Understanding the difference between hemp and marijuana can be confusing, and even more confusing is understanding the difference between CBD and THC. If you’re new to the world of cannabis and have found the terminology confusing, this guide is for you. It should help you better understand some of the differences in these plants and products.


Hemp and marijuana are, in fact, just different names for the same plant genus called cannabis. Cannabis is a flowering annual herb in the Cannabaceae family that originated in Asia and has been used for centuries for a variety of needs, from industrial to medicinal. There are three main species of plants within this family: cannabis sativa, cannabis indica, and cannabis ruderalis. All three are treated as subspecies of a single species called C. sativa. Cannabis plants produce a group of chemical compounds known as cannabinoids that can produce mental and physical effects when ingested. These cannabinoids are also responsible for deciding if a particular cannabis plant will be called hemp or marijuana. 


Hemp is a term that is used to classify the varieties of cannabis that contain 0.3% or less of the cannabinoid called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Hemp has historically been used for its fiber, seeds, oils, and leaves. It’s most commonly used for industrial purposes and products. Hemp is refined into various commercial items like paper, textiles, clothings, biodegradable plastics, paint, insulation, biofuel, food, and animal feed. 

Commonly believed to be one of oldest cultivated plants in the world, hemp was such a staple of 17th century America that farmers were mandated to grow it and allowed to use it to pay their taxes. It’s even believed that the early drafts of the Declaration of Independence were created on hemp paper. However, the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 and the popularity of synthetic fibers in the following years saw the industry suffer a decrease in popularity. In 1970 when the Controlled Substances Act categorized marijuana as an illegal drug, hemp was assigned in the same category and cultivation of it was outlawed in the United States. It wasn’t until 2018 when the Agricultural Act removed hemp from that list. This allowed an opportunity for hemp to make a comeback as an industrial crop and opened the doors to create large scale hemp farms across the country. 


Marijuana contains more than 0.3% THC, the cannabinoid responsible for the psychotropic and euphoric effects. Marijuana buds come from the dried flowers, leaves, stems, and seeds of the cannabis plant. It’s known for its medicinal and recreational purposes and as a psychoactive drug and has been a highly regulated product since the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act. It became an even more restricted drug after the 1970 Controlled Substances Act categorized it as a Schedule 1 drug. In recent years, many states have slowly loosened their restrictive laws on marijuana use, with many moving from legalized use for medicinal purposes to legal recreational use, with restrictions comparable to alcohol. 

Differences Between Hemp and Marijuana

Hemp and marijuana are sometimes referred to as different species of cannabis, which is not correct. The only difference between the hemp and marijuana cannabis plants is the amount of THC found in each plant. Hemp is cultivated for non-drug use while marijuana is celebrated for its THC levels. Since hemp and marijuana come from the same plant, they look and smell the same. The only real difference between the two is the THC levels found within. Simply put, they are the same plant, but certain cannabis plants are cultivated to contain less than 0.3% THC. Those plants are called hemp and will not get you high. Cannabis plants cultivated with more than 0.3% THC are called marijuana and will get you high. 

While they are the same plant, over the years selective breeding has altered the physical characteristics of hemp and marijuana. Since marijuana plants are used primarily for their cannabis flower, marijuana plants have been bred to be shorter and bushier, while hemp plants are prized primarily for their fiber which is found in the stalks. Hemp plants are generally bred to be taller and skinnier than marijuana plants.


Cannabinoids are the chemical compounds found in the cannabis plant. There are at least 113 different cannabinoids within cannabis, but the most commonly extracted are cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). While these two compounds are the most well known, there is ongoing research exploring the benefits of other cannabinoids including tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA), tetrahydrocannabivarian (THCV), cannabigerol (CBG), cannabichromene (CBC), cannabinol (CBN), and cannabicyclol (CBL). While all 113 cannabinoids have varied effects, it is CBD and THC that are most frequently used because they are found in the highest concentrations. These are also the cannabinoids that determine the difference between a hemp plant and a marijuana plant.


Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of the 113 identified cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. When these compounds are extracted from the cannabis plant, CBD is the most prominent cannabinoid in the extraction. It produces no psychoactive results and is used primarily for therapeutic purposes. CBD is currently undergoing a lot of scientific research for its abilities to provide its users with relaxing, pain relieving, and anti-anxiety benefits. Since CBD doesn’t have euphoric effects like THC, it is a safe option for those who don’t enjoy feeling intoxicated or who cannot because of legal restrictions. 

Currently there is only one FDA-approved CBD medication that’s used for the treatment of certain types of epilepsy, but different varieties of CBD are available over-the-counter and are popular with users for what they believe to be beneficial properties that help treat their ailments. 


Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is another one of the 113 cannabinoids extracted from the cannabis plant. THC is the primary cannabinoid that accounts for the psychoactive properties of marijuana. It attaches to cannabinoid receptors that are concentrated in areas of the brain, stimulating the cells in the brain to release dopamine, which creates the feeling of euphoria.  

Differences Between CBD and THC

Both CBD and THC can be extracted from a marijuana plant, however a hemp plant will not have THC compounds and will only produce CBD. CBD and THC have the same molecular structure of 21 carbon atoms, 30 hydrogen atoms, and 2 oxygen atoms. The difference in how those atoms are arranged, however, is what accounts for the different effects on the body. Both CBD and THC are similar to the endocannabinoids our bodies create naturally, giving them the ability to interact with our cannabinoid receptors more easily. The interactions that happen affect the release of neurotransmitters in our brains. These neurotransmitters are responsible for relaying messages between cells about things like pain, stress, and relaxation. THC only binds with the cannabinoid 1 (CB1) receptors in the brain, which is why it produces a feeling of being high. CBD binds very weakly, and sometimes not at all, to the CB1 receptors. CBD can actually interfere with the binding of THC to the CB1 receptors, causing the feelings of euphoria to be lessened. 

THC is only extracted from marijuana plants, but CBD can come from either marijuana or hemp. Generally CBD with less than 0.3% THC is derived from hemp plants since CBD can be extracted directly from hemp without needing to remove the THC, a necessary step if the CBD comes from a marijuana plant.

Why it’s Important to Know the Difference

Knowing the difference between the plant varieties and compounds within them is not only helpful when researching which product would work best for you, it’s also important if you live in a state where marijuana is not yet legal. Federally, marijuana and THC are still considered illegal. There are currently only a handful of states that have legalized marijuana for recreational or medicinal use. Thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp and CBD are now legal federally, however some states have added their own restrictions on these substances. Certain states have made it illegal to possess hemp flowers or certain types of CBD. Make sure to check your state laws before purchasing any cannabis product. 

The popularity of cannabis is on the rise, and is often very confusing for those who are new to the world of hemp and marijuana. This can make it very intimidating when someone is looking for answers to questions about what could work for them. We hope this guide was helpful in differentiating these terms.