Although hemp and marijuana are both classified biologically as cannabis, there are a number of important differences between them. Here we’ll break down the anatomy, history, use, and legality of the hemp plant to get to the heart of not only what distinguishes hemp from marijuana, but also what makes it such a viable, versatile commodity.
What is hemp?
A variety of Cannabis sativa L, hemp is a dioecious plant, which means it can be separated into male and female plants. These plants have served a wide variety of purposes for more than 10,000 years. We get fiber from the plant’s stems, protein from the seeds, oils from the leaves, and oils from the smokable flowers. Hemp fibers can be used to make items including paper, clothing, textiles, rope — even building materials.
The term “hemp” is used to mean cannabis that contains 0.3 percent or less THC content by dry weight.
Why 0.3 percent? This definition was first proposed in 1979, in a book called “The Species Problem in Cannabis: Science & Semantics.”
In the book, author Ernest Small addresses the fact that it’s difficult to distinguish hemp and cannabis because there’s no actual taxonomical difference between the two.
Small proposed the 0.3 percent rule as a possible solution, but he himself acknowledged that it’s an arbitrary number.
This number was used in the legal definition of hemp, as specified in the Agricultural Act of 2018 and other laws in the United States.
Because the THC level in hemp is so low, it’s unlikely to get you high
The whole hemp plant, from stalk to seed, can also be used to make fuel and feedstock. For more specific applications, hemp can be divided into four categories:
- Bast fibers
- Hurds, or shives
- Leaves and flowers
Can you smoke hemp?
The short answer is yes. Though be aware that while hemp does have trace amounts of intoxicating compounds, that doesn’t mean it will get you high. Hemp plants don’t produce enough THC to have an intoxicating effect. CBD, though technically psychoactive, is a non-intoxicating cannabinoid and won’t produce any form of a euphoric high on its own.
But if the goal isn’t to get an intoxicating high, smoking organic hemp can be an enjoyable and efficient way to experience other cannabinoids like CBD. It’s also never been easier to experiment now that you can find organic hemp flower and pre-rolls online. And while hemp-derived CBD gummies and CBD oil might be all the rage, smoking hemp allows you to self-titrate in real-time — no waiting around for any subtle effects to kick in.
There’s the added bonus of increased bioavailability. Through the act of inhalation, your bloodstream absorbs CBD much faster than it would after eating an edible or using a tincture under your tongue. Your body will also have access to a lot more of the CBD in the smoke or vapor when it’s inhaled. When consumed, a CBD edible goes through the digestive tract, and some of the potency is lost in the process.
For a cleaner burn, consider lighting your hemp flower with hemp wick. Raw hemp wick coated in beeswax offers a slow burn from all-natural materials, which many users say produces a cleaner cannabis flavor than a lighter or match. The more you know.
How are hemp varieties chosen?
Depending on the desired final product, hemp cultivars are chosen based on several factors, including:
- Stem quality
- Cannabinoid content
- Resistance to disease
- Time to harvest
- Hemp oil content
- Seed production per acre
CBD production, in particular, has become a major factor in recent years. As the CBD market continues to grow, more and more cultivars are also being chosen based on their CBD production and unique aromatic, or terpene, profiles.
Hemp vs. marijuana: Does hemp also have THC?
Hemp produces a broad range of cannabinoids, including tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the intoxicating cannabinoid in marijuana. However, hemp does not produce enough THC to create intoxicating effects.
Although hemp doesn’t produce a significant amount of THC, it is capable of producing the non-intoxicating cannabinoid cannabidiol (CBD) in high concentrations. In fact, hemp-derived CBD is rapidly becoming one of the most popular forms of the cannabinoid on the market today.
Many countries differentiate hemp from marijuana by the amount of THC produced by the plant. In the US, industrial hemp is defined as Cannabis sativa L. that does not contain more than 0.3% THC. The European Union has set the limit at 0.2%, while in the UK the limit is zero, unless growers have a cultivation license to grow industrial hemp with no more than 0.2% THC.
While cannabis seeds essentially contain no cannabinoids, cannabinoids are found in higher concentrations in cannabis flowers, leaves, and stalks.
Those looking to experience cannabis’s beneficial effects often turn to cannabis flower, which can be smoked or extracted into tinctures and edibles.
Cannabis strains high in THC may produce a high and may be used for medical purposes, like pain management. Strains low in THC but higher in other cannabinoids, like cannabidiol (CBD), may also produce beneficial effects but won’t get you high.
Hemp, or cannabis with less than 0.3 percent THC, can also be grown to create other kinds of products, including:
- animal feed
- food products, such as hemp seed, hemp milk, hemp protein powder, or hemp oil
Because hemp grows faster than trees and other crops, it’s considered to be a more sustainable way of making products like paper and textiles.
Hemp seed is quite nutritious, as it’s a complete protein that’s also high in fiber.
Other than the THC content, there’s one other difference between hemp and marijuana: legality.
The 2018 Farm Bill made it legal to grow hemp, or cannabis containing less than 0.3 percent THC, throughout the United States. It also made hemp-derived CBD products federally legal.
Marijuana, or cannabis containing more than 0.3 percent THC, isn’t federally legal.
State laws vary. In some states, it’s allowed to be used medically and recreationally. In other states, it may only be used medically. And in some states, it’s still completely illegal.
Cannabidiol (CBD) is a cannabinoid that’s become increasingly popular since hemp was federally legalized. Many people use CBD products because CBD is said to have numerous health benefits.
CBD is found in some amount in all cannabis plants. That means it can be derived from either hemp or marijuana.
However, CBD products are only federally legal if they’re derived from hemp and contain less than 0.3 percent THC.