More people are discovering the health benefits of hemp oil, yet many people remain confused about the differences between hemp, cannabis, and marijuana. It’s not surprising, since these terms are sometimes used interchangeably when, in fact, there are important distinctions among them.
The term “cannabis” comes from plant taxonomy and botanical names for plants. Cannabis sativa is the name of a species of plant within the plant genus called Cannabis. Hemp and marijuana plants are cultivars (or strains) of the species Cannabis sativa.
When people talk about cannabis, they may be referring to the species or genus name that hemp and marijuana plants have in common. However, it is more likely that when people use the word cannabis they actually mean marijuana. Because the name marijuana has negative, druggy associations, many marijuana enthusiasts are increasingly using the terms “medical cannabis” and “cannabis” in place of “marijuana.”
To understand the differences between hemp and marijuana, it helps to return to the history of the plant species, or Cannabis sativa. Archeological evidence shows that the Cannabis sativa plant was cultivated by humans in China thousands of years ago.
The Cannabis sativa plants that were grown resembled what we would today call a hemp plant. The plants were used in much the same way we use hemp plants today: for fiber, paper, building materials, fuel, and food.
It is not known when humans discovered that Cannabis sativa had psycho-active properties, but the plant was probably not grown for the purpose of producing a high until much later. At that point, humans began to cultivate Cannabis sativa into another strain, one we would today call a marijuana plant.
Although hemp plants and marijuana plants are both Cannabis sativa, the two plants look different and are different after years of being cultivated by humans for distinct purposes. Just as we have different strains of avocados, pears, and roses, we have different strains of Cannabis sativa.
The Hemp plant is tall, sometimes reaching as high as 20 feet, and the plants are usually grown close together as an agricultural crop outdoors. The plant is hardy and grows quickly. Hemp contains very low amounts of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana that is responsible for creating a high.
Marijuana plants are much shorter and bushier. Unlike hemp plants, marijuana plants contain high amounts of THC, the psycho-active ingredient that makes people high. Because the flowers of the marijuana plant contain most of the THC, plants are often grown indoors in hot and humid conditions to maximize flower production.
Because marijuana is considered a drug in some countries, there are also legal distinctions between the two plants and the products that come from them. For example, Canada defines hemp products as that that contain less than 0.3 percent THC. If more THC is present, the products are categorized as marijuana. However, these legal definitions may vary from country to country. What one country calls hemp, another may classify as marijuana.
These different definitions of cannabis, hemp, and marijuana can make things confusing for consumers. When in doubt, remember that cannabis usually means marijuana, hemp has low THC and doesn’t produce a high, and marijuana has high THC and does produce a high.