25th February 2021
By Emily Ledger
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A lot of words are thrown around to describe cannabis, two of the most common being ‘hemp’ and ‘marijuana’. While many people may be aware that these particular terms are not interchangeable, many 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, in reality, things are a little more complicated…

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. Due to this versatility, Cannabis Sativa plants can be known as hemp for marijuana. However, one factor, in particular, is most commonly considered to be the determining factor of which camp a plant falls into: THC content.

Hemp

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. The limit in the USA is 0.3%, whereas, in some other countries, such as Switzerland, it is 1.0%.

While hemp contains little THC, the recent popularity boom of CBD has helped to boost interest in the crop. Countries like the USA, where it is easier for farmers to cultivate the crop, have seen a huge rise in acreage. However, in the UK, the industry remains limited due to current regulation around the plant.

The human relationship with hemp dates back to at least 8,000 BC and used for many purposes such as for textiles, food, and medicines. However, this strong bond with the cannabis plant has become threatened in recent decades as the western world turned against so-called ‘marijuana’.

Marijuana

‘Marijuana’ has become a well-known slang term for cannabis, yet, it wasn’t significantly used until the early 20th century. The word really caught on 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. 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 users and the Mexican population. 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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