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Hemp vs Marijuana Plants: What’s the Difference?

Last updated: February 2, 2022

cannabis close up

Image Credit: Erin_Hinterland, Pixabay

With increased legalization and public acceptance, you’ve probably heard the words marijuana, hemp, and cannabis quite a lot. But what exactly do these terms mean and how are they different from one another? While hemp and marijuana are both classifications of cannabis, they’re completely different variations. Unfortunately, the nomenclature used when discussing cannabis is often incorrect, with hemp, marijuana, and cannabis often being used interchangeably — but indeed, they are not the same thing. Such has caused many to be left in the dark about what they each individually mean; however, we are here to make a few things clear.

Hemp vs Marijuana Plants: Two Plants, Explained

Marijuana and hemp are both beneficial in their own rights and should be respected as such. With differences surrounding their legality, appearances, effects, and even the ways in which you consume them, being knowledgeable on how they differ is crucial to your understanding of the cannabis world. Here, we’ve broken down the juxtapositions between hemp and marijuana in hopes of helping cannabis consumers everywhere better decipher these two commonly known plant varieties.

To have a fuller understanding of how they differ, it’s important to start with the basic definitions of these cannabis varieties.


Hemp Plant

Featured Image Credit: MasterTux, Pixabay

“Hemp” is the classification we use for the variety of cannabis plants that contain 0.3% or less tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), with typically high cannabidiol (CBD) percentages. Short for cannabidiol, CBD is one of the most abundant and well-research cannabinoids found in cannabis alongside tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), CBN (cannabinol), CBG (cannabigerol), and many others. Unlike its botanical sister, psychoactive THC, CBD doesn’t produce any mind-altering effects. Because of the little to no amounts of THC within this plant, it’s regarded as non-psychoactive and has been used in anything from shampoo and denim to textiles and biofuel. With many believing that hemp was the world’s first cultivated crop, this functional plant has been helping us for thousands of years.


marijuana plant close up

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Marijuana contains much more than 0.3% THC, and is what produces am “high” feeling in the body when consumed. Although typically bred for its psychoactivity, marijuana can also contain high percentages of CBD as well, it just simply depends on the strain. Strains are essentially different variations of the marijuana plant, containing individualized terpenes and cannabinoid percentages to make each one different from the next. This cannabis variety has also been around for decades, with ancient civilizations being found in ancient Chinese tombs, and even at Shakespeare’s home — as many have speculated.

Legal Issues of Hemp and Marijuana

 When it comes to the legality surrounding hemp versus marijuana, the two are quite different. Perhaps the only thing they really have in common is confusing the regulatory framework surrounding both of these extraordinary plants.

Hemp is Legal

As of December 2018, hemp was no longer classified as a Schedule I controlled substance, and instead was legalized for cultivation in the US through the 2018 Farm Bill. This came with strict stipulations, most notably being the THC percentages. If a plant is cultivated that contains more than the discussed 0.3%, it technically becomes marijuana and is no longer legal. Also, obtaining a license and adhering to the strict regulations isn’t easy, and those who don’t can be punished by law. All of these layers make the process muddied and confusing, leaving many unsure of where hemp actually stands in regards to legality. What’s most important to understand here is that hemp, which contains less than 0.3% THC, is federally legal to cultivate in the US as long as proper procedures are followed.

Marijuana is Legal in 32 States (Sort of…)

Marijuana, on the other hand, is a completely different story. Back in the early 1900s, marijuana wasn’t only banned, but it was demonized across the country — demon lettuce anyone? By the time the 70s hit, the predominately psychoactive plant became a Schedule I controlled substance. Finally, almost 30 years later, California hopped off the bandwagon and recognized marijuana’s potential, legalizing medical marijuana in 1996. Since then, 32 other states have legalized marijuana medicinally, with ten others legalizing it recreationally.

The stipulations surrounding cannabis as a whole vary from state to state, but you must be 21 to purchase marijuana recreationally or 18 with a medical marijuana card and a qualifying condition. The amount of marijuana you can legally possess depends on where you reside, so it is crucial to become as familiar as possible with marijuana laws in your state specifically.

While the jury’s still out with regards to the efficacy of cannabis and its constituents, we trust that the legalization, research, and public acceptance of the plant will continue to grow. And, it appears that many others are lending their voice in the growing call for our legal system and medical to make progress with regards to the fast-growing cannabis industry.

marijuana close up

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The Growing Procedures

 When growing, it’s important to remember that neither of these forms of cannabis are your typical houseplant; both hemp and marijuana require much more than just the occasional watering to get them to flourish. Most simply, growing hemp or marijuana is a long-term task that needs constant care and attention, no matter what form of cannabis you have.

Growing Hemp

However, the exact way that hemp is grown does differ a bit from marijuana’s growing procedures. Most hemp farmers are farming primarily for CBD yield and always avoiding THC as much as possible as per federal law. The plants are typically grown outdoors or in a greenhouse, and tend to be a bit more adaptable to environmental changes than its intoxicating counterpart. Due to its adaptability, hemp can be grown a bit easier than marijuana, though it still requires around-the-clock care.

Growing Marijuana

Growing marijuana, though, is even trickier. Male plants do not have the same properties as female marijuana plants and cannot be dried, cured, and smoked. Because of this, farmers have to be extremely careful with their plants’ sex, ensuring that their seeds are feminized and do not come in contact with male plants. Both male and female hemp plants can be utilized, so this greatly affects yield and the number of marijuana plants grown versus hemp plants.

In general, the growing procedures are much more stringent, with most marijuana being grown indoors where environment and other factors can more readily be controlled and monitored. 

grow tent safety

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The Characteristics of Both Plants

 When directly comparing a hemp plant to a marijuana plant, they may appear similar in appearance; however, there are some major differences. Hemp, in general, is described as tall and skinny. Your average hemp plant can grow up to 20 feet high with quite sturdy stalks. These long plants produce slender leaves that tend to bunch towards the top of the plant’s stems.

Opposite of tall and skinny, then, is marijuana. The marijuana plant grows short, stubby plants that can grow up to about five feet tall. When it comes to the chemical compounds found within the marijuana plant, like THC and CBD, they’re located in the flowers themselves. This means that cultivators aim to have as much flower as possible, resulting in much bushier plants than hemp. Instead of being bunched near the stem, the leaves surround the body of the plant.

Regarding their iconic smell and taste of hemp versus marijuana, the two are almost identical — maybe the most experienced cannabis connoisseurs can pick out their favorite strain in a field full of hemp, but it is not easy. While specific strains tend to have more aromatic and unique flavor profiles than just traditional hemp, differentiating the two just based on smell and taste is something we can probably leave up to the professionals. 

The Effects of Using Hemp and Marijuana

 While the difference in appearance is obvious, the biggest juxtaposition between hemp and marijuana comes from their effects. This is this reason alone why one is federally legal and the other is still criminalized in many states, though we believe it is important to recognize the discrepancies here.

Hemp is Not Mind-Altering

As we briefly discussed, hemp cannot contain more than 0.3% THC or it is technically classified as marijuana. This is purely for the fact that such trace amounts of THC cannot cause any psychoactive or intoxicating effects on consumers. Because it is not mind-altering, the US has deemed it okay to be cultivated and utilized for its many medicinal benefits, which we will talk about more in detail later. Instead, hemp creates soothing, calming effects that can result in pain relief, uplifted moods, and give your body the homeostasis it deserves.

Marijuana Has Psychoactive Effects

Marijuana can contain much higher levels of THC than hemp, with percentages usually between 15 and 25 depending on the strain. These high levels of THC, combined with CBD and other cannabinoids, can cause quite the psychoactive effects which, for most, is what gives them the best experience possible. When given the chance to work with its other cannabinoid counterparts, THC can help create overwhelmingly positive effects for both the mind and body.

While it’s important to note that some may not enjoy the feeling of being high or the effects that marijuana brings, this does not mean that this form of cannabis is dangerous in any way. In fact, it is quite the opposite! With more and more people understanding the medicinal benefits of marijuana, along with recognizing the importance of proper dosing, it shouldn’t be too long before we see a nationwide acceptance of the complex plant and its novel properties. 

The Entourage Effect of Marijuana

Speaking of novel properties, one of the most unique effects that comes from marijuana is something that researchers have dubbed “the entourage effect.” This phenomenon is essentially the idea that, when cannabinoids and terpenes work together synergistically to produce an even greater effect in the body than on their own. While THC carries psychoactive properties and CBD does not, the theory is that when they work together, the high becomes more well-rounded and all-encompassing. So, when we just have high amounts of THC or high amounts of CBD (like with hemp) the compounds’ properties aren’t experienced as wholly. The entourage effect is a huge contributing factor for those turning to full-spectrum or whole-plant cannabis products: the effects are unlike anything else.

The Health Benefits

 The benefits of both hemp and marijuana are vast. Both truly demonstrate the widespread power of plants and their own unique properties and characteristics.

Health Benefits of Hemp

Hemp has been utilized for at least ten thousand years, and can be used to make various types of paper, building materials, textiles, cosmetics, and can even be infused within our food and drink. The plant’s fibers are some of the strongest in the world, making it an ideal substance for so many different types of uses. When consumed, however, hemp can provide our bodies with the nutrients and nourishment that we may be lacking. Hemp seeds, for example, are rich in healthy fats, proteins, and vitamins, which can do the body a whole lot of good.

Health Benefits of Marijuana

As for the marijuana plant, it’s health benefits are just as widespread, with medical cannabis patients across the globe turning to the plant for helping to address a number of ailments of all severities. It’s easy to think that marijuana is used only for its psychoactivity, considering the number of products available on the market today. But many don’t realize that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) found in the plant actually offers many health benefits outside of its recreational use. So, about the benefits outside of consuming for the purpose of getting lifted to the skies — are there any uses for good ol’ Mary Jane’s THC besides the enjoyment of its psychoactive effects? The short answer is yes, absolutely. There is evidence, both anecdotal and medical, that shows THC does, in fact, have medicinal value.

Health Benefits of Cannabinoids

Cannabinoids found in the hemp and marijuana plant activates our endocannabinoid system (ECS)—a biological network chalked with cannabinoid (CB) receptors found throughout our body, to help maintain the regular functioning of important body functions — think memory, mood, pain, appetite. The (ECS) has a huge effect on the body’s nervous system and immune system, therefore, marijuana tends to have quite a positive effect for managing pain, inflammation, muscle spasms, and more. While we are not suggesting that marijuana cannot be a treatment for any of these disorders, because its cannabinoids bind directly to receptors in the brain, many have found that relief from symptoms and side effects are unlike any other conventional medication.

The Delivery Methods 

Hemp and marijuana are both versatile cannabis varieties, each being able to be enjoyed similarly and in multiple ways.


Both hemp and marijuana can be processed with its natural oils extracted to be transformed into an oil. Hemp oil and marijuana oil (otherwise known as THC oil) can both be applied sublingually (under the tongue) or in your favorite food or beverage for a more full-bodied and powerful effect. Both hemp and marijuana can also be enjoyed topically, whether this be through a lotion or an oil. Topical application is best for those who are looking for localized relief delivery, as it can be applied directly to areas of pain or discomfort.


cannabis seeds

Image Credit: Ulrike Leone, Pixabay

Eating hemp seeds is another common method of consumption and as we learned above, has great nutritional value. While you don’t often see people incorporating marijuana seeds into their daily snacks, many people consume instead edibles. Due to the legality and availability of marijuana now days, consuming them have become more popular than ever.


However, easily, the most popular method of marijuana consumption is smoking, as effects are felt powerfully and almost immediately compared to oils or edibles — the same can be said for vaping. Smoking marijuana can be done through different pieces of glass-like bongs or pipes, or through combustibles like joints or blunts. Containing high levels of CBD, we should also add that hemp flower may also be vaped or smoked.

Now, we must stress that nobody on the face of this earth has ever died from overconsuming THC. However, overdoing it may offer some people pretty unpleasant side effects. That said, if you have a low THC tolerance or things didn’t go as planned the first time, you can always get back up, dust yourself off, and try again with an alternative method of consumption.

marijuana joint smoking

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The Verdict

 So, what’s the best cannabis product for you? Well, that’s hard to say — it’s really all up to you. There are various factors to consider before deciding whether to enjoy hemp, marijuana, or both, but what’s most important is understanding the fundamental differences between the two. When we refuse to correctly distinguish the different types of cannabis, confusion can become overwhelming.

Being knowledgeable on the specific differences between hemp and marijuana is beneficial in more ways than one. When you are, it becomes easier for you to stay safe and be informed about the laws surrounding cannabis in your state, giving you the ultimate peace of mind. More than that, you’re able to better decide which form of cannabis is going to give you the best experience possible for you specifically.

Whether you enjoy a few drops of a hemp seed bar or a toke of marijuana after a long day is completely up to you, it’s important to take the time to do your own further research on the differences between hemp and marijuana and discover what form of cannabis works best for you, and only you.

Featured Image Credit: Erin_Hinterland, Pixabay