The Difference Between Hemp and Marijuana

hemp vs marijuana

The words “hemp” and “marijuana” have been used synonymously for decades; however, hemp and marijuana are separate plants with differing composition, application and cultivation. Although these two plants both come from the genus cannabis, it is important to distinguish the two. 

Why is it important to distinguish hemp from marijuana? 

Hemp has long been grouped with marijuana. The stigma of marijuana has been applied to hemp, which has hindered hemp’s potential as an industrial material and health supplement. Both hemp and marijuana provide benefit, but it is important to recognize the differences so consumers can make educated choices. 

The difference between hemp and marijuana 

Chemical Makeup 

Perhaps the most important difference between hemp and marijuana for consumers is chemical makeup. The composition of the plants determines how the plants interact with the body. Hemp and marijuana differ in chemical makeup and, therefore, affect the body differently. 

The most significant difference between the chemical makeup of hemp and marijuana is the level of THC. THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the intoxicating compound that produces a euphoric high.  

Marijuana is bred to have high levels of THC (around 5-35%) which proves beneficial for recreational and medicinal use. More than just a compound that gets you high, THC helps to relieve nausea, appetite loss, and insomnia. 

Hemp is bred to have low levels of THC (less than 0.3% in the final product). The low levels of THC in hemp are not significant enough to produce a high. Even in larger quantities, hemp is non-intoxicating. 

Learn more: Can CBD Hemp Oil Get You High? 

Hemp is also a natural source of cannabidiol (CBD), an active compound that is being studied as a treatment for epilepsy, anxiety, pain and inflammation, among other things. CBD hemp oil is a legal supplement that supports homeostasis, or balance, of the body. 

Marijuana, too, has varying levels of CBD. However, hemp is an ideal choice for many consumers because it provides the benefit of CBD without a high. 


The composition of these plants determines what they are used for. The high levels of THC in marijuana make the plant beneficial for medicinal and recreational use. 

Hemp is a more versatile plant and can be applied in many ways that marijuana cannot. Hemp is also known as industrial hemp because of its many industrial uses. This industrial plant is known to have over 25,000 applications such as paper, textiles, plastics, construction, food, and fuel. 


Hemp and marijuana require vastly different growing environments.  

Hemp requires minimal care and can adapt to grow in most climates. Hemp is grown closely together in large outdoor plots. The growth cycle of the hemp plant is about 108-120 days. 

Marijuana, on the other hand, must be grown in a controlled environment. The marijuana plant requires warmth and humidity and the plants are grown about six feet apart. The growth cycle of the marijuana plant is rapid (about 60-90 days). 

Hemp and marijuana must not be grown close together. If hemp pollen were to interact with the marijuana plant, the psychoactivity of the marijuana plant would be compromised. 

Upon first glance, hemp and marijuana may look the same, but upon closer look we find the plants differ in appearance, too. Hemp grows skinny and tall (up to 20 ft.) while marijuana is short and wide. Marijuana leaves are either broad or in a tight bud. In contrast, hemp leaves are skinny and concentrate toward the top of the plant. 


The differences between hemp and marijuana haven’t stopped politicians from grouping the two together in legislation. While progress is being made, confusion between the two plants creates a barrier for the legalization of hemp. 

Marijuana is federally illegal; however, several states have enacted legislation permitting the medicinal and/or recreational use of marijuana. 

The Cole Memorandum, issued by Attorney General James Cole during the presidency of Barack Obama, encouraged federal prosecutors to refrain from targeting marijuana operations in states where marijuana is legal. The memo was rescinded in 2018 by Attorney General Jeff Sessions under the Donald Trump presidency, weakening the states’ ability to implement cannabis legalization policies. 

The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classifies marijuana as a schedule I drug, meaning it has “no accepted medical use” and a high potential for abuse and/or dependence. As a cannabis plant, hemp is grouped into this language. 

The 2014 Farm Bill clarified the legality of hemp. The legislation specifically states that hemp and its derivates are legal if the final product contains less than 0.3% THC. 

Legally, the level of THC in a cannabis plant determines whether the plant is hemp or cannabis. According to the 2014 Farm Bill, derivatives of hemp must contain less than 0.3% THC. Any higher and the product is considered to be marijuana. 

Introduced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Hemp Farming Act of 2018 would federally legalize hemp. While the 2014 Farm Bill includes language regarding hemp, there is still a legal “grey area” for businesses and politicians.  

Make your voice heard! You can encourage your senators and congresspersons to support the Hemp Farming Act of 2018 here. 


Hemp and marijuana are both cannabis but should be treated as separate plants. Hemp is a non-intoxicating plant that has industrial and therapeutic uses. Marijuana is an intoxicating plant that is used for recreation and as medicine. While, in the past, legislation has considered these plants to be the same, progress is being made to identify hemp and marijuana as separate. 

Do you have any additional questions about the differences between hemp and marijuana? Leave a comment below!

Leave a Comment