Hemp vs. Marijuana, what are its differences?

Are hemp and marijuana the same plant?

You probably think that hemp and marijuana are the same plant. But did you know that even though they are the same species Cannabis sativa L., they are very different from each other? In this article we will analyze what separates these two plants, as well as the similarities between hemp and marijuana.

Biological similarities between hemp and marijuana

Cannabis sativa is a plant that produces flowers, i.e. it is part of the angiosperms. This plant, together with the nearest extant species Humulus sp. (hops, an important ingredient for brewing beer) belong to the Cannabaceae family. Something interesting that both species share, besides the fact that one is used to make beer and the other is marijuana, is that they are dioecious plants. Dioecious plants are those that have different sexes and their flowers are either male or female, in different individuals. Only about 6% of angiosperm plants are dioecious, most are monoecious or hermaphrodite, where the same individual produces flowers of both sexes [1-3].

The genus Cannabis has only one species, Cannabis sativa L. The word ‘sativa’ comes from the Latin word for “cultivated” or “cultivated”, and was described by Carolus Linnaeus in 1753 [4]. Linnaeus knew of the C. sativa plants grown in Europe for fiber or grain, i.e., hemp.

The industrial hemp plant has an elongated appearance. It is characterized by being of great height, little branched and some with high yield in seed, which is used for the elaboration of oil or food.

Then, a few years later in 1785, Jean Baptiste Lamarck described some Cannabis plants that he named as Cannabis indica with some specimens from India [4]. These specimens had a different phenotype (physical appearance) than those described by Linnaeus, as they were used for the production of compounds such as cannabinoids. Rather, these were marijuana. This history helps us to explain that the use given to the plant would mark some differentiated characteristics.

Cannabis plants intended for the extraction of cannabinoids, such as marijuana and CBD cannabis, have a rounded structure. They are shorter than industrial hemp, are more branched and have quite developed or large inflorescences (buds).

Although the cannabis industry uses these indica and sativa designations, they don’t really mean much, but that’s a story for another post. Although you can learn more about indica in our post on Kush: The Asian Strain .

Currently, from a botanical point of view, both plants, hemp and marijuana, are classified within the Cannabis sativa species. Within this, different groups or lineages are distinguished, which in turn are divided into different varieties.

What is the difference between hemp and marijuana?

Biologically, there are differences between hemp and marijuana. Although we currently recognize only one species Cannabis sativa, this species has quite a bit of variation both phenotypically (physical) and genotypically (in its genome or genetic material, the DNA of the plant). And, within the species of C. sativa, there are several groups or lineages, which are sets of individuals that are closer to each other. For example, those individuals used to extract fiber or grain are closer to each other and share more of their DNA (genetic material) than those used for the production of cannabinoid compounds that are used medically or recreationally.

Differences between Hemp and Marijuana
Differences between industrial hemp and marijuana and CBD cannabis. Plants intended for the production of cannabinoids have more similarities among themselves than those intended for the production of raw materials such as fiber for textiles, industrial or food uses.

Hemp plants intended for seed or fiber are closer to each other. In contrast, Cannabis sativa plants grown for THC or CBD cannabinoids, such as marijuana or CBD cannabis, are more similar to each other and more distant from hemp plants for grain or fiber.

Genetic differences between hemp and marijuana

In other words, the plants of Cannabis sativa (those individuals) that are used as traditional hemp, for the production of its stalks, from which fiber is obtained for clothing (hemp clothing) o paperor for the production of seeds or grains, which are edible in snacks or granola, for example, or from where it is obtained. hemp oilare closer to each other and share more of their DNA. In contrast, these hemp individuals are more distant and share less of their DNA with those C. sativa plants used for the production of compounds such as cannabinoids, known as marijuana or cannabis CBD.

Marijuana plants and those that produce CBD are genetically closer to each other than to those hemp plants intended for industrial use. However, there are some high-CBD strains that are hybrids between those high-CBD marijuana plants and industrial hemp, such as the Otto II strain [5]. However, both hemp and marijuana individuals belong to the same species C. sativa and can be crossed with each other.

Although Cannabis sativa for CBD flowers is usually lumped under industrial hemp, these plants may be closer to marijuana than to industrial hemp.

Do industrial hemp plants produce cannabinoids?

Hemp plants can also produce cannabinoids, but these are usually produced in smaller proportions and the plants are not cultivated for these purposes, but rather to extract fiber or grain.

There are several types of hemp for fiber or grain and dual purpose (those used for both fiber and seed). Industrial hemp (for fiber) is grown for its stalk, from which the fiber is extracted. It is also the source of ‘hemp tow’ which can be used in building materials similar to concrete hempcrete or insulating material. Varieties such as Fibranova, Finola, or Carmagnola, are known for their stems. On the other hand, the USO31 variety is known for its grain seed, from which hemp oil is extracted for food use.

What kind of plants are used to produce cannabinoids?

Marijuana strains have rather colloquial names and have not had a history of cultivation like hemp strains. These have names such as Red Dot or Jack Herer, but these names are for commercial varieties and have little biological significance.

    Are there distinct physical traits between marijuana, CBD cannabis and hemp plants for industrial purposes?

    There are physical traits (phenotypes), which are common in those marijuana-type plants and in CBD cannabis plants, and other phenotypes common in hemp plants for industrial purposes. For example, hemp plants for fiber or grain are tall, with few branches and very thin. These hemp plants can grow up to 4 or 6 meters long.

    In contrast, marijuana-type plants tend to have many branches (high branching), their stems are quite thick with a high diameter, and the inflorescence on the female plant is quite large. Although marijuana plants can produce a multitude of compounds, including cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids, the industry divides the plants into the production of the two best known cannabinoids: THC and CBD.

    Cannabinoids in hemp and marijuana plants

    Cannabinoids are compounds produced by the Cannabis sativa plant that interact with our endocannabinoid system and have medicinal [6-8], or psychoactive [9-11] properties. However, the Cannabis sativa plant produces very many compounds, around hundreds, depending on how they are quantified. The best known are cannabinoids and terpenes. Although terpenes are primarily recognized for their odor and aroma, they can also interact with our endocannabinoid system [12-15].

    Our endocannabinoid system is another system within the human body, as is the digestive or cardiovascular system. This system is responsible for regulating some of our activities such as hunger, sleep, or pain [16-20]. Our body, therefore, also produces cannabinoids that are called endocannabinoids, such as anandamide.

    Phytocannabinoids are those cannabinoids that are not endocannabinoids and are produced by plants. There are other plants that also produce cannabinoids, but C. sativa produces several of them and THCA is the best known.

    Differences between THC and THCA

    THCA is the abbreviation for the compound Δ-9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid. Marijuana plants produce this compound in its acidic form, which is why this compound is called Δ-9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid. When we heat this compound, it changes to its neutral form and becomes THC, Δ-9-tetrahydrocannabinol. This neutral form is the one that interacts the most with our endocannabinoid system, which is why we smoke, vape, or cook: we expose these compounds to heat so that they change from their acidic to their neutral form. This process is known as decarboxylation .

    THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is that compound with psychoactive properties and is heavily regulated by state and national governments in many countries around the world. There are other cannabinoid compounds, such as CBD, which have also become quite famous.

    Like THCA, the plant produces cannabidiolic acid, CBDA, and upon heating this is converted to the neutral form CBD, cannabidiol. CBD is not psychoactive but it is psychotropic. That is, it does have effects on our brain, but it is not as intoxicating or intoxicating as THC is. CBD has quite a medical perspective [21-24], although much research is still needed on this and all the compounds produced by the plant.

    You can learn more in the post about the differences between THC and CBD .

    Are CBD cannabis flowers industrial hemp, or marijuana?

    Some countries have taken the word hemp and use it to describe those Cannabis sativa plants low in THCA, but high in other cannabinoids such as CBDA. Hemp’ plants under this legal definition are not necessarily related to those grown for fiber or seed, and may be more genetically related to those grown for marijuana.

    Therefore, we could say that CBD cannabis plants grown for CBD flowers would be like a low THC marijuana. That is, they differ in chemotype. There are C. sativa plants with high THC and low CBD content, others rich in CBD and low in THC, and others with a more balanced content between both compounds [25].

    CBD cannabis could be described as a low-THC chemotype of marijuana. It may have more genetic and phenotypic similarities to marijuana plants than to hemp plants for grain or fiber.

    Legal differences between industrial hemp and marijuana

    In the United States, the legal definition of hemp is any plant that produces less than 0.3 percent THC (<0.3% THC). The European Union recently adopted this legal THC limit, and therefore now European hemp, as in the U.S., is hemp with a THC content equal to or less than 0.3% THC.

    Generally, marijuana plants can produce up to 35% THC/A, but on average they produce 17-20% THC/A [26]. In contrast, the cannabinoid content of industrial hemp usually does not reach more than 9% in total cannabinoids [26], but can sometimes exceed 0.3% THC, which can bring legal problems for growers.

    These legal definitions of hemp may become difficult to meet, as the enzymes (proteins) that produce these compounds in the plant are both promiscuous and sloppy [28, 29], but that is also another story.

    Marijuana plants are labor-intensive, and industrial hemp plants require large equipment.

    There are many other differences between hemp and marijuana plants, starting with how they are grown. Hemp plants for fiber or grain are planted in high quantities, similar to the way large crops of corn, sorghum or wheat are planted. In contrast, marijuana plants are grown on a smaller scale, in a horticultural manner, similar to the way peppers or tomatoes are grown [30].

    Marijuana and hemp plants differ in their phenotype, the way they are grown, harvested, and post-harvest.

    The post-harvest process is also very different: marijuana is very labor-intensive to harvest, dry and process. Industrial hemp, on the other hand, although also expensive, is harvested with large equipment such as threshing machines and packaging machines. The processing of hemp, especially that for fabric fiber, is quite expensive, requires specialized factories, and large-scale cultivation (many hectares) to supply them.

    Marijuana plants are grown similarly to tomatoes, while hemp plants are grown similarly to corn.

    Also, the purposes of the hemp industry are different from those of the marijuana industry. For example, in some cases, high seed production is sought, and in others, the aim is precisely to avoid seed production. What happens then if these hemp and marijuana plants ever crossbreed? For example, if they are grown outside, and there is pollen transfer between hemp and marijuana plants. Could this pollen transfer be avoided? Although I think that avoiding pollination is going to be difficult, it might be possible to avoid fertilization of the flower, by means of genetic modifications, but that will be for another writing.

    Well, I hope you enjoyed this writing and learned something about hemp, marijuana, and in general the Cannabis sativa plant. I hope to tell you another interesting story about this plant on a future occasion.

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      Dra. Daniela Vergara
      Investigadora y catedrática | Especialista en cultivos emergentes y consultora de cannabis

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