The Actual Differences Between Hemp and Cannabis

With the meteoric rise in popularity of cannabidiol (CBD), a certain amount of confusion exists around the differences between hemp and cannabis.  And despite well-meaning CBD brands trying to clear this up, they sometimes end up spreading misinformation and adding to the confusion even more.


In this article we are going to explore the actual differences between cannabis and hemp, how marijuana fits into the mix and look at some of the most common misconceptions surrounding cannabis, hemp and marijuana.



Taxonomical difference between Hemp & Cannabis

The best way to understand the difference between hemp plants and cannabis plants is to first understand taxonomy, the system of classification for life on earth.


Biologist classify all biological organisms based on a ranking system, similar to a pyramid.  At the top of this pyramid are the various kingdoms life can belong to.  We then move down to the second step on the pyramid to phylum, then further down to class, then order, then family, then genus and finally to species. With plants, species are then also divided into cultivars that non-scientists most commonly call varieties or cultivars.  


Cannabis vs Hemp

In the framework of this taxonomy, cannabis is a genus of flowering plants in the family Cannabaceae.  From here, the Cannabaceae family is further categorised into three different species; Cannabis Sativa, Cannabis Indica, and Cannabis Ruderalis.  Then, with cannabis, there are literally thousands of different varieties/cultivars (also called “strains”), each with their own characteristics and differences including stature, leaf shape and growing conditions to name but a few.  

And this is where the confusion comes in for many people. Cannabis refers to a group of plants that belong to the Cannabaceae family.  Hemp, on the other hand, is only one particular variety/cultivar/strain of cannabis within the species Cannabis Sativa.

Then, to confuse things a bit more,  what are more commonly referred to as cultivar or strains, more recently hemp and cannabis cultivators prefer referring to “strains” as “chemovars” instead.   This is because they believe that the name “chemovar” more accurately reflects the unique cannabinoid and terpene profiles each “strain” has.

Cannabis vs Marijuana

Cannabis has had many names throughout the centuries and across different cultures.  Marijuana is one such name with cannabis and marijuana essentially being two different names for the same thing.

The word marijuana was originally introduced into the English language by Mexican immigrants in North America.  They also brought with them the idea of using cannabis recreationally which, until then, was mostly used for medical purposes.

Then, in the 1930s, anti-cannabis propaganda machine that culminated in the political and racially motivated Reefer Madness exploited this recreational use to their advantage.  They did this by using the term marijuana” to make its use sound sinister, alien and non-American.


Since then, the word has taken on a life of its own.  And despite American laws still using marijuana in its statutes, for many people, the word is now considered as derogatory and racist.   This is also why we, at Kanaco, opt for using the Latin name cannabis.  And also why, when talking about its therapeutic properties, refer to it as medical cannabis rather than medical marijuana.


Practical differences between Hemp & Cannabis

So, as we’ve seen, the major difference between cannabis and hemp is that cannabis refers to a group of plants in the family Cannabaceae, while hemp is a single chemovar within that family.

But taxonomy is not the only difference.  Although hemp and cannabis plants look very similar to the uninitiated, this difference translates into each having their own unique characteristics, uses and benefits.


Hemp vs Cannabis: Different Plants

Although both plants have thin stems and a similar leaf pattern - usually with about 5 to 7 leaflets - and similar flowering anatomies (buds and colas), the primary difference is the height of the plants.


Cannabis indica and ruderalis plants are short, bushy and with broad, dark-green leaves. Indicas in particular are also fast growers, with rapid flowering periods that have higher yields and shorter flowering periods. Indica strains also tend to have a different smell, perhaps reflecting a different terpene profile


On the other hand, Cannabis sativa plants grow tall and are characterised by sparse foliage and light-green, thin-fingered, delicate leaves.  As a strain of Cannabis sativa, hemp plants in particular were historically grown for its long fibrous stems, growing to be much taller than any other strain and can reach heights of up to two to three meters.  Sativa strains generally also have lower yields with extended flowering periods that is somewhat offset by a reduced vegetative period.


Hemp vs Cannabis: Different Chemovars & Cannabinoid Profiles

These physical differences between hemp and cannabis, results in one major difference.  In fact, it is such a big difference, that in many countries it is the deciding factor regarding its legal status: the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) present in the plant.


Cannabis indica and most Cannabis sativa chemovars are primarily cultivated to produce high concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).  Historically, classic cannabis chemovars typically contain between 3% - 5% THC, but some can reach levels as high as 20% (although some experts doubt that levels that high are not produced naturally). 


Hemp on the other hand is mainly cultivated to produce long fibrous stems.  In fact, it was one of the first plants to be spun into usable fibre as far back as 50,000 years ago! Hemp is also one of the fastest growing plants that, together with its other characteristics, cause hemp to be naturally low in THC, instead of yielding high concentrations of CBD.


However, with the interest in CBD, some cannabis chemovars are purposely cultivated to yield high concentrations of CBD naturally.  Similarly, new strains of hemp are also being developed that focusses on CBD content instead of the quality of the hemp fibres.  These are generally known as medical hemp strains or CBD hemp.


Hemp vs Cannabis Different Uses

Hemp and cannabis also have different uses.  Because hemp commonly has long, fibrous stems it is used for a wide range of therapeutic, health, cosmetic, and industrial purposes, including:


  • Hemp CBD oils and supplements for therapeutic use as an anti-emetic, anxiolytic, antidepressant, neuroprotectant, anti-inflammatory and analgesic to name but a few
  • Health foods like hemp teas and seeds as well as hemp seed oil
  • CBD topicals and cosmetic products
  • Clothing and textiles 
  • Building materials 
  • Plastic and composite materials 
  • Paper, cordageand ropes


In contrast, since most cannabis chemovars are high in THC, the psychoactive and intoxicating cannabinoid for which cannabis is famous for, it is mainly cultivated for recreational purposes, but not only. Cannabis consumers primarily use it for:


  • Recreational use claimed to help people intensify experiences and increase enjoyment
  • Sacred and spiritual use in various religions where it is offered as one of many entheogens
  • Medicinal use including ADHD, glaucoma, nausea, autism, Parkinson’s and hepatitis C

Common Hemp & Cannabis Myths Busted

Hemp Comes From Male Plants And Cannabis Comes From Female Plants

One of the most common misconceptions about hemp and cannabis is that hemp comes from male plants and cannabis comes from female plants.  The probable origin of this myth is probably because male cannabis plants tend to have strong fibres, while female plants produce an abundance of flowers. 


But, just like any other cannabis plant, hemp plants produce both male and female plants. What is true is that, because the flowers produced by the female plants produce significantly higher concentrations of cannabinoids than male flowers, female hemp are most sought after for therapeutic use.


Hemp Is Medicinal, Cannabis Is Recreational

Another popular misconception that is often promoted by well-meaning but mistaken CBD brands is that hemp is medicinal and cannabis recreational.  Again, the reason for this is mainly due to well-meaning (but simply wrong) CBD brands who want to distinguish themselves from the recreational cannabis market.  But there are also more sinister reasons.  With the rise in popularity of CBD, unscrupulous brands want to tout their products as a cure-all for everything from anxiety to epilepsy. 


The truth of the matter is that both hemp and cannabis plants have potential therapeutic properties.  And although CBD shows the potential to help treat a wide variety of symptoms and diseases, so too does THC.



Legal Status of Hemp vs Cannabis in the UK

Despite a common belief that cannabis is decriminalised in the UK, current UK criminal law is quite explicit in relation to controlled substances, of which THC is still included on this list.  This means that any person that sells, buys or uses a product that contains more than  0.2% THC puts themselves at risk of serious criminal charges. 


What most people don’t know is that CBD is listed as a Class B drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.  Because of this, many people think that they can grow their own hemp when it is in fact illegal to do so in the UK. CBD growers, producers and sellers in the UK must have a licence, and permission from the UK Home Office, to grow and sell hemp legally.


Similarly, most people are aware that CBD oil is legal in the UK if it has a THC content is below 0.2% because THC is still a controlled substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.  But most people don’t know that both THC and CBN (a.k.a. cannabinol, produced by the breakdown of THC) are controlled substances in the UK. 


This means that under the current legislation a product may not contain more than 1 mg of either THC or CBN, and must be extracted from hemp below 0.2% THC.  That means that, although  this scenario is rather unlikely, even if your full-spectrum CBD oil is derived from a plant that has less than 0.2% THC, it may still be illegal if it contains more than 1 mg of CBN.


The Actual Differences Between Hemp and Cannabis

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