Have you ever looked at an ape and wondered if we humans really are related to these eerily “human-like” creatures? The stories of the “missing link” in the chain of human evolution is an interesting one, but we’re not the only species on Earth with a unique and mysterious genetic family. If you’re the type of person who watches “Ancient Aliens” or documentaries about the mysteries of our world and its origins, you’re most likely also a proponent of cannabis. Did you know that cannabis and hemp are related? And that they have another very popular cousin – hops! As in BEER?! Let’s explore the wonderful world of plants and try to discern the differences between hemp vs marijuana.
Hemp, cannabis and hops are part of a fascinating family of plants that has grown (literally) to over 170 species and exists across the globe. The Cannabaceae family, as they’re known, are common across many temperate climates and consist of some well known plant genera like Cannabis (marijuana, hemp), Humulus (hops), Celtis (hackberries) and Moraceae (mulberry). Although cannabis, hemp and hops share some similarities in terms of their biology, the comparables don’t extend far beyond their genetics. For the purposes of this article, we won’t include hops very much but we’ll focus on the similarities and differences between the primary sources for those coveted cannabinoids, THC & CBD.
Essentially, the chemical compounds we call Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD) are at the core of what differentiates hemp from cannabis. There are a lot of other factors that define hemp from cannabis and vice versa, such as how they’re cultivated, what conditions they thrive in, or their commercial applications. Nonetheless, when you’re trying to separate cannabis from hemp there’s really only one thing that defines them in a legal sense: THC content.
There’s a long – and frustrating – history of misunderstanding surrounding cannabis, hemp and those mysterious active compounds we call THC & CBD, so let’s orient ourselves with the current state of affairs by looking at how we got to where we are today.
FROM PROPAGANDA TO PROPAGATION: The Hazy History of Hemp & Cannabis in North America
It may seem obvious to the educated, experienced cannabis consumer, but many people across the globe do not know the differences between hemp vs marijuana. It is this common misunderstanding that actually lead to both cannabis and hemp being included on Schedule I of the Controlled Drugs & Substances Act across North America. Cannabis was considered to be a dangerous substance and a gateway drug in the early 1900’s, so it was slated to be controlled as an illicit drug by the governments of the time. Hemp, alternatively, was prominently cultivated throughout North America and Europe for its capabilities as a medicine, food, textile, fuel, paper substitute and even building material. Unfortunately, like many beneficial plants throughout human history the interests of “big business” always supercede the rights to health & happiness of the general populace. So, under pressure from some titanic industrial players like Big Pharma, Big Oil, and the forestry & paper/pulp mills, hemp and its close cousin cannabis were thrown into the Act to Prohibit Opium & Other Substances a mere 3 weeks before it was formalized into law. Many hemp farmers were outraged, and rightly so, and so were those people who relied on marijuana for medical reasons. Although many people have fought for their legal rights to access cannabis for medical purposes (Terence Parker, 2000) it would be almost 100 years before cannabis and hemp would be brought out of the shadows and into the light of Federal legalization in 2018. The history of cannabis & hemp with policy makers and regulators is, to be frank, a lot like an episode of Game of Thrones: political intrigue, danger, defiance, passion, betrayal and a lot of blood, sweat and tears spilled over a number of disagreements.
Today, however, is looking like the promised “golden age” for cannabis and hemp that many of its staunch advocates have dreamed of over the years. Both in the United States & Canada (and soon to be Mexico, when they Federally legalize cannabis in early 2020), hemp vs marijuana have different requirements to be deemed legal or illegal. In Canada things are completely unique to the rest of the world, because we Canucks chose to be the first G7 country to legalize cannabis recreationally and medically at the Federal level in October 2018. On the other hand, our southern neighbors of the USA have still not realized – at least at a Federal level – that cannabis is not the scary gateway drug that it’s been demonized as. However, hemp has recently been Federally approved in the United States (December 2018 – Farm Bill), but their reasons for approving hemp while continuing to oppose cannabis largely come down to disapproval/fear over THC. Hemp naturally has a very low THC profile – in order to be legally compliant, hemp and its byproducts in the U.S. must have THC content < 0.3%.
Canada has moved beyond its outright paranoia about THC, although it’s important to understand that the medical & scientific consensus on this cannabinoid’s safety for youth and medical efficacy are still undergoing development. There are THC limits for legal cannabis products, and medical research about its effects on the mind & body are limited in their own right, so a lot of work still needs to be done before THC is wholly accepted into society. On the other side of the spectrum, Cannabidiol (CBD) has been the recipient of nothing but positive development over the past several years. CBD has none of the psychoactive effects that THC does, but it does share many of the health benefits like pain relief, anti-inflammatory properties, calming anxiety and assisting with sleep. CBD has also gained a lot of traction in mainstream media for its incredible abilities to help reduce the severity and frequency of seizures, particularly in patients suffering from Epilepsy. Many people have seen the emotional videos online of people suffering from crippling seizures, but by ingested CBD oil or rubbing it on their body they’re able to halt or ease the epileptic attacks, sometimes within minutes. There is a growing number of health officials that are looking to CBD for a wide range of treatments, such as chronic arthritis, Multiple Sclerosis (MS), PTSD and even cancer.
The differences between hemp and cannabis – at least in the Government’s eyes – are majorly concerned with their cannabinoid profiles, but that can’t be all that separates these two plants? The effects of THC or CBD on human and animal health will continue to be the focal point of cannabis/hemp development, but hemp has a lot more applications as a commercial/industrial commodity. The hemp plant is known for having very strong, lightweight and versatile fibers which is why it has a very long history as a textile. Ancient cultures have been documented as using hemp fiber to make ropes, clothing and even tools or weapons as early as 8000 BCE! That’s one epic testimonial for why hemp should never have been deemed illegal. Hemp is also an excellent source for nutrition and medicine. Hemp seeds are high in protein and are a common add-in to oatmeal or smoothies today, and the seed oil is very rich in omegas 3-6-9. We’ve already covered some of its medical benefits with regards to hemp’s high CBD content, but it should be repeated how safe, effective and multifaceted hemp CBD can be.
On top of its popularity as a textile or health supplement (no pun intended), hemp is also used in something called ‘hempcrete’. Like its name suggests, hempcrete is like concrete but made with a bio-composite fibrous core of hemp mixed with a lime-based binding agent. So, hemp can literally be consumed as medicine or food, you can wear it as clothing, AND you can build a structure with it?! Yes, there’s a lot of truth to the phrase that hemp is a “miracle plant”. Can marijuana be this versatile? you might be wondering. Although these plants are very similar in their biology, and there’s not much evidence against cannabis’ plant materials being suitable for commercial byproducts, the differences in cultivation environments makes marijuana less ideal than hemp. Cannabis requires a lot more strict growing conditions, like certain light, temperature and climate conditions including humidity, oxygen and carbon dioxide in order to thrive. Hemp also has a much shorter crop cycle, and its turnaround time can be quicker in addition to not being so restrictive of where it is grown.
For these reasons, hemp seems to be overtaking cannabis on the world stage. Many policymakers and consumers alike are beginning to ask themselves: If hemp (CBD) has many of the health benefits of cannabis (THC), with none of the psychoactive risks but a whole host of other useful applications, then why do we bother with marijuana at all? This is a valid point to make, but just like anything worth doing in life, having choices and experiencing the spice of variety can lead to greater benefits than just focusing on one component. Next, it’s time to put on a lab coat and look at these plants under the microscope so that we can appreciate what each cannabaceae relative is bringing to the table.
KNOW YOUR PLANTS: Hemp & Cannabis Defining Traits
Hemp is a variation of Cannabis sativa, so it is technically a species or subspecies of the popular breed of cannabis we know as Sativa, but it’s not as simple as labelling hemp as a Sativa strain with little-to-no-THC. A good way of looking at hemp is like a dog to a wolf; there’s some evidence that dogs and wolves share some ancestry, but that doesn’t mean that all dogs are descendants of wolves. Hemp shares many traits with cannabis, like its leaves, vegetative life cycle, its biology and the cannabinoids we can extract from both plants. Nevertheless, hemp and cannabis are not one and the same, and in fact cannabis isn’t usually one-and-the-same with itself.
Cannabis comes in a number of strain varieties and each genetic strain can have unique terpene and cannabinoid concentrations while also having uniform effects when consumed. It’s an important caveat to remember that even when you consume certain amounts of THC, CBD – or any of the lesser known cannabinoids like CBG or CBN – that cannabinoids interact with our bodies at an individual level. You can have different experiences with similar levels of THC or CBD, so it’s a good practice to treat each strain of marijuana like a new and exciting experience. A lot of study is currently being done on terpenes, which are now becoming the focus for the potential effects, benefits and uses for different cannabis genetics. It’s not as simple to say that “Sativas energize, Indicas make you sleepy” anymore, as more and more data about the hundreds of cannabinoids and terpenes comes to the surface. For an in depth tutorial on the fascinating world of cannabis terpenes, we recommend checking out our friends at Leafly.
To understand the differences between hemp vs marijuana, it’s important to know your Sativas, Indicas, Ruderalis and Hybrids. Fortunately, we already wrote a great article about this!
There are some basic distinctions between cannabis and hemp that are important to know when you’re looking for certain products. For starters, hemp is very high in CBD (ranging from 20-30% in some cases) while cannabis varieties can range from 15 – 35% THC on average. There are thousands of different products to choose from that have higher and lower values of THC and CBD, but before you decide what kind to use you need to understand how cannabinoids affect YOU.
Are you looking for relief from pain, inflammation, insomnia or anxiety? Maybe a CBD strain of cannabis or hemp-derived product would better suit you, because there’s less risk of psychoactive effects (the “high”). Perhaps you’re not afraid of a little chill-inducing or consciousness-expanding THC, and you want to feel the relaxation associated with a strong cannabis product? THC definitely has its share of positive effects, and for many people the psychoactive influences of consuming Tetrahydrocannabinol are not a negative thing at all, quite the opposite. If you have a very serious medical need for THC or CBD, then there’s also the combination of the two that you should consider.
The entourage effect – whereby cannabinoids consumed together work together to reduce the side effects of each individual compound while enhancing the efficacy of one another – is sought after by many cannabis or hemp advocates. When you consume THC and CBD together, Cannabidiol helps to lessen the psychoactive effects (possibly even negate them altogether) associated with THC; at the same time, THC can boost the pain-fighting, anti-inflammatory or reduce nausea at a great rate than CBD alone. These are just examples of a few of the benefits of the entourage effect and how both THC and CBD have unique benefits but also can work synergistically towards a common goal: health & happiness.
Next time you’re thinking about growing your own four plants at home, or if you think it’s time to change up your herbal regime and try something new, consider the advantages of cannabis or hemp and how they might suit your health & lifestyle. Both plants have a lot to offer, it’s simply a matter of choosing which one compliments you the best.