Hemp vs Marijuana: What is the Difference?

Cannabis Sativa L

Hemp and marijuana are products of the same species of plant called Cannabis Sativa L. This is often confusing to people as they attempt to decipher colloquial uses of the words cannabis, hemp, and marijuana that are often used incorrectly to describe one another. Adding to the confusion is the Federal Government’s current position regarding the legal cultivation and uses of hemp and marijuana. As we learn more about the differences and benefits of hemp and marijuana, we are able to undo some of the preconceived notions regarding these products of the cannabis plant. Today’s understanding of hemp and marijuana focuses on two primary differences—the scientific difference and the legal difference. These differences have dictated how we use hemp and marijuana throughout history.

Farmers harvesting hemp for industrial use

As one of the first agricultural crops, cultivation of the cannabis plant has existed for over 10,000 years with origins in modern day Taiwan. Ancient civilizations recognized the cannabis plant’s durability and bred it specifically to harvest hemp fiber from the tall stalks of the plant. The fibers were used to make clothing, building materials, and weapons. The nutrient rich seeds produced by the cannabis plant were also a valuable source of food for ancient civilizations.

Cannabis Plant’s Duality

The plant was initially grown to fulfill the agricultural and material needs of growing societies, but when the psychoactive effects of the cannabis plant’s flowers were discovered, it took on an entirely new role in society. People began to understand that some of their cannabis plants would grow like bushes and produce flower buds, while other plants grew tall and thin, producing seeds and durable fibers. Early medicine men experimented with the flower buds and often included them as ingredients in their natural treatments. The distinction between which breed of the cannabis plant would produce flowers and which would produce fibers and seeds, led cultivators to carefully plant the cannabis seeds to ensure the desired results.

Controlled breeding began the process of creating a distinct difference between the marijuana plant and the industrial hemp plant that we continue to observe today. Scientifically, the Cannabis Sativa L plant has two primary subspecies: Cannabis Indica and Cannabis Sativa.

Scientific Differences


The primary Cannabis Sativa L subspecies Cannabis Indica and Cannabis Sativa, evolved over time to thrive in their respective environments. The Cannabis Indica plant likely originates from the dry foothills of the Himalayas. To adapt with the hot and dry climate, the Cannabis Indica plant grew short and stout like a bush. Its leaves also grew short and wide to provide shade protection to its flower buds. Original Cannabis Indica plants developed into what is primarily grown for medical and recreational marijuana production today.

The Cannabis Sativa plant likely originates from the humid lowlands and river valleys of South and Central Asia. The humid environment that the Sativa plant calls home encouraged the plant to grow much taller than the Indica plant. The Sativa plant developed long and thin leaves, stems, and stalks in order to more easily access the valuable elements necessary for respiration. Original Cannabis Sativa plants developed into what is primarily grown for industrial hemp today.


The cannabis plant is the only plant that produces cannabinoids. Though the plant produces over 60 cannabinoids, we tend to focus on two primary compounds— delta-9-Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is the most well known cannabinoid; it is responsible for the psychoactive effects of marijuana. CBD has recently become a popular focus of scientists; it is considered to be an “anti-psychoactive” compound. Generally speaking, the marijuana plant produces higher amounts of THC than it does CBD. Conversely industrial hemp plants produce higher amounts of CBD than THC. The difference in the cannabinoid production of the industrial hemp and marijuana plants is not entirely natural.

Specific Breeding

Environmental conditions initially created the Cannabis Sativa and Cannabis Indica subspecies, but thousands of years of hemp and marijuana cultivation has bred dominant traits into the plants that further differentiate the two.

Dried hemp with seeds before processing (Photo Credit)

The industrial hemp plant shares the physical characteristics of the Cannabis Sativa plant, but its genetic differences may be the result of specific breeding. Hemp farmers desired a plant that grew without consuming much ground space, but also grew tall to produce long stalks full of durable hemp fiber. Over time they began to primarily use the Cannabis Sativa plant for hemp cultivation for its natural tendency to meet these criteria.

The cannabis plant grows as either a male or female. Male plants tend to grow taller than the females and if they are allowed to flower, they do so later than the females. In general, hemp farmers choose to grow male plants because of their physical characteristics. However, if the male plant is allowed to grow near female plants, it will pollinate them causing the plants to produce seeds.

Noticing that some plants produced seeds and others did not, cultivators began to separate the plants to control their gender. Female plants that were not pollinated, known as “sinsemilla”, produced the THC containing flowers and buds that have been used as medicinal and recreational drugs throughout history. As cultivators continuously separated the male plants from the female plants, allowing some to produce seeds, they began a process of breeding varieties of cannabis that were more suited for hemp production and varieties that were more suited for marijuana production.

Early doctors and farmers realized that after growing several generations of sensimilla plants, the marijuana buds their plants produced were getting stronger. Scientifically what was happening, is that over time they were increasing the concentration of THC while reducing the concentration of CBD.

Just as the doctors desired certain medicinal qualities from the cannabis plant, textile manufacturers and builders desired durable hemp fiber. They selected the tallest and strongest plants from their cannabis crops and used them to breed generations of hemp specific varieties of the plant. Today, we know that the cannabis plant grown for hemp contains high CBD concentrations and low THC concentrations as a result of the specific breeding.

Charlotte's Web lab samples

A 2015 study conducted at the University of Minnesota finds that there is actually a genetic difference between marijuana plants and hemp plants. In brief, over generations of breeding plants specifically for marijuana or hemp production, we have altered their cannabinoid production. George Weiblen, a scientist who worked on the study at the University of Minnesota said, ”We can trace this down to the fact that marijuana is missing an enzyme that produces this molecule, CBD, so THC dominates in the chemistry of marijuana plants”.

The possibility that through years of specific breeding, we have created a genetic difference between the marijuana and hemp varieties of the cannabis plant could have major legislative implications.

Legal Differences

Since 1970 the Federal Government’s Controlled Substances Act has banned cultivation of the cannabis plant. The act classified cannabis as a schedule 1 drug and established penalties for possession and cultivation of the cannabis plant. The purpose of the act was not necessarily to eliminate hemp cultivation, but because it made no attempt to differentiate between cannabis plants that produce marijuana and cannabis plants that produce hemp, the two were considered in the same vein.

In 2014, President Obama signed the U.S. Farm Bill into law. For the first time the government created legislation that acknowledged a chemical difference between hemp and marijuana—the scientific differences produced a victory for hemp farmers and researchers. The bill defines industrial hemp as—“The plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of such plant, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis."

CBD & THC are the most common cannabinoids produced by the Cannabis Sativa L species

The bill allows state departments of agriculture and institutions of higher education in states that had previously enacted pro-hemp legislation to cultivate hemp for research purposes. Though hemp cultivation is only federally legal for research, it is still legally grown in states like Colorado and Kentucky, through state-level legislation, for industrial purposes.

Through the Farm Bill, the Federal Government now involves itself in the legal cultivation and manufacturing of hemp and hemp-based products. While the government clearly defines industrial hemp as having less than .3% THC, it struggles to adapt a clear understanding of the new wave of CBD products that are derived from industrial hemp crops. The challenge for the government is, when it passed the Farm Bill it may not have fully considered that cultivators intended to develop CBD products that would be marketed for the therapeutic and dietary needs of society.

Today there are countless companies who are cultivating industrial hemp to ultimately extract the naturally occurring CBD’s for use in a variety of wellness products. The recent surge of new companies that are attempting to enter the CBD market has attracted the attention of the FDA. While some companies go to great lengths to ensure their products are of high quality and healthy, there are others whose products are hastily made using a variety of unhealthy additives.

While cultivation of industrial hemp is federally legal in the U.S., marijuana cultivation remains federally illegal. When the Controlled Substance Act was passed in 1970, marijuana was classified as a schedule 1 drug along with heroin and ecstasy. Schedule 1 drugs are defined by the DEA as:

“The drug or other substance that has a high potential for abuse. The drug or other substance that has no currently accepted medical treatment use in the U.S.”

At the time, the scientific understanding of cannabinoids was limited when compared to today’s understanding. To date, there are countless independent studies whose results suggest that marijuana is not addictive. Further, the studies suggest that marijuana can be a viable medication for individuals suffering from cancer and other diseases and critical conditions. Regardless, cultivation of the cannabis plant for the THC containing marijuana buds is federally illegal and falls under the regulatory purview of the DEA.

Because the Federal Government has made industrial hemp cultivation legal, it requires federal oversight for manufacturing methods and quality health controls for hemp based products. Conversely, marijuana cultivation has only been made legal on the state level, and the Federal Government’s only involvement in regulating the marijuana industry is through the DEA’s efforts to eradicate cannabis crops that it deems threatening to society for a variety of economic and health related reasons. Until federal legislation is passed that outlines the legal cultivation and consumption of marijuana for medical or recreational purposes, it remains the state’s responsibility to create and enforce any health and production standards it deems necessary for safe consumption.


While it is legal to cultivate and possess industrial hemp in the U.S., the question remains, how can hemp products be marketed to the general public? Currently, the FDA does not recognize cannabis-derived CBD products as approved medicines. Though the FDA has not approved CBD products as commercial drugs, they accepted an investigational new drug (IND) filing from a United Kingdom based company. By granting the IND to a specific company, the FDA limits any other company’s ability to market products that contain the substance, in this case CBD. Despite evidence proving CBD to be non-addictive, non-psychoactive, non-toxic, and clinically proven to be safe, the FDA said, “A substance authorized as a new drug for which clinical investigations had begun cannot be introduced in a dietary supplement”.

Further complicating the marketing of CBD products is the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act that states any company who claims its CBD products, “are intended for use in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease”, is in direct violation of the act. Some companies that produce CBD products have made unsubstantiated medical claims that suggest their products can be used as a (n): anxiety treatment, cancer treatment, depression treatment, pain treatment, epileptic seizure treatment or arthritis treatment; companies that make such claims are clearly violating the FD&C Act until current clinical trials conclude.

If approved as a dietary supplement by the FDA, CBD products will be on shelves along with vitamins and other supplements (Photo Credit)

The FDA responded to violations of the FD&C Act through a series of warning letters issued in February 2015 (CW Botanicals was not a recipient of one of these letters). In some cases the FDA determined that companies were in violation of the FD&C Act, citing examples from company websites such as: “Aid in decreasing severity of dementia”, “Reduce bronchial spasms in asthmatics”, “CBD hemp oil critical for cancer treatment”, and “We have treated thousands of patients and have seen this medicine work!”. Also, the FDA considers companies to be “misbranding” their products if they do not adequately provide directions for use on the product label.

An expert from a FDA warning letter reads, “Adequate directions for use” means directions under which a layperson can use a drug safely and for the purposes for which it is intended [21 CFR § 201.5]. Your products are offered for conditions that are not amenable to self-diagnosis and treatment by individuals who are not medical practitioners; therefore, adequate directions for use cannot be written so that a layperson can use these drugs safely for their intended purposes”.

More alarming is what the FDA found when it lab tested the products it deemed were in violation of the FD&C Act. They found that some of the CBD products being sold, in fact, contained no CBD. Further, they found that some of the products contained more than the .3% legal limit for THC in industrial hemp cultivation. The companies whose products contained more than the .3% limit were not only violating the FD&C Act for unsubstantiated medical claims, but they were also in violation of the Controlled Substances Act by illegally selling a schedule 1 substance.

The companies who attempt to circumvent the law risk giving the CBD industry a negative reputation in the eyes of the government and the public. It is important to note that not all of the companies selling CBD products received warning letters from the FDA. Whether or not the FDA allows companies to make medical claims about the healing potential of their products, there appears to be a major focus on creating botanical medicines and supplements that naturally help patients with the ailments of disease and chronic pain. Those companies that mislabel their products or include ingredients that are in fact not safe for human consumption may exist purely to financially exploit the vulnerability of an unknowing customer base. If CBD is to be accepted by the FDA as an effective and safe therapeutic compound, it is the responsibility of producers to create and follow best practices in the industry.

Government Research and Patent

Though the government has not approved CBD as a medicine, nor marijuana, the FDA states that it is aware that marijuana and marijuana-derived products are being used for a variety of medical conditions,

“Including, for example, AIDS wasting, epilepsy, neuropathic pain, treatment of spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis, and cancer and chemotherapy-induced nausea. To date, the FDA has not approved a marketing application for a drug product containing or derived from botanical marijuana and has not found any such product to be safe and effective for any indication”.

What is most puzzling about this position is the U.S. Government holds patent number 6630507 titled “Cannabinoids as Antioxidants and Neuroprotectants”.

The patent claims:
“Cannabinoids have been found to have antioxidant properties, unrelated to NMDA receptor antagonism. This new found property makes cannabinoids useful in the treatment and prophylaxis of wide variety of oxidation associated diseases, such as ischemic, age-related, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. The cannabinoids are found to have particular application as neuroprotectants, for example in limiting neurological damage following ischemic insults, such as stroke and trauma, or in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and HIV dementia. Nonpsychoactive cannabinoids, such as cannabidiol, are particularly advantageous to use because they avoid toxicity that is encountered with psychoactive cannabinoids at high doses useful in the method of the present invention.”

Despite current laws prohibiting the use of hemp and marijuana products as medical treatments, the Federal Government does acknowledge that cannabinoids are beneficial in medical treatments. Specifically, the patent shows that CBD is advantageous for medical treatments because of its low THC content. As described earlier, plants that contain high CBD concentrations are generally low in THC, and are possibly genetically different. Regardless of the Federal Government’s legal view of marijuana, it could consider hemp and its potential medicinal qualities differently. The FDA’s admission that it is aware of marijuana and marijuana-derived products being used for medical treatments, as well as the patent it holds, suggests that there is high potential for the eventual federal approval of their efficacy as medicines.

Charlotte’s Web is Different

Companies like Charlotte's Web produce hemp oil extract that is sold as a dietary supplement. The whole-plant, hemp oil extracts produced by Charlotte’s Web contain naturally high levels of CBD and less than the legal limit of .3% THC.

Some of the hemp oil products available from CW Botanicals

“Our proprietary hemp genetics have been developed to be naturally rich in CBD. This offers significant advantages over many commonly available products - most of which are derived from imported hemp pastes that contain very low levels of CBD. Our products are proudly grown on family farms in Colorado and Kentucky. We know the history of our farmland, and we take great care in the cultivation and processing of our proprietary hemp strains to ensure the highest levels of purity”.

Though Charlotte's Web makes no specific claims about its Charlotte’s Web hemp products, there are thousands of families who have reported positive effects from applications of the many hemp oil uses. Charlotte’s Web hemp products have further differentiated industrial hemp from marijuana—last year Congressman Scott Perry (R-PA) proposed the Charlotte’s Web Medical Access Act (H.R. 1635). Less than 8-weeks after the introduction of H.R. 1635, Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) proposed the Senate companion bill (S. 1333) to the US Senate.

Though passage of the law has been slow moving, its introduction shows that not only are voters and politicians open to legalization of cannabis cultivation, but that they are beginning to understand the chemical difference between marijuana and hemp.

Both legally and scientifically, the difference between industrial hemp and marijuana comes down to THC concentrations. The legal differences were spurred by the common misunderstanding that all cannabis plants dominantly produce the psychoactive compound THC. Though THC and CBD products have different intended uses, their existence is still widely misunderstood as evidenced by the government’s reluctance to apply clear standards to the evolving industry. Research into the medical and therapeutic qualities of cannabinoids will be inhibited until private companies have the legal support of the Federal Government to pursue product development. There has been tremendous progress in discovering the many uses of cannabinoids despite potential legal repercussions. There is little doubt that continued research and product development will produce further evidence of the differences between hemp and marijuana.

For more information on hemp versus marijuana, check out our blog post Questions You Should Ask About Hemp, Marijuana and Charlotte’s Web