hemp vs. marijuana

Hemp vs Marijuana: What's the Difference?

Updated February 2024

If you’re a cannabis aficionado, you’ve probably heard of the two green botanical cousins getting all of the limelight in recent years: hemp and marijuana.

They both come from the same species of plant: the Cannabis Sativa and have very closely related properties. However, they are distinctively different cultivars, which means they are specifically bred for different purposes.

They have different appearances, uses, and ultimately, molecular compositions. If you’re new to cannabis, it is understandably confusing to look at both plants that look so similar yet have such varying effects on the human body and mind.

Fret not, for in this blog post, we’ll be looking more closely at both these amazing plants and explore their distinct characteristics that sets them apart from each other!

close up of a hemp plant in the sun

Historical Cultivation and Domestication

The historical cultivation of cannabis plants dates back to 2727 B.C.E. where Chinese Emperor Shen Nung found and used them.

By around 1,500 BCE, religious texts in Ancient India, known as the Vedas, also mention cannabis as one of their sacred plants.

The use of cannabis then spread to various ancient civilizations like the Greeks, Romans, Mesopotamians, and Egyptians.

By the 16th century, cannabis spread to the Americas as the Spanish started importing to Chile. It eventually found its way to North America as the hemp plant, increasingly cultivated for industrial use.

However, in the early 20th century, the use of cannabis, and the marijuana plant to be exact, for recreational purposes was starting to take off in a big way, causing social, economic, political, and racial challenges.

Cannabis use in the US was associated with the Mexican and African-American communities, causing anti-immigrant sentiments and racial prejudices, particularly during the Great Depression. Negative stereotypes were formed and in 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act was passed, in which importation, cultivation, and distribution were regulated, making cannabis economically less viable.

Finally, with Richard Nixon’s war on drugs in the 1970s and the enactment of strict anti-drug laws, cannabis was classified as a Schedule I controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act.

However, in recent years, there has been a huge shift in public opinion and policy, with many countries around the world legalizing cannabis for recreational and medical use. Because of the psychoactive properties of marijuana, selective breeding of cannabis into distinct hemp and marijuana strains are now practiced.

While marijuana remains highly illegal in many states and countries, hemp is now grown almost worldwide legally for both consumption and industrial uses.

What is Hemp?

Hemp is a versatile, fibrous plant that comes from the Cannabis sativa species. Hemp has traditionally been used for industrial purposes as the plant’s fibers are strong and durable, making them suitable for production of materials such as rope, paper, and textiles. 

A fast-growing plant requiring fewer pesticides and a modest amount of water, hemp fibers are valued for their strength and environmental sustainability. Hemp seeds are rich in nutrition and contain essential fatty acids, protein, and other vitamins and minerals.

Seeds are often used to make hemp oil, which are then added to food products like protein bars, snacks, and cooking oils. While hemp plants contain many cannabinoids including CBD (cannabidiol), they don’t have a high THC content, which is the psychoactive property found in cannabis plants.

According to the Farm Bill of 2018, hemp plants containing under 0.3% THC levels are now legal for cultivation and sale.

someone reads a book with a bottle of CBD oil resting in the middle crease

What is Marijuana?

Marijuana is hemp’s famous, psychoactive cousin. Used for recreational and spiritual purposes for thousands of years, the main psychoactive compound is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) which is responsible for the relaxing, euphoric ‘high’.

While hemp plants are allowed a maximum of 0.3% THC levels, marijuana plants can range from 5% to 30% THC.

Marijuana is typically used for recreation*. While hemp plants only are grown as Cannabis sativas, marijuana can be grown as sativas, Cannabis indicas, or hybrids of the two.

The legal status of marijuana varies greatly worldwide. Some countries like Thailand, Mexico, and Canada have legalized it for recreational use while other countries such as the UK and Australia have only allowed medical cannabis.

States like California, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado allow recreational use while others like Kansas and Nebraska don’t allow use at all, even for medical purposes.

The legal landscape is evolving at lightning speed with an ever-increasing number of states and countries moving towards decriminalization. Marijuana is a controversial plant with a rich history dating back thousands of years, and it continues to be an integral part of modern society and culture.

Hemp vs. Marijuana

Physical Differences

While they look similar, hemp and marijuana plants have distinct differences. Hemp plants tend to be tall, fast-growing, and have longer, slimmer leaves.

The appearance of marijuana plants vary greatly according to the exact strain being cultivated. Sativa plants look more like hemp plants with tall, long stems, while indicas tend to be shorter and wider with broader leaves.

Differences in THC Levels and Effects

As mentioned earlier, hemp contains 0.3% or less THC and will not cause any psychoactive effects. The amount of THC in marijuana plants vary greatly but most plants will range between 10% to 20%, giving it psychoactive effects like euphoria, a general feeling of relaxation and calm, and an altered perception of time*.

The intensity of the effects depend on the THC levels, and other factors such as individual tolerance and body composition of the user.


Hemp is a versatile plant that can be used for many applications such as using the strong fibers for clothes and textiles. The CBD that hemp contains also has potential wellness applications*.

CBD is a relatively new cannabinoid that is available in many forms, but the most common are CBD oils, topical creams, and edibles such as gummies.

Marijuana is most often recreationally used for its psychotropic effects. However, it too, has other properties that may have potential for overall wellness*.

Some drugs like Dronabinol contain THC and are approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) to treat nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy as well as poor appetite in patients with AIDS.

Legality and Regulations

The legality surrounding hemp and marijuana are constantly changing. As mentioned earlier, with the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp plants containing under 0.3% THC are now federally legal.

However, marijuana legislation varies greatly with some states and countries fully legalizing its use, others only allowing it for medical use, and some making it illegal altogether. Marijuana is classified as any cannabis plant with a THC content of over 0.3%.

Someone holds up a bottle of citrus CBD oil in front of a colorful tile mural

Conclusion and Key Takeaways

Hemp and marijuana may look similar but they are different varieties of the cannabis plant, with the key difference being that hemp plants must have less than 0.3% THC content while marijuana plants can have up to 30%.

Hemp has a wide range of industrial applications including the manufacture of clothes and textiles, while marijuana is used primarily for its psychoactive effects.

If you are thinking of including hemp or marijuana into your wellness regimen, read more about CBD vs. THC here. Also check out our extensive range of products at Fab CBD to find something that suits your needs. Always check your state laws and be sure to stay within the legal boundaries.

FAQ Section

What is the main difference between hemp and marijuana?

Hemp is legally defined as cannabis sativa plants that contain under 0.3% THC. Any plant that contains more than 0.3% THC concentration are considered marijuana plants. Hemp plants are federally legal across the US while marijuana plants continue to be illegal in some states while others allow medical marijuana.

Can you get high from hemp or CBD products?

According to the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp plants have to contain under 0.3% THC. This tiny amount is unlikely to cause any psychoactive effects, or the ‘high’ that marijuana is so famous for.

What are the common uses for hemp products?

Hemp fibers are strong and durable, making them suitable for use in clothes and textiles. Hemp seed is nutritious and packed with vitamins with many potential health benefits. They are often made into hemp seed oils and used in food products, beverages, and supplements.

The cannabinoid, CBD (cannabidiol), found in hemp plants is often used for its wellness benefits*.

How has the legal status of hemp changed recently in the U.S.?

In 2018, the Farm Bill was passed, legalizing hemp plants containing under 0.3 percent THC. Hemp cultivation and use is now legal according to federal law.

*This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.