What is the Difference Between Hemp, Marijuana, and Cannabis?

It seems this question baffles most on the internet, from bloggers, doctors and even politicians. As a matter of fact, it even baffled me before I came to learn about Cannabis and studied its properties. Just what is the difference between Hemp, Marijuana and Cannabis? Are they the same? Our society places a taboo on anything Cannabis related and our laws are a reflection of this. This means that such a discussion has never taken place, leaving us all in the dark. Read on to understand more …

Cannabis comes in hundreds of different strains and breeds. What do you call Marijuana and what do you call Hemp? Which one is a better source of Cannabidiol (CBD)? The confusion out there arises because there are both legal and botanical distinctions to be understood. Let’s get started:

Understanding the Cannabis Plant - sativa vs indica

Firstly, let’s understand the basic species of Cannabis first. There are 3 main species of Cannabis, but the total number is likely much higher and is disputed. The 3 main groups are:

  1. Cannabis Sativa

  2. Cannabis Indica

  3. Cannabis Ruderalis

See the image below for how each of these plants appears:

cannabis plant type.png

The Cannabis Sativa strain is usually taller and has narrower and longer leaves and can be planted at higher density. The Cannabis Indica strain on the other hand is usually shorter and more bushy like with shorter and wider leaves and planted with more spacing between plants. To simplify it further, most Cannabis products are obtained from the first two species only: Sativa and Indica. Looking at the physical characteristic of a plant will help you identify which species it belongs to.

That’s the different forms of Cannabis from both a physical identification and a botanical point of view.

Hemp and Marijuana

The definition of Hemp is a legal one and not botanical and is based on the concentration of (Tetrahydrocannabinol) THC. See below:

where to get cbd oil nz.jpg

It’s all about THC

Hemp has a THC concentration of less than 0.3%

Marijuana has a THC concentration greater than 0.3%

So any plant of either species that contains a THC concentration of less than 0.3% is considered Hemp and anything above that is considered Marijuana, regardless of the species the plant belongs to or what it looks like. Within both species there are hundreds of different breeds which contain varying amount of cannabinoids in their gooey resin, some of which fall within the legal definition of Hemp and some within the legal definition of Marijuana. The cannabinoids are extracted from the plants resin which is present within the “heads of tiny, mushroom-shaped trichomes, found mainly on the plant’s odiferous female flowers (the buds) and to a lesser extent on the leaves” (Project CBD).

The term hemp means the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of that plant, including the seeds thereof and all derivatives, extracts, cannabinoids, isomers, acids, salts, and salts of isomers, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis
— Agricultural Improvement Act 2018

how does the species classification link in with hemp and marijuana

Understanding the legal and botanical classification of Cannabis is important. However, there is some overlap between the two.

It so happens that many resin rich varieties which contain lots of different and beneficial cannabinoids are of the Cannabis Indica strain, which is short and busy. It is also true that many resin poor varieties which contain minimal cannabinoids are of the Cannabis Sativa species, which is tall and skinny in appearance. These later Cannabis Sativa varieties are usually called “industrial Hemp” and are used industrially to manufacture textiles, rope, clothing and paper. They have very useful fibre which makes them a valuable crop for such uses. But not all Cannabis Sativa species are used industrially, some are used medicinally also.

Therefore, most medicinally useful Cannabis plants belong to the Cannabis Indica species. These medicinal plants will have varying ratios of CBD : THC. Some will have minimal THC (<0.3%) and are therefore Hemp and some will have high THC concentrations (>0.3%) and are therefore Marijuana legally.

Where the confusion lies

Doing a quick Google search will show you just how confusing this topic is and how very few people know the real distinction. What you will find most websites saying is that Hemp looks tall and skinny and is used for industrial uses and thus is a bad source of CBD while Marijuana varieties are short and bushy, used medicinally and are thus a great source of CBD. This is incorrect. These articles are confusing the legal definition of Marijuana and Hemp with the botanical distinction and making generalising claims which just confuses the situation.

Resin rich and CBD rich Cannabis plants (i.e. Hemp) are the best source of full spectrum CBD without the psychoactive effects of THC.

difference between hemp and cbd.jpg

Where does the 0.3% legal definition come from?

The distinction and cut off of 0.3% is historical and is not significant as a number by itself. The figure is courtesy of Dr Ernest Small, who made this distinction in a series of publications in the 1970’s and it has continued to be taken as a cut off in the definition of Marijuana and Cannabis since.

Legality in NZ

In NZ, CBD is a prescription medication and can be obtained from your GP. The trouble is that with the stigma out there, your GP will probably have never heard of it! THC on the other hand is more complicated for now and a script to get it is difficult, but possible. CBD obtained in NZ without a doctors prescription is illegal. Furthermore, CBD products must have a COA to prove that the CBD content is at least 98% of the total cannabinoid content of the product.

Special thanks to Rod Kight for his advice in writing this blog post.

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