6th July 2020
By Emily Ledger

Most people have heard the words ‘hemp’ and ‘marijuana’ and probably know that they are used to refer to cannabis plants. Many will also know that you can’t get high from smoking hemp.  However, a lot of people may not understand the actual difference between hemp and marijuana.

‘Cannabis’ is the name given to plants of the Cannabaceae family. Within this family, there are three known subspecies: Sativa, Indica, and Ruderalis. Now, it would be simple if we could say: Hemp is a nickname given to Cannabis Sativa plants, while Cannabis Indica plants are known as marijuana. But, that is not the case…

What is Cannabis Sativa?

Cannabis Sativa is one of the primary species of cannabis. Varieties of Cannabis Sativa can be diverse, both in appearance and in chemical content. However, one factor in particular is most commonly considered to be the determining factor of whether a plant is hemp or marijuana: THC content.


While it is now well-known that hemp can’t get you high, it’s association with high-THC cannabis continues to affect the plant’s reputation.  Different jurisdictions around the world have set their own THC limits for a cannabis plant to be classed as hemp. In much of Europe, this limit is 0.2% THC, in the USA it’s 0.3%, and in Switzerland, it is 1.0%.

Hemp has been cultivated by humans for thousands of years and used for clothing, building, food, and medicines. However, these thousands of years in favour came close to being erased from the picture as the public in the western world turned against so-called ‘marijuana’.


‘Marijuana’ has become a well-known slang term for cannabis in the western world. Yet, it wasn’t significantly used until the early 20th century, when millions of Mexicans migrated to the neighbouring USA to seek refuge from the fall-out of the Mexican Revolution.

Most people won’t realise that the term was adopted in America for mainly political reasons. The Mexican immigrants of that time brought with them their use of cannabis for recreational purposes. This was quickly adopted by the American people, which didn’t sit well with lawmakers. Politicians and the media soon began to refer to cannabis by its Spanish name ‘marihuana’ in their anti-drug campaigns.

Reefer Madness hemp marijuana
Anti-cannabis ‘Reefer Madness’ movie poster (1937)

These campaigns managed to demonise both cannabis and the Mexican population whose word was stolen. Most companies today refuse to use the term due to its racist connections. When used today, ‘marijuana’ usually refers to high-THC cannabis which causes the user to get ‘high’.

Is there more than THC content?

Although THC may be the simplest way to explain the difference between hemp and ‘marijuana’, many consider this to be problematic. This is partly due to the fact that the definition of hemp varies from country to country. For example, hemp that is legal in Switzerland would not be legal as hemp in the UK.


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About the Author

Emily Ledger
Prior to joining the team at Canex, Emily studied Journalism at Sheffield Hallam University for three years. During her studies, she specialised in magazine and feature writing and went on to contribute to both the content and design departments at a local magazine. Emily is now the Head of Content at Canex where she has been both curating and contributing articles and content since the launch of the website.