Hemp Vs Marijuana: How Two Cannabis Strains made a World of Difference?

Posted by TL Knowledge Team on 25th Oct 2023

Hemp Vs Marijuana: How Two Cannabis Strains made a World of Difference?

Exploring the Difference Between Hemp and Marijuana: A Detailed Analysis

The debate surrounding hemp and marijuana often stems from their shared botanical classification as Cannabis sativa, albeit from different cultivars. Beyond nomenclature, the key disparities encompass their chemical compositions, diverse uses, historical backgrounds, and the legal framework underpinning these distinct cannabis variants.

Botanical Distinctions and Legal Foundations

Botanically, both hemp and marijuana belong to the same species of plant, Cannabis sativa. However, they are distinct varieties with differing chemical compositions and uses. Hemp is primarily cultivated for a wide range of products, including food, personal care items, textiles, paper, and construction materials. In contrast, marijuana is the cultivated plant sought for its psychotropic effects, whether for medicinal or recreational purposes.

Their divergence occurs through selective breeding, intended purposes, and distinct chemical profiles. These factors, alongside differences in cultivation practices, establish their unique identities. Notably, while science acknowledges their shared lineage, legal definitions categorically separate them.

Crucially, the legal differentiator is the delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (delta-9 THC) content, a prominent psychoactive cannabinoid found in the cannabis plant responsible for the characteristic "high" associated with its use.

Hemp: Low THC Content and Legal Definition

The term "hemp" designates cannabis with a minimal THC content, specifically 0.3% or less by dry weight (this differs across EU states and other countries). This seemingly arbitrary threshold originated from Ernest Small's 1979 book "The Species Problem in Cannabis: Science & Semantics." While the botanical taxonomy does not distinguish hemp and cannabis, the legal realm adopted this THC threshold, explicitly defined in the 2018 US Farm Bill.

Crucially, this low THC content ensures that hemp does not induce intoxication.

Marijuana: Elevated THC Content and Legal Status

In common parlance, "marijuana" signifies cannabis with the potential for psychoactive effects. This term is often interchangeably used with "weed" and similar slang. Legally, marijuana is defined as cannabis containing more than 0.3% THC by dry weight. Variations in THC levels exist among different cannabis strains, with some intentionally bred for higher THC content.

Distinctly, marijuana is still federally illegal in the United States, though its legal status varies across states. The same holds true across the EU, with some nation states legalising its medicinal use, others its medicinal and recreational, while some restrict it all together. There is no unifying stance within the EU about the use of marijuana.

Cultivation of plants

Cannabis varieties are dioecious, having separate male and female plants. For hemp, male plants are used to produce fibers, while for marijuana, female flowers are selectively grown to prevent cross-pollination. Special seeds can produce either male or female plants, with some strains having zero THC.

Cross-pollination is a concern, as it can degrade the quality and value of crops. Marijuana growers aim to avoid cross-pollination with hemp to maintain high THC levels, while hemp growers steer clear of marijuana to prevent legal issues. Differences in cultivation practices lead to observable traits, such as plant height, density, and branching patterns.

Diverse Utilisations

While cannabis seeds contain negligible cannabinoids, the plant's flowers, leaves, and stalks host various cannabinoids. Those seeking cannabis's effects often turn to the flower, which can be smoked or used to create tinctures and edibles. High-THC strains are sought for their potential in medical applications, such as pain management. Conversely, low-THC, high-cannabidiol (CBD) strains offer beneficial effects without inducing a high.

Hemp, defined by its low THC content, serves a multifaceted purpose, including the production of paper, textiles, animal feed, plastic, and a variety of food products such as hemp seed, hemp milk, and hemp oil. Its rapid growth makes it an environmentally sustainable choice for products like paper and textiles. Hemp seeds are nutritionally rich, boasting complete proteins and high fiber content.

Cannabidiol (CBD): Derived from Both Variants

Cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive cannabinoid, has surged in popularity since the federal legalisation of hemp.

It is one of the many cannabinoids that interact with receptors affecting various functions such as appetite, anxiety, pain sensation, and depression. Although clinical research has demonstrated the efficacy of CBD in treating epilepsy, its potential benefits for pain relief and anxiety remain a subject of ongoing scientific investigation.

CBD is present in various amounts in both hemp and marijuana plants. However, it attains federal legality exclusively when derived from hemp and contains less than 0.3% THC. CBD is available in various forms, such as food, tinctures, and oils. Some EU nation states follow the same approach, legally permitting CBD extracted exclusively from hemp. For other nation states, what matters more is the THC no more than 0.3%, rather than the source of extraction.

It's essential to distinguish between terms often used interchangeably. CBD tinctures are created by soaking cannabis in alcohol, while oils suspend CBD in a carrier oil, like olive or coconut oil. "Pure" CBD, also known as "CBD isolate," has all other cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids removed. In contrast, "broad-spectrum" CBD includes at least three other cannabinoids, along with some terpenes and flavonoids, while remaining THC-free. "Full-spectrum" CBD, often labeled as "whole flower" CBD, resembles broad-spectrum but may contain up to 0.3% THC.

What about Cannabis-Derived Terpenes?

When discussing terpene extraction for various applications, particularly referring to cannabis-extracts, two primary sources come to the forefront: marijuana-derived and hemp-derived terpenes.

Hemp, increasingly used for medicinal products with CBD extracted from hemp, however, inherently contains lower levels of cannabinoids and terpenes compared to marijuana.

But the legal framework around hemp offers a compelling reason for its popularity as a terpene source. Hemp cultivation is permissible in many nations, regardless of the legal status of adult-use or medicinal cannabis. Since terpenes are not restricted by laws, it's feasible to establish a hemp-focused growth and extraction setup in numerous countries.

However, despite the ease of legal framework, hemp-extracted terpenes comes with another set of challenges.

Challenges with Hemp-Derived Terpenes
  1. Yield: Hemp genetically cannot match the terpene levels in cannabis, necessitating a significantly larger hemp volume to extract an equivalent terpene mass, leading to higher production costs.
  2. Bio-Accumulation: Using substantial hemp volumes can inadvertently increase its role as a bio-accumulator, potentially resulting in end-products with elevated toxin levels. This poses health concerns and requires additional purification efforts during manufacturing.
  3. Taste and Aroma: The need for a greater hemp biomass can influence the end product's taste due to compounds like chlorophyll. Hemp's characteristic earthy and grassy aroma also presents purification challenges.

The Marijuana Terpenes Advantage

While ongoing research explores terpene sources, the current consensus leans toward marijuana-extracts as a more efficient choice over hemp-extracts. It requires less starting material, yields higher-quality terpenes, and avoids potential toxicity concerns associated with hemp extractions. However, in regions where marijuana remains illegal but agricultural resources are abundant, hemp extractions remain a viable alternative. The ultimate goal remains the comprehensive legalisation of cannabis plants, facilitating optimal practices without compromising on quality. Read more in our article here.

Conclusion: Defining Hemp and Marijuana

In conclusion, while both hemp and marijuana share their origins in the Cannabis sativa species, they significantly differ in legal status, cultivation methods, THC content, and applications. Understanding these distinctions is essential for navigating the ever-evolving landscape of cannabis-related products and legislation.

Research sources
  1. Small, E. (2015). Evolution and Classification of Cannabis sativa (Marijuana, Hemp) in Relation to Human Utilization. The Botanical Review, 81(3), 189-294.
  2. Agricultural Act of 2018, Public Law No: 115-334, 115th Congress, 2nd Session, (2018).
  3. Pisanti, S., Malfitano, A. M., Ciaglia, E., Lamberti, A., Ranieri, R., Cuomo, G., ... & Bifulco, M. (2017). Cannabidiol: State of the art and new challenges for therapeutic applications. Pharmacology & Therapeutics, 175, 133-150.
  4. Callaway, J. C. (2004). Hempseed as a nutritional resource: An overview. Euphytica, 140(1-2), 65-72.