BY SARA COUGHLIN
Despite its multitude of uses (CBD products! Food! Clothes! Early 2000s accessories!), hemp still gets mixed up with cannabis. Sure, on one hand, they belong to the same genetic group: Hemp is also known as Cannabis sativa, and what we commonly refer to as “cannabis” is technically Cannabis indica. But suggesting that these plants are totally alike would be like claiming Brussel sprouts, broccoli, and cabbage are all the same, explains Ekaterina Sedia, PhD, associate professor of biology and coordinator of the cannabis studies minor program at Stockton University. We spoke with Dr. Sedia to get to the bottom of what really sets cannabis apart from hemp (and vice versa).
What is The Real Difference Between Hemp and Cannabis?
Look At The Leaves
At their most basic, anatomical level, cannabis plants and hemp plants are very clearly not the same. “Even though these plants are closely related, they have been bred over the centuries for different purposes, and they look quite different,” Dr. Sedia says. Where cannabis plants have larger leaves and flowers, hemp plants are longer and skinnier, with fewer branches and smaller leaves. And these physical differences haven’t occurred by happenstance—since hemp is often bred for textiles and fabrics, it’s important that it yields long, straight fibers, Dr. Sedia explains, while cannabis’ leaves and branches allow it to better support its flowers.
Cannabinoid Breakdowns Differ
That said, the distinctions between hemp and cannabis aren’t based on looks alone. They also contain different quantities of THC and CBD, the two most frequently discussed cannabinoids (chemical compounds found in cannabis plants). Cannabis contains both THC and CBD, with a high concentration of THC in particular, which is why products derived from cannabis plants have psychoactive effects. Meanwhile, Dr. Sedia tells us, THC is “almost non-existent” in hemp, but it doescontain CBD. Fans of CBD, take note: CBD products derived from cannabis, rather than hemp, are usually labeled as “whole plant” or “full spectrum” CBD.
Legal Distinctions Are Key
One might assume that their disparate chemical compositions would lead hemp and cannabis to be treated separately under the law, but it was only very recently (December 2018) that the cultivation of hemp for agricultural purposes—not just research—was legalized in the U.S. Previously, most hemp-derived products were made from imported plants. Dr. Sedia adds that the initial legislation around hemp and cannabis, which conflated the two plants and dates back to 1937, has contributed to the mistaken belief that hemp has psychoactive effects. As long as they contain less than 0.3% of THC content, hemp plants are not considered illegal. Cannabis, as we know, varies in legality from state to state.
Do Some Homework
So, the next time you pore over a CBD oil label or overhear someone suggesting that you can smoke hemp to get high, remember that, yes, there is a clear line between cannabis and hemp, in terms of appearance, composition, and usage, but anyone who assumes their drug rug is made from actual drugs is sorely mistaken.
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