To start, let's take a look at the definition of cannabis. Cannabis is a genus of flowering plants that are in the Cannabaceae family. The Cannabis genus includes three primary species: Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica and Cannabis ruderalis. Hemp and marijuana are both classified biologically as Cannabis, but there are a number of key differences between them, including their morphology, chemical composition and usage. What we refer to as marijuana belongs to both the Sativa and Indica family, while hemp solely belongs to the Sativa species.
Both hemp and marijuana plants can be split into male and female. Although rare, hermaphrodite cannabis also exists naturally and a male or female plant can turn into a hermaphrodite due to stress. When it comes to determining whether a cannabis plant is male or female, it is often difficult to distinguish until the plant begins to flower. Male plants produce pollen, which is essential for cannabis to reproduce, while female plants produce buds, which is the part of the plant containing the most concentrations of cannabinoids and therefore the most sought after for those looking to utilize the therapeutic benefits of the plant. A female plant that does not receive pollen during its reproductive cycle is referred to as "sinsemilla," which is the Spanish term for "without seed." These seedless female plants produce large, resinous buds that are harvested for consumption (and later processed into oil, smoked or vaporized).
Most people associate cannabinoids with cannabis plants specifically, although scientific developments have found that cannabinoids are present in plants such as clove, black pepper, broccoli, ginseng and carrots, among others. Cannabinoids are chemical compounds found in the plant's makeup and are of particular interest due to their ability to affect the consumer by interacting with receptors found in the body. The two main cannabinoid receptors that have been discovered are CB1 and CB2, and these are located throughout the body as part of a system known as the endogenous cannabinoid system, or endocannabinoid system (ECS). Due to the ECS being found throughout the entire body, consuming cannabinoids activates the receptors and this results in a variety of medical benefits.
There are over 100 different cannabinoids that have been identified within the cannabis plant's composition and over 480 distinct compounds (such as cannabinoids, terpenoids, flavonoids, and omega fatty acids). Currently, the most researched cannabinoids are THC and CBD, with their main differences being distinguished by if they are psychologically active or not. This single-handedly plays the biggest role in how hemp and marijuana are approached differently in legislature around the world, including in the United States.
Cannabis plants with less than 0.3% THC are considered hemp plants according to the law, while cannabis plants with more than 0.3% THC are considered marijuana. Where this can also get confusing is that CBD can be extracted from both and the molecular makeup does not change regardless of its source. Therefore, you can purchase cannabis products that include CBD derived from hemp or marijuana. The law in the United States has helped cause confusion regarding this, because CBD products derived from hemp plants are federally legal through the 2018 Farm Bill, but CBD products derived from marijuana plants are often illegal (unless the cannabinoid is fully isolated and contains less than 0.3% trace amounts of THC) on the federal level.
To add to the complexity of hemp and marijuana plants, each has a different cannabinoid profile, and selective breeding has helped control and modify the makeup of each individual strain. There are thousands of varieties of strains due to hybridization and these are primarily divided into "indica," "sativa" and "hybrid." As the industry continues to evolve, cannabis classification has also become more sophisticated. Today, cannabis is often divided into three categories that speak to the ratio of THC to CBD. These categories are: high-THC, low-CBD (more euphoric); high-CBD, low-THC (more clear-headed); balanced CBD and THC (mildly euphoric).
While the chemical composition of each plant differs between hemp and marijuana, there are also physical differences in the plants themselves. When looking at hemp and marijuana plants side by side, there are several notable differences. For one, hemp plants have skinnier leaves that are concentrated at the top, while marijuana leaves tend to be broad leafed, with a tight bud containing tiny hairs or crystals. From afar, hemp looks like a skinny, taller plant (sometimes up to 20 feet), while marijuana plants are shorter, fatter bushes. They are also grown and cultivated in different environments.
Hemp is grown closely together and is often grown in multi-acre lots. Its growth cycle typically lasts 108-120 days. Marijuana, on the other hand, requires a carefully controlled, warm and humid atmosphere. Its growth cycle typically lasts 60-90 days. Marijuana plants also can't be grown too close to each other. On top of that, marijuana and hemp cannot be grown together, because doing so would cancel out the other's purpose (such as the pollen from the hemp diluting marijuana's psychoactivity). There are also visible differences between sativa and indica strains. Sativa plants typically have higher concentrations of CBD and are suited for outdoor growth, while indica strains have shorter, denser leaves, contain higher THC content and are suited for indoor growth. However, given the multitude of hybrids, it is best to look at the individual level of THC, CBD and other compounds. Remember, marijuana can be Sativa or Indica, while hemp can only be Sativa.
The marijuana plant is most commonly cultivated for the medicinal and therapeutic use of its THC concentration. The hemp plant can be divided into four categories, each of which lends itself to be utilized differently. Hemp can be cultivated for its fibers, hurds or shives, leaves and flowers and its seeds. Hemp fibers, which come from the plant's stems, can be used to make items such as paper, clothing, rope, fabric and building materials. Hemp seeds are rich in protein, dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals, making them a prevalent ingredient in food products. Hemp hurds or shives are short woody hemp fibers found in the stalk and can be used for making bedding materials, particle boards and other industrial products. Hemp leaves and flowers are reserved for extracting CBD oil. Additionally, it is important to note that hemp seed oil and CBD derived from hemp are two different things.
The way the cannabis plant has been politicized is responsible for contributing to the confusion regarding the nuanced differences between hemp and marijuana. In the United States, the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937 grouped hemp and marijuana into the law as being considered the same substance. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 established a set of banned substances, created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and classified all forms of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug. The law also outlawed hemp, despite the plant being one of the world's oldest domesticated crops and not including any THC. While today's legislative climate is beginning to shift in an encouraging fashion and more state governments are changing policies, it won't be until cannabis is restructured on the federal level that we will begin to see tremendous change. Cultivating all forms of the plant is integral to expanding our knowledge and learning how to best harness the potential of one of the world's most fascinating plant genuses.