Hemp Plant vs Marijuana Plant: What Are the Differences?

Cannabis Plant

There are decades behind negative propaganda and misleading information regarding Cannabis .

Nowadays, things seem to change and the health benefits of this amazing plant are shown by scientific research and appreciated by millions of people.

Yet, the distinction between cannabis, hemp, and marijuana is not clear to consumers. A lot of people, out there, use the terms interchangeably considering them the same plant.  It is obvious that the hemp plant vs the marijuana plant distinction should be explained so that the properties of both hemp and marijuana plants are understood completely.

Is there a difference between the terms Hemp and Marijuana? How is the term Cannabis related to them? This article will give you all the information you need to answer these questions.

Are you ready?

The origin of the cannabis confusion

It all started when President Nixon started the “War on Drugs”.

The Controlled Substances Act, signed in 1970s, created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)  and established a group of banned “drugs”. The Act grouped marijuana with all types of the cannabis plant and outlawed its cultivation in the US.

Even though hemp was one of the oldest domesticated crops in the world, it was classified as a drug and made illegal too. Its cultivation stopped and the misconceptions regarding it increased over time.

Even today, after so many years, political leaders are still confused. They don’t seem to understand the differences between the plants. Neither do consumers.

What is Cannabis?

Let me start with a question:

If I asked you whether lemons and oranges are the same you would laugh and answer no, wouldn’t you?

What is the similarity between the two? Yes, you are right: they are both fruit.

I consider the term Cannabis an “umbrella term” and I suggest that you do the same. Why an umbrella term? Because hemp and marijuana are to Cannabis exactly what oranges and lemons are to Citrus.

In other terms, Cannabis is nothing else but a generic abstraction used to describe a family of plants :

  • Cannabis Indica
  • Cannabis Sativa
  • Cannabis Ruderalis

The classifications that interest us are the first two.

Marijuana can derive from either Cannabis Indica or Cannabis Sativa. Hemp derives only from Cannabis Sativa.

This is not the only difference between the two.

Hemp and marijuana are different in Cultivars (or Subtypes), Appearance, Chemical Composition, Cultivation Requirements,  Cultivation Purposes, and Legal Status.

Hemp vs Marijuana: Cultivars

Over the years, three subtypes or cultivars (cultivar=a plant variety that has been produced in cultivation by selective breeding) of cannabis have been produced in order to meet the following specific needs :

  • Industrial usage
  • Seed production
  • Cannabinoid extraction (for either medicinal or recreational purposes)

I know, you think you understood the difference! Don’t be in a hurry! We can’t say with certainty that the first two are hemp and the third one marijuana. Not yet. Let’s study their looks.

Hemp vs Marijuana: Appearance

Both plants can be slightly similar in appearance and a quick look could deceive any untrained eye. But if you examine the two plants carefully, you will notice the unique characteristics of each of them.

Marijuana is grown to be a short and fat bush. Its leaves are broad and plenty budding flowers can be noticed around the stalks. Crystal-dusted hairs often cover its flowers.

On the other hand, hemp has tall (the plant can arrive up to 20ft), fibrous, strong stalks, thin leaves, and very few flowering buds. There are rarely leaves or branches growing below the top part of the plant.

Now, are you ready to take a brief test? Let’s start!

Look at the following photos. Which is of the two is marijuana? Which is hemp?

Marijuana Plant
Photo A
Hemp Plant
Photo B

You are right. Photo A is a marijuana plant and photo B a hemp plant. Do you feel a bit less confused now?

Marijuana vs Hemp: Chemical Composition

At least 113 chemical compounds (cannabinoids) have been found in the  Cannabis plant. The most dominant and studied ones are THC (trans-Δ⁹-tetrahydrocannabinol), and CBD (Cannabidiol). Both of them have been shown to have beneficial effects on human health and wellness. THC is responsible for psychoactive effects (it gives users a “high”) while with CBD it’s practically impossible to “get stoned”.

Chemical Structure CBD
CBD: Chemical Srtucture

THC concentration is the major difference between marijuana and hemp plant.

Marijuana is characterized by elevated amounts of THC. Average marijuana cultivars may contain from 5% to 20% THC while some premium subtypes can arrive up to 30% or 40%.

Hemp, on the other hand, has trace amounts of THC but a rich Cannabidiol (CBD) content.

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Marijuana vs Hemp: Cultivation Requirements   

Another essential difference between the two plants is that they have different cultivation requirements.

Hemp plants can be grown close to ech other (a 10cm /4 inches distance is needed between each plant ) in large, industrial plots and they reach full growth in a time span of 108 to 120 days.

Hemp doesn’t require any particular care.  We can say it’s a rather “tough” plant since it can adapt to different climate conditions with no specific demands.

Marijuana is more “delicate” and requires cultivation under precisely controlled conditions. It needs a warm and humid environment (it is cultivated indoors) to develop properly. Its growth cycle is smaller than hemp ’s: 45-90 days. The marijuana plants shouldn’t be grown close to each other; each plant needs at least 1m/6ft of space around it. All these demands make it obvious that marijuana harvests are smaller in scale than hemp harvests.

Apart from being a demanding plant in terms of cultivation, marijuana is delicate for another important reason: if marijuana plants are grown near a hemp plot and are exposed to hemp pollen, the whole marijuana crop will be destroyed. There will be no psychoactive effects in the plants after harvest.

For this reason, it’s impossible to hide marijuana plants planting them among hemp plants.  

Marijuana vs Hemp: Cultivation Purposes

Hemp Paper

Since marijuana’s content is rich in THC it is obvious that this cannabinoid is the reason for its cultivation. No matter if they are used for recreational reasons or medicinal purposes, marijuana products can be smoked, vaped, eaten, or even injected.

On the other hand, hemp is cultivated for the manufacture of a lot of goods such as dietary supplements, oil, biofuel, textiles and clothes, skin care products, paints, paper, building materials, and plastics, among others. There is even hemp jewelry!

We can say that hemp is cultivated for medicinal purposes too! With the great public interest on the benefits of CBD to human and animal health, producers have intensified hemp cultivation to extract the cannabinoid CBD and to produce a great variety of THC-free CBD supplements.

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Marijuana vs Hemp: Legal Status

Again, THC is the key factor that determines the legal status of both plants.

In the US and Canada, the term hemp is used for cannabis plants with THC levels under 0.3 %. In the EU, a cannabis plant should have levels of THC below 0.2 % to be called hemp. (It is obvious that these two different rates don’t ensure fair competition between European and American CBD oil producers;  for this reason, the European Industrial Hemp Association (EIHA) has asked for the standardization of the rates.)    

Hemp, in other words, contains insignificant amounts of THC and for this reason, it is legal in most parts of the world. It is legal to purchase in all 50 states and it is legal to send in the U.S.

Marijuana, on the contrary, is illegal in most parts of the world including the US because of its rich in THC content.

The latest scientific discoveries regarding the medicinal properties of THC have led to the legalization of marijuana in some countries and certain US states.

We hope that more countries and states will follow their lead. But, for the time being, and for “safety” reasons, I’d rather generalize by saying that marijuana is illegal in most countries and states.

Do hemp and marijuana have a future?

The criminalization of marijuana for its “psychoactive” effects was a decision that caused vivid discussions between marijuana advocates and enemies. The debate is still ongoing and each part has more or less well-founded arguments to support their opinions.

But what about hemp?

Historically, hemp was prohibited because it was incorrectly associated with marijuana and its mood and perception-altering effects. Hemp, however, doesn’t have any psychoactive properties, so considering it a drug and criminalizing it was not only illogical; it was stupid.

Why was it banned? Was it just because of narrow-mindedness or stupidity? Was it because the political leaders were simply confused or utterly ignorant? Or was lobbying the real reason? Who knows what the real reasons were…

Fortunately, both forms of the cannabis plant seem to be advancing towards legitimacy.

With the Hemp Farming Act of 2018,  hemp is finally decriminalized on a national scale in the US.

Financial experts predict a marijuana boom in the near future since its legalization is sweeping over North America. As a matter of fact, 11 US states have permitted recreational marijuana use while in Canada it was totally legalized in October 2018. It seems that the legalization of medicinal and recreational marijuana is progressing at a rapid pace globally.

Who knows what the future will bring? People living in houses made of hemplime (= bio-composite material, a mixture of hemp hurds and lime used as a material for construction and insulation), driving hempoline (=Biodiesel made from the oils in hemp seeds and stalks) powered cars while wearing hemp clothes?

Hemp can be used to manufacture sustainable, eco-friendly products for everyday use. Furthermore, hemp and marijuana are proven to have amazing pharmaceutical properties. Let us hope, that there will be a day when both plants will be “free” to offer their benefits to the people and the planet.

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If you have any questions or you want to share your personal experience, leave a comment below.

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DISCLAIMER: The content of this article is for informational purposes only. It is not meant to substitute professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. The information provided is not meant to alleviate or cure any disease or disorder. Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider for any medical condition.


  1. Thanks for sharing useful info! Really, it is very helpful for us and useful information on vitamins

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  4. I am from the Netherlands and I did not know all of this. This is so interesting and taught me a lot about the differences between hemp and marijuana. What I do know is that it being legal in the Netherlands to buy and smoke marijuana, makes it a lot less “special”. So young people tend to be less eager to try it. Both marijuana and hemp are used in medicine and often do wonders when prescribed by doctors. Thanks for sharing this article with us!

    1. Thank you for your comment Karen and for sharing the information regarding the Netherlands. It’s good to know what happens in other countries where things are different

  5. Ah thank you for clearing this up!! I honestly thought that they were the same plant that were just picked at different stages of growth. Silly me. It’s ridiculous that the hemp plant somehow got grouped in with marijuana during the war on drugs. All over a plant. This will really clear up a lot of confusion with people as I think many assume it’s the same plant like I did. I will definitely pass this along! Very interesting post. Thanks again.

  6. Hi Effie
    Another great post, very interesting. There are so many misconceptions regarding hemp and marijuana. You have made the differences simple, especially with the lemon and orange analogy!. Thank you once again for bringing an awareness to this subject. Keep it coming !!
    Thank you Lorraine

  7. Back in the early 70’s, I was stationed at a base that was used to make hemp rope in its early days. As a young bunch of guys we found that the hemp plant grew along fence rows in the summer. When we tried to smoke it, nothing happened. I found out then what the difference between hemp and marijuana. I have not used either since I was at that base, until the CBD oils have made a big surge.
    Thanks for the information about the difference, maybe some of the people will know the difference and understand what is good for them.

  8. Thank you for this information. I learned a lot from this article as I truly didn’t know their differences although I am aware of hemp having a lot of medicinal functions. It is unfortunate ‘though that there are bad people out there that makes these 2 in bad light by mixing them with synthetic compounds or altering them , thus misconceptions arises due to lack of further research and information.
    As a healthcare professional, I have had numerous patients that had physical and psychological symptoms due to positive cannabinoids in their blood, which will probably be better if there’s further studies made on what certain individuals had taken.
    Good job, this topic is very informative. Something that I would discuss with my colleagues.

    1. Nida, all these bad people are responsible for a lot of misconceptions and “fear”. This is the reason why I extensively investigate a product before suggesting it to my readers. Thank you for sharing your professional thoughts and experience with us

  9. Don’t laugh! But I really truly did think that the hemp plant WAS the same thing as marijuana! I learned a lot from this post. You have such great information here. I am in the learning process, even though my son and dogs take CBD which I also thought was Marijuana! :/

    1. Leahrae you are simply adorable! The way you admitted your “ignorance” made me laugh! Don’t worry my friend. You were not the only one confused and certainly, you aren’t confused anymore! How about our political leaders? LOL

  10. Hi Effie,
    I got the photo quiz right! Any prize for that? Haha…
    Thanks for clearing up all the confusion, really love this article. I gained so much from it. Can see that you have put your heart and soul into your writing.
    I truly believe in the healing powers of hemp. It’s just so bad that my country is so strong-headed about making anything related to cannabis illegal.

    1. Joo, I’m sure that, sooner or later, your country will be hit by the tsunami that is called “cannabis products”. One after the other, countries adjust their policies regarding these products because people ask for these changes. People have the real power and governments should comply with public demand. Let us hope that your country will follow the lead of the rest of the world soon!

  11. I have been a fan of hemp for years. I literally eat it (seeds and fiber) drink it (oil and protein) and wear it (shirts and shorts).

    Despite that, other than knowing it did not have THC, I had no idea about the rest of the differences or much at all about the history. (Photo quiz was a really nice touch.)

    Great job, thank you, really enjoyed it.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience with hemp with us, Jon. Hemp is an amazing plant I’m glad my article helped you increase your knowledge about it. Knowledge is power, isn’t it?

  12. Wow, Effie, I think I finally get it! I thought I understood what people meant when they talked about CBD oil but then I started to see hemp products everywhere and I didn’t know what was going on. Thank you for explaining hemp, cannabis, and marijuana all in one place. I loved the illustration about lemons and oranges and the photos of hemp and marijuana were helpful too. (I would have guessed wrong before reading your article.)

    1. Lack of information and knowledge leads to misconceptions, Theresa. This article is an attempt to help people know the plants and their differences and avoid being fooled again. Stay tuned though, something you asked for is coming soon 🙂

  13. I have read and appreciated the difference between hemp and marijuana. I can now authoritatively tell the difference from the look of the two plants of the cannabis family, their chemical composition and their cultivation purpose. The video has been very helpful in makimg this possible.
    Regarding the legality in my country Uganda, we have a company called Industrial Hemp (U) Ltd, founded and legally incorporated in 2012 within the laws of Republic of Uganda. This company grows and processes medical cannabis. It is licensed and supervised by Ministry of Health and other responsible government agencies like the Uganda Police Force.
    I believe cannabis will eventually be legalized in most countries worldwide in the near future.

    1. Thank you so much Ahimbe! I really appreciate the information you shared regarding the legal status of hemp in Uganda. Let’s hope things will change for the rest of the world in the future.This plant has so much to offer to humanity!

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