabric, it was quickly thrown aside as cotton grew in production.
Hemp’s use as a natural resource started to decline, but some industries felt threatened by its capabilities, particularly in the United States, leading to the development of some of the stereotypes that are still popular today.
Unfortunately, in the early 1900s, negative stigmas were developing around cannabis that turned almost all of America away from the plant. The Marijuana Tax Act was then implemented in 1937, making it essentially impossible to grow hemp without some sort of restrictions or money loss. Due to all these factors colliding, the hemp plant faded out of focus for years.
It took decades to finally bring down some of the walls that were built around the hemp plant. Hemp is not only coming back as a natural resource to be used for clothing and building materials, it’s growing in popularity yet again because of its medicinal benefits. While it was found long ago that hemp has relaxing properties, official research had still been barricaded for years. With the passing of the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized industrial hemp production, access has now reached the point where scientists can perform studies to understand the critical compounds found in both cannabis and hemp.
What is CBD and Why is it So Popular?
Cannabinoids are a set of over one hundred naturally occurring compounds that can be found in both hemp and cannabis, though the quantity of each compound from hemp to cannabis is much different. As Cannabis sativa plants, both cannabis and hemp contain a number of cannabinoids, including THC, CBD, cannabinol (CBN), and more.
Hemp is prized for containing high levels of CBD. In fact, CBD is the cannabinoid molecule that has played the largest role in hemp’s recent resurgence. CBD interacts differently with the human body’s endocannabinoid system than THC, and it is capable of producing therapeutic effects without causing the user to feel high. This allows people that might not be interested in the “high” associated with cannabis to still enjoy the potential effects of beneficial cannabinoids, without any psychoactive feelings.
CBD is most widely used as a muscle relaxant, pain reliever, sleep aid, anti-inflammatory, anti-anxiety, and even as an assistant to seizure disorders. It can come in a variety of forms, such as a vaporizer (in 1:1 THC:CBD formulations), topical body cream or balm, flower (bud) that contains low levels of THC, edibles, and more. Topicals are most often used as muscle relaxants and pain relievers to target specific spots of pain on the body, whereas edible forms of CBD are more often used to help a person achieve whole-body relief.
While cannabis also produces CBD that can be derived and used in the same way, the higher levels of CBD in hemp make extraction much easier. What’s more, hemp plants are legal across the United States and can be widely cultivated to produce plants rich in CBD.
Hemp and Cannabis Have Different Physical Properties
The differences between hemp and cannabis are not purely chemical, although THC levels are certainly what set the two plant varieties apart on a legal level. While cannabis and hemp do share some physical characteristics, the two plants are noticeably different when looking at them side-by-side and each can be distinguished and correctly identified if you know their unique qualities.
Some characteristics you might notice about the hemp plant are as follows:
1. Hemp Grows Tall
One of the most significant differences between hemp and cannabis is how tall hemp can grow. Hemp can grow multiple yards with ease in the right conditions and has been recorded at heights beyond 15 feet. Cannabis has the potential to reach great heights as well, but the plant is usually harvested before it can make it very far, which is another easy way to tell the difference between the two. Hemp is more often allowed to grow taller than cannabis as cannabis can easily get out of control.
2. Hemp has Thin, Long Stems with No Branches
The stems of hemp plants are long, tall, and thin, often not even reaching a full inch in width. They also differ from cannabis plants in that they do not grow branches with more leaves on them. The hemp plant’s main structure is its stem, which is also the part of the plant most commonly used to make hemp products.
3. Hemp Leaves are Slightly Different
The hemp plant’s leaves often have the classic, multi-pronged, 5-piece leaf look that most people imagine when they think of cannabis. However, cannabis leaves often have more than 5 pieces and grow a bit bushier than hemp does. When looking at the hemp plant, you might notice that some of the leaves are more concentrated towards the top of the plant, and they are thinner and shinier than those you might see on a different cannabis plant.
4. Hemp Grows Quickly and Easily
Hemp is an extremely fast-growing plant. It can reach full maturity within 3-4 months, whereas cannabis can take anywhere from 4 to 10 months to reach its full potential. In addition to growing quickly, hemp is also easy to maintain when compared with other types of cannabis that often require strict growing conditions.
Hemp products can be made using the various different parts of the plant. As mentioned, CBD is derived from the hemp plant’s resinous trichomes on the flowering part of the plant, and other products can be made from the seeds. Most commonly though, hemp-based products you find will be made from the plant’s long stem.
Some of the most popular products made from hemp include the following:
The fiber that is found inside the hemp plant is incredibly strong. Because of this, these fibers can be used to make durable products, like rope. People also lean towards using natural substances when building materials like rope so it can better resist mold and harsh weather.
Hemp has become a popular tool within the building industry, especially as renewable resources began to grow more desirable for homeowners and builders alike. With its durable capabilities, construction workers have now been using “hempcrete” as an alternative, environmentally friendly version of concrete when building. Hempcrete uses ground-up hemp in combination with a binder that allows the hemp and other substances to lock in the carbon from the air and then settle extremely firm and hard like concrete.
Hemp fiber is derived from the hemp plant’s stem and creates durable, long-lasting clothes with a specific softness to them. It’s not only a green alternative to fast fashion, but hemp is well-known for being able to help naturally filter out UV rays from the sun. In addition to its sun-fighting strength, hemp also helps to fight odor and bacteria growth, on top of being longer-lasting and holding color better than other fabrics like cotton.
Hemp is an up-and-coming alternative for a variety of food groups while possessing its own amazing benefits when seeds are ingested. For those who can’t have dairy, hemp milk and hemp cheese are great alternatives and are just as delicious as other popular choices, such as oat milk. Hemp seeds have a wide array of health benefits as well, from helping heart health to boosting your omega acids. Eating hemp seeds can be traced back hundreds of years when it aided with digestion in Chinese medicine.
Using oil from the seeds of the hemp plant, an alternative source of fuel, known as biofuel, can be created. This is an environmentally friendly alternative to other fuels like diesel and is much safer to handle in general. Hemp biofuel, sometimes called hemp biodiesel, can be stored and transported with much less worry than other highly flammable fuels. Its ignition point is upwards of 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
Hemp is Here to Stay
Ultimately, hemp has many similarities to cannabis, but its differences highlight the fact that it is a unique plant that offers a variety of possible applications. With its long history, abundance of CBD and therapeutic benefits, and use as a natural resource, hemp has demonstrated time and time again that it’s here to stay.
Rupasinghe, H., Davis, A., Kumar, S. K., Murray, B., & Zheljazkov, V. D. (2020). Industrial Hemp (Cannabis sativa subsp. sativa) as an Emerging Source for Value-Added Functional Food Ingredients and Nutraceuticals. Molecules (Basel, Switzerland), 25(18), 4078. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules25184078
Farinon, B., Molinari, R., Costantini, L., & Merendino, N. (2020). The seed of industrial hemp (Cannabis sativa L.): Nutritional Quality and Potential Functionality for Human Health and Nutrition. Nutrients, 12(7), 1935. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12071935
Sawler, J., Stout, J. M., Gardner, K. M., Hudson, D., Vidmar, J., Butler, L., Page, J. E., & Myles, S. (2015). The Genetic Structure of Marijuana and Hemp. PloS one, 10(8), e0133292. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0133292
Digital Content Manager for MÜV Florida and Zen Leaf Dispensaries. A cannabis connoisseur with a passion for explaining the miraculous possibility of the plant, Swan began her journey with cannabis as a recreational user and quickly realized its positive impact on her depression and severe anxiety. She joined the cannabis industry as Receptionist and MedTender and witnessed first-hand the immense potential of the plant for a wide variety of ailments, deepening her passion for alternative medicine. Swan is dedicated to self-education on the plant and sharing its potential with all. She holds a Journalism degree from the University of Iowa.
Cannabis growth is influenced by two factors: genetics & environment. The genotype defines the physical expression, the phenotype.
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