Are marijuana and hemp the same as cannabis?

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Nowadays, terms like cannabis, marijuana and hemp are often used interchangeably, but they do not refer to the same things.

When first entering the world of cannabis and cannabinoids, it’s very common to confuse these concepts, and they may all sound the same at some point.

However, given the growing market, CBD and medical cannabis legalization, knowing this difference has become a matter of public health and information.

Is cannabis always the same plant?

The short answer to this question is no. Cannabis is the name given to a group of plants.

In fact, scientists have identified up to four different types of Cannabis plants: Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, Cannabis ruderalis,and Cannabis afghanica.

Although similar, these species present some differences, and each of them may have many different strains.

Cannabis sativa and cannabis indica

Among the four species within the Cannabis genus, the most well-known are Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica.

These two species can be easily identified just by looking, and many people consider they have different effects on the human body.

C. sativa C. indica
Tall Short
Not very dense
More leaves and buds at the top
Dense buds Bushy-looking
Narrow/skinny leaves Broad leaves
Prefers warm climates Prefers cold climates
Long flowering time Short flowering time

For example, a common idea is that both species have different psychoactive and therapeutic effects when consumed.

It’s usually thought that all C. sativa plants have the same effects, and all C. indica plants have the same effects. Moreover, another common idea is that C. sativa plants have energizing and uplifting effects, while C. indica plants induce relaxation and sedation.

However, none of this is true.

These ideas have persisted for a very long time, but scientists disagree. According to the experts, what determines the effects of a given cannabis plant, be it either sativa or indica, is its chemical content.

The chemical content decides the plants’ effects

Ethan Russo, neurologist and cannabis world-renowned expert refers that we can’t know a plant’s biochemical content just by looking at it.

According to this expert, the effects of a given cannabis plant depend much more on its chemical content than on its species. Plants with different chemical content profiles are called different “chemotypes”.

Russo considers that there are three different chemotypes of cannabis plants:

  • THC predominant (rich in THC)
  • CBD predominant (rich in CBD)
  • Mixed types (roughly the same amount of THC and CBD)

However, these cannabinoids aren’t the only compounds that contribute to a plant’s effects.

According to Russo, other chemical compounds include terpenes, which act alongside the cannabinoids to induce either relaxing or energizing effects:

  • Myrcene induces a sedative effect;
  • Limonene promotes energizing effects;
  • Alpha-pinene can decrease the memory alterations induced by THC.

Hemp vs marijuana: same but different

Both hemp and marijuana are names given to cannabis plants. Usually, these names are attributed to the two main types of cannabis species, but this distinction is not as simple as we may think.

Both these types of cannabis are consumed, processed, or used as medicines around the world. However, they are very different from one another, especially in legal terms.

While hemp is used, not only for producing medicine, industrial products or other products that can be legally consumed in many countries, marijuana is used for recreative or medicinal purposes, but its use is almost always illegal or frowned upon.

If they are both types of cannabis, why does this happen?

The main reason is the chemical content.

Hemp plants are nearly always members of the Cannabis sativa species, while marijuana can be either from the C. sativa or C. indica species.

Moreover, hemp is considered as CBD predominant, while marijuana is THC predominant (or sometimes a mixed type).

Consuming marijuana may give the typical psychoactive “high” effects and induce hunger while consuming hemp will not cause this. This is mostly due to the difference in the plants’ chemical compositions.

Because its THC content is constantly monitored as not allowed to rise above a certain level, hemp is mostly legal in many countries. It’s usually used for industrial purposes such as the production of textiles, paper, or biofuel, but it can also be used as a food additive and medicine.

Marijuana, on the other hand, is mostly used for recreational purposes. It can be vaped, smoked, or added to food. It can also be used for medicinal purposes but, due to the high THC content, its use is always closely monitored and, in many countries, illegal.

Hemp Marijuana
Cannabis sativa species Cannabis sativa or Cannabis indica species
Very low THC content (less than 0.2-3%) Considerable amounts of THC
Used for industrial and health purposes Used for recreational and health purposes
Does not induce psychoactive effects Induces psychoactive effects
Legal in many countries Illegal in many countries

Although they’re originated from the same plant, hemp and marijuana are not the same, and those are also not the same as saying “cannabis”.

These distinctions are important and have a very significant impact on social, political, medicinal, and legal contexts.

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