What is Cannabis? Demystifying Hemp & Marijuana Once & For All
This may sound like a straightforward question. But when you get into it a little bit — you start to see that simplicity fray at the edges.
Why’s this? Because the terms cannabis, hemp, and marijuana are sometimes used differently by different people in different contexts, and not always accurately.
We’re here to lay it out for you so you know the proper definitions and usage for these terms. We’ll be sure to give you context to make it extra crystal clear. Just note that our focus in this post is primarily on the botanical and biological aspects of cannabis rather than regulatory or cultural differences.
California's first Cannabis Czar, Lori Ajax reflects on cannabis as a "Magical Plant," (at the first ever cannabis film festival in Palm Springs) shortly after being appointed head of the regulatory agency in 2016. She has since stepped down after launching the first five years at the helm of the California Bureau of Cannabis Control.
What is Cannabis?
There are literally hundreds of varieties of cannabis.(1) Cannabis is a member of the Cannabaceae family of plants, which includes more than 170 species. The three you’ll probably hear about most are Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis.
The one you’re here to learn about is Cannabis sativa, aka Cannabis sativa L. Marijuana and hemp are both subspecies of cannabis.(2)
She's Got the Look
Cannabis is a sturdy and herbaceous annual plant. You probably have an iconic image of a marijuana leaf floating in your mind’s eye. And while marijuana and hemp do look similar, they do have differentiating features.
Tall and slender, more scrawny tree-like
Stout and squat, more bush-like
Typical Max. Height
Several may grow close together
Tend to be spaced out
Long and cane-like; few below top of plant
Fan shaped with fewer and skinnier “blades”; more sparse; predominantly at the top
Broader fan shaped with more and broader “blades”; more numerous and distributed
Fewer; small, greenish yellow
More; tight, nuggety buds with small hairs or crystals
Will the untrained eye be able to tell hemp and marijuana apart in the wild? Maybe not. But that’s only a concern if you’re a grower or producer. If you’re filling your cart with high-quality products from a reliable retailer — you’re all set (and this is just interesting trivia).
While hemp (left side) and marijuana (right side) do look similar, they do have differentiating features in their overall appearance. Hemp grows more tall and slender while marijuana grows to be more bush-like.
Cannabinoids & Other Phytocompounds
Cannabis is a hot topic most probably due to its cannabinoids. Cannabinoids are special and mighty plant compounds found in cannabis plants. These substances are the source of cannabis that enables it to support mental and physical health and wellness. The different collection of cannabinoids in a particular variety of cannabis contributes to how it can affect you and the outcomes it may produce.
There are over 140 identified cannabinoids. THC and CBD, two of only a handful of major cannabinoids, that are arguably the most well-known. But there are other up-and-comers from the ranks of the minor cannabinoids — like CBN, CBG, etc.
While cannabinoids come with a host of potential positive impacts for one’s well-being, there are significant differences. The biggest — or most noted — distinction is that THC is a psychoactive compound (It can get you high.) and CBD is not. Beyond the biology, there are legal and cultural differences, too.
Accompanying the cannabinoids are a stew of other plant compounds. Top billing goes to terpenes, flavonoids, and the many nutrients contained in our leafy green friends. These constituents have tons of health benefits in their own right but also can boost the effectiveness of cannabinoids. Go plant medicine!
Cannabis has a long, diverse, often misunderstood yet celebrated legacy — documentation of which goes back at least 10,000 years. Originating in China, cannabis is now found on most continents (anywhere it can be provided with a temperate climate).
During its long lifespan, cannabis — in its various, glorious forms — has been used in countless ways. Records indicate that it was the first cultivated crop. And that harvest was put to use in every conceivable area of life: food, textiles, construction, fuel, medicine, beauty care, land management….
Plant of a Thousand+ Forms & Uses
As an adult recreational-, personal-, or medicinal-use plant, cannabis continues to be prepared and consumed in a multitude of manners. Here are several, just to give you an idea.
- Bath bombs and bath salts
- Chocolates and candies
- Cosmetics and infused personal care items
- Dissolvable strips
- Drops and tinctures
- Gummies and jellies
- Oral and nasal sprays
- Other edibles, like infused butter or tea
- Pre-rolled joints
- Softgels and capsules
- Topical lotions, balms, creams, and ointments
- Transdermal patches
- Applied topically
- Applied transdermally
- Eaten or drunk (ingested)
- Smoked or vaped
- Swallowed (taken orally)
- Taken sublingually
Vocab Lesson — Choose Your Cannabis Words Wisely
A mind-blowing array of words and phrases have evolved over the ages and pepper our current cannabis vernacular. Maybe this stems from the impressively varied usage and geographic spread of cannabis, marijuana, and hemp cultivation and consumption. After all, they’ve been around — they’re ancient and seemingly everywhere - growing like weeds.
But, words have meaning, which equates to power. This means the words we use matter. So let’s take a beat to underscore:
- Cannabis ≠ Marijuana
- Cannabis ≠ Hemp
- Marijuana ≠ Cannabis
- Hemp ≠ Cannabis
And, to be clear, when we say “cannabis,” we’re referring to Cannabis sativa L. Why are we harping on this point?
Because you’ll frequently see the words cannabis and marijuana used interchangeably and this isn’t strictly accurate. Cannabis can only be used in place of marijuana (or hemp) when speaking in generalities or intending less specificity.
It’s like saying all apples are fruits (true) versus all fruits are apples (not true). You can say “All marijuana is cannabis.” (true) but you can’t correctly say that “All cannabis is marijuana.” because it’s a false statement.
So, just as you can discuss the merits of apples and then also mention fruit in general, you can follow a similar pattern when writing or speaking about cannabis. For example:
- Fruit is good for your health. Apples, in particular, are a great option because they have a lot of fiber and are widely available.
- Cannabis laws vary from state to state so it’s important to find out if marijuana is legal in your area.
- All fruit grows on trees and apples are the best kind.
- All cannabis will get you high.
The anatomy of CBD: Curious about the anatomy of a hemp plant or how it relates to CBD? Check out how the Government ranks it on their cannabis taxonomy chart.
More on Marijuana
As we’ve established, marijuana is one subspecies of cannabis.
There are hundreds, if not more, strains of marijuana. Some strains are actually hybrids of different cannabis subspecies — like a cross between sativa and indica. Each strain offers up its own characteristics.
Cannabinoids, Like THC
So, what most notably makes marijuana marijuana? Probably its cannabinoid profile.
Most types of marijuana are considered to be higher in THC levels and lower in CBD level. THC is a psychoactive compound, meaning it’s capable of affecting your mind or altering mental and cognitive state. For this reason, marijuana’s more associated with feelings of being high or intoxicated.
There are exceptions. Certain strains of marijuana have been selectively bred to have lower THC and higher CBD levels. An example? Charlotte’s Webb (named after Charlotte Figi — look her up!) is a popular one.(5)
Vocab Lesson — Choose Your Marijuana Words Wisely
You know you’ve carved out a special place in society when you have as many nicknames and euphemisms as marijuana does. It has arrived!
Below are some of the more common — or beloved — monikers for marijuana and/or its products.
- Mary Jane
And this is just the tip of the leafy green iceberg. Pop culture sure has gotten creative with the street names and slang!
When it comes to the law, you might see the word marihuana, spelled with an h instead of a j.
This is an older spelling of marijuana. It’s common in legal contexts because it harkens back to the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. And because it was originally codified with that spelling, many governing bodies also adopted it for their statutory language.(6)
Another critical legal point about marijuana: The federal government and many state, local, and tribal jurisdictions define any cannabis with over 0.3% THC to be marijuana. Regardless of whether or not it’s botanically part of the marijuana or hemp subspecies.
Heaps about Hemp
Again, hemp plants are a subtype of cannabis plants.
Before hemp was widely used for medicinally, it was a darling of the textiles and food industries. The fibers were ideal for crafting durable rope and cloth. The seeds are incredibly nutritious and versatile.
At one time, hemp production was among America’s most important commercial agricultural endeavors. For a slew of reasons, though, it was halted and outlawed by the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act. The 2014 and 2018 Farm Bills reopened the door to hemp production in the US.
Since then, hemp has started to flourish once again!
Cannabinoids, Like CBD
Hemp is brimming with goodness: cannabinoids, terpenes, etc. It's most recognized for its relatively high CBD and low THC profile. Because it has smaller amounts of THC, it’s less likely to produce any kind of psychotropic reaction when consumed.
CBD actually lacks the chemical features to create a high. This is the reason lots of people prefer hemp-derived CBD over marijuana-derived CBD. It’s also why hemp CBD is associated with calming sensations.
Vocab Lesson — Choose Your Hemp Words Wisely
Here again we have the opportunity to clear the word-soup air.
First, you might come across hemp referred to as industrial hemp. Industrial hemp typically serves one or more of the following purposes:
- Indicates that the hemp is a cultivar that has less than 0.3% THC content by weight
- Signifies that the hemp is of the federally-legal variety
- Alludes to hemp grown and/or used specifically for commercial applications
Next, is another area of very common confusion: hemp vs CBD and hemp oil vs CBD oil. These pairs of terms aren’t synonymous.
- Hemp is a plant that contains the cannabinoid CBD.
- Hemp oil is typically made from the seeds of the hemp plant and has virtually no cannabinoid content. It’s often used as a carrier oil. CBD oil, on the other hand, is usually extracted from the flowers, leaves, stems, and stalks of the hemp plant and is loaded with cannabinoids. It’s highly concentrated and usually is diluted in a carrier oil or base substance for use.
Cannabis ≠ Marijuana ≠ Hemp ≠ THC ≠ CBD
Cannabis is a hearty, versatile, and age-old species of plant. Marijuana and hemp are two different subspecies of cannabis.
Each variety — as well as individual strains of each subspecies — has its own profile of cannabinoids (like THC and CBD) and other plant substances. It’s this unique combination of phytocompounds that offers up the distinct effects and potential wellness outcomes consumers look for.
It’s important to understand the language of cannabis so you know what you’re buying and using. Being a savvy consumer will help keep you safe and on the right side of the law. It’ll also help ensure that you’re getting the most effective products for your needs and preferences.
FAQs Buzzin’ Through the Hive
What is cannabis?
Cannabis is a plant of the cannabis sativa l species. Marijuana and hemp are subspecies.
Do different kinds of cannabis have different cannabinoids?
Yes. Each strain of cannabis has a unique profile of cannabinoids (and terpenes, flavonoids, and other phytochemicals). It’s these differences that give each strain its signature appearance, aroma, flavor, and effect.
What’s the difference between THC and CBD?
While both are major cannabinoids with a host of potential positive impacts for health and wellness, there are significant differences. The biggest — or most noted — distinction is that THC is a psychoactive compound (It can get you high.) and CBD is not. Beyond the biology, there are legal and cultural differences, too.
Watch & Learn Even More
- Gloss, D. (2015). An Overview of Products and Bias in Research. Neurotherapeutics. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13311-015-0370-x
- (2022). Integrated Taxonomic Information System - Report: Cannabis sativa. ITIS. https://www.itis.gov/servlet/SingleRpt/SingleRpt?search_topic=TSN&search_value=19109#null
- Huizen, J. (2021). What to know about hemp plants. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/hemp-plant#identifying-factors
- (2019). Hemp vs. Marijuana: Why Can’t Cops Tell Them Apart? Green Entrepreneur. https://www.greenentrepreneur.com/article/332063
- Eckelkamp, S. (2020). Anxious? Achy? Existential? These 15 High-CBD, Low-THC Cannabis Strains May Bring Relief. Greatist. https://greatist.com/health/high-cbd-low-thc
- (2022). Why is marijuana sometimes spelled with Marijuana Regulatory Agency. https://www.michigan.gov/mra/faq/licensing-list/additional-new/why-is-marijuana-sometimes-spelled-with-an-h-and-other-times-spelled-with-a-j