TNS Explainer: What’s the Difference Between Hemp (CBD) and Marijuana?

When we think of hemp and marijuana, many imagine them as botanical buddies — they’re cousins from the same cannabis family after all. Marijuana is seen as the mystical, party-prone cousin, cultivated via horticulture for use as a psychotropic drug. While hemp is often considered the sober, industrious — maybe even boring — cousin, grown as a commodity crop in large fields for fiber and seed. 

But reality is always more complicated than myth. The buddy story of these cannabis cousins in America — marijuana and hemp — is a bit of a thriller involving a government coverup, 80 years of prohibition that put hundreds of thousands of Black and Brown people in prison and a science fiction-like alternate future that may save humanity from climate change.  

The plants may be relatives, but under American law, they’re miles apart.

“When you go back into the 1800s and 1900s, hemp was the most valuable crop almost globally at that time, because it was so durable and so complex as a plant.”

Dan Herer

Since passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, which delisted hemp from the federal government’s Schedule 1 narcotics roster, the hemp/marijuana distinction has not been limited to “rope and dope” (even if hemp makes great rope, and marijuana is great…you get the point).  

The legal definition of hemp, as defined by the bipartisan group of federal lawmakers who crafted and passed the Farm Bill, is any cannabis sativa containing a concentration of 0.3% or less delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (delta-9 THC) — deemed by the Drug Enforcement Agency (or DEA) as marijuana’s primary psychoactive chemical. 

The 0.3% level was first proposed by botanist Ernest Small in 1979, who even then said there was no taxonomic difference between hemp and marijuana. He admitted the number was arbitrary. 

Farmers growing industrial hemp have found it devilishly difficult to stay below the .3% threshold for THC, urging the US Department of Agriculture and Congress to change it.  

The DEA has declared 1% delta-9 THC the minimum level that turns “hemp-cannabis” into “marijuana-cannabis,” even though intoxication levels vary by user and most commercial marijuana products contain more than 6% delta-9 THC. 

Today, lines are blurred between the therapeutic uses of cannabis-as-hemp and cannabis-as-marijuana. This is because of an explosion of CBD products, historic restrictions on research into cannabinoids in the US and  the newfound popularity of quasi-legal delta-8 THC.

It’s no wonder that a recent poll found most Americans have never tried CBD and many still didn’t know the difference between CBD, marijuana and THC.

Research on cannabinoids — stopped cold in American universities during the Nixon administration — has revealed 66 of them in cannabis sativa. 

In 1998, the federal government itself acquired a patent for cannabinoids as neuroprotectants and antioxidants. Just last year, one hemp-derived medicine, Epidiolex, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (or FDA) to treat seizures in rare forms of severe epilepsy. 

Meanwhile CBD has been consumed by millions in edibles, tinctures, cosmetics and oils. It may come as a shock to many who see it for sale in coffee shops, gas stations and grocery stores, but CBD has yet to be approved by the FDA or other health regulators worldwide. 

The same plant

The differences between hemp and marijuana are hard to define because there is no difference in the genotype of the plant, hemp activist Dan Herer told The News Station.

“Throughout history there wasn’t a threshold between cannabis and industrial hemp,” Herer said. “There was a phenotype grown for sails, ropes and rigging and then the cannabis that was smoked and enjoyed.” 

It is the history of the US government’s prohibition of cannabis which has led to the distinction, Herer said. 

When hemp and marijuana were outlawed, beginning with the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, there was no measurement of THC levels. 

What is now called industrial hemp and marijuana were both lumped together under prohibition for any cannabis plant along with all derived uses — including seeds, resin and any “compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of such plant.”

After the federal prohibition on alcohol ended in 1933, Harry Anslinger — then commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics — stepped up his anti-marijuana messaging, epitomized by the 1936 film “Reefer Madness.” The national campaign implied that cannabis caused violence and capitalized on xenophobia towards Mexican immigrants and Black jazz musicians. 

Cannabis possession became an easy criminal charge for the arrests of Black and Brown residents, leading to generations of US citizens serving prison time for cannabis drug convictions. 

Dan Herer’s father, the late Jack Herer, was a hemp and cannabis detective, who researched the federal government’s clampdown on cannabis and its coverup of the value of industrial hemp in his nonfiction book The Emperor Wears No Clothes.

Jack Herer was called a fraud when he uncovered a copy of a 1941 government film called  Hemp For Victory that urged farmers to grow hemp during the cannabis prohibition era in World War II. The US Navy lost access to a supply of Manilla hemp for rope after the Japanese cut off supply lines to the Philippines. Herer’s research in the Library of Congress found the film had been scrubbed from the official record. 

The elder Herer’s research also showed hemp was a valuable crop stopped in its tracks before its thousands of uses were even understood, including as a substitute for fossil fuels, paper (as we know it now), fiber and food. 

“When you go back into the 1800s and 1900s, hemp was the most valuable crop almost globally at that time, because it was so durable and so complex as a plant,” Dan Herer, the son, said. 

This should be nothing new to any of us. American presidents Thomas Jefferson and George Washington grew hemp on their plantation farms, after all. 

“Mr. Pearce, on my farming plantation(s), I want you to make the most of Hemp and plant it everywhere on my farmlands that haven’t been previously reserved for other things.” a letter from George Washington courtesy of the Library of Congress.

“It was used for gunpowder, glue, sealants, clothing, cordage — everything was hemp in this country,” Dan Herer said.  

Hemp advocates, like son Herer, speculate how the world would be different if hemp and other plant-based solutions were developed instead of the plastics and fuels the petrochemical industry has now convinced most of us are essential components of our everyday lives. 

“The world would look very, very different,” he said. 

Meanwhile, for the (more) psychotropic cannabis cousin, marijuana, the majority of US states have now decriminalized and legalized medical THC cannabis. And many more are moving towards legalizing recreational cannabis.

While marijuana is now as locally legal as buying a beer in 17 states, it remains federally prohibited. Even so, CBD was taken off the DEA’s Schedule 1 list of controlled substances last year. 

It has been extremely important for us to make sure, in the minds of legislators, to keep [hemp and marijuana] separate.

Erica Stark

But due to the strange history of federal prohibition, hemp is still caught in a parallel regulatory system that has created roadbumps for the industry. For example, hemp and marijuana are still lumped together in banking and transportation worlds. 

On the state level, some medical marijuana legislation has passed quicker than laws for industrial hemp, Erica Stark, executive director of the Pennsylvania-based National Hemp Association, told The News Station. 

“It has been extremely important for us to make sure, in the minds of legislators, to keep [hemp and marijuana] separate,” Stark said. 

While federal campaigns to decriminalize marijuana have been proposed for years, parallel campaigns for reformed federal hemp policy are also in play, advocates say.

On the federal level, hemp has “so much potential” to help Joe Biden’s US. climate action plan, for example, Stark said. 

“Hemp can play a role in so many of those things, if we could just get the infrastructure to do it,” she added. “We promoted hemp during World War II for the war effort, and we can do it again if we get this industry kick started.” 

Still, even as hemp won the race for federal legalization, the party in power in Washington is promising action to finally get these cousins seats next to each other; exactly where experts say they should have been all along. Though it’s still unclear if the head of the Democratic Party — President Joe Biden — is willing to take a leap: A leap promising to take America forward by taking us back to the founding era when it comes to cannabis, whether that’s hemp or its kissin’ cousin marijuana.

Jean Lotus is editor and publisher of HempBuild Magazine. She's a Colorado-based award-winning journalist and hemp-building enthusiast who served on the state CHAMP commission to create Colorado's Hemp Blueprint.

Jean Lotus is editor and publisher of HempBuild Magazine. She's a Colorado-based award-winning journalist and hemp-building enthusiast who served on the state CHAMP commission to create Colorado's Hemp Blueprint.

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