Cannabis and Hemp: What’s the Difference?
Updated: Sep 19
There’s many uses of the hemp plant we’ve heard of: In the 90’s, hemp came on the market as a more sustainable alternative to many textiles, including cotton and paper. Woven hemp necklaces and bracelets became a fashion statement synonymous with naturalist and alternative lifestyles, and it seemed the world was ready to embrace hemp for all it could do.
More lately, we’ve seen a resurgence of hemp as food, with the health benefits of hemp seeds (also called hemp hearts) and hemp-derived animal feed. Many dispensaries will tell you that full-spectrum hemp oil is a highly sought-after source of CBD, used for many health effects – from pain and inflammation relief to better sleep or less anxiety.
But if pressed on what hemp actually is, many people assume it’s a cousin of the cannabis plant – when that’s not actually true.
Cannabis and Hemp are the Same Plant
In fact, the only distinction between cannabis and hemp is the THC content.
The truth is, “hemp” is only separate from “cannabis” due to its legal classification - speaking botanically, there’s no other difference. Legally speaking, a plant is classified as hemp if it contains less than 0.3% THC. Any more than that, and it’s considered cannabis.
Under this distinction, many places in North America have much looser restrictions on growing hemp than on growing cannabis, making it an easier crop to use for many purposes.
So most of the many uses for hemp - including faster-growing and more sustainable papers, fabrics, textiles, and even bioplastics - are all possible uses for cannabis plants as a whole. The only difference is that, for a producer, it’s much easier to get permission to grow large quantities of hemp for harvesting purposes. Additionally, prior to legalization (and regionalized legalization in the U.S.), public perception of cannabis was largely negative - making “hemp” a much more marketable term, with positive, sustainable connotations.
That being said, the hemp plant has many uses. Because cannabis grows much faster than trees, hemp paper is a more sustainable alternative to traditional wood pulp paper. Additionally, hemp pulp is made of fibres four to five times longer than wood pulp fibres. This makes the resulting paper product stronger and more durable.
Hemp is also a better alternative to cotton. A single hemp plant can produce 220% more fibre than a cotton plant - and uses significantly less water in the process.
Hemp fabric is lightweight and breathable, making it an excellent cotton alternative. And as is the case with hemp paper, fabric and textiles from hemp are stronger and don’t wear out as quickly as cotton. Plus, where both cotton and hemp help wick moisture away from the body, hemp has natural antibacterial properties that don’t entertain bacterial growth within the fabric itself.
Hemp can also be used to make plastic - specifically, bioplastics that can decompose over time, unlike traditional petrochemical plastics. Once the fibres are removed from the hemp plant, the material left is 77% cellulose. Cellulose-based plastics are a much more sustainable alternative to oil-based plastics, and can be recycled and reused as effectively as regular plastics. The real benefit to cellulose-based plastics, though, is that once they’ve reached the end of their useful life cycle they can decompose, without sitting in a landfill for hundreds of years like regular plastic.
How do Cannabis and Hemp Differ?
While all of the above uses for the cannabis plant apply equally regardless of THC content - so they can be made with either cannabis or hemp classified plants - there are some areas where hemp is superior.
Hemp seeds are a common food addition in India, but in recent years knowledge of this superfood has made its way to the West. High nutritional content makes hemp seeds an ideal addition to salads, smoothies, or yogurt - basically anywhere you’d add chia seeds, you can add hemp seeds as well.
Hemp seeds are a complete protein, meaning they contain all of the amino acids, making them a great protein source for vegetarians and vegans. Hemp seeds can also be used to make non-dairy alternatives to milk and cheese, and nut-free butters. High essential fatty acid content makes it an ideal alternative for those who have allergies or intolerances.
Hemp’s nearly non-existent THC content means that the hemp plant is largely suitable to be used for animal feed. Hemp is a high-quality source of protein, fibres, and healthy fats, and very quick to grow. More research is being done to determine whether the trace amounts of THC in hemp will accumulate in milk and meat before hemp is largely adopted as livestock feed, but the potential is promising.
Additionally, hemp-derived full spectrum CBD oil is taking the CBD industry by storm as well. While typical CBD oil is a CBD isolate - meaning it has stripped away all other cannabinoids and terpenes from the plant, leaving only pure CBD - hemp oil is a distillate of the contents of the plant’s trichomes.
This means that in addition to CBD, you’re getting the other cannabinoids and terpenes that hemp offers. This often makes for a more effective medication, as these other compounds work on an “entourage effect”, making the health benefits of the cannabinoids more pronounced than they would be on their own. With hemp’s low THC content, full spectrum oil is no more intoxicating than regular CBD isolate, but may be much more effective.
The Taboo on Hemp Holds Us Back
If hemp can do all of this - and do it better - why isn’t it more widely used, especially in the textiles and plastic industries?
For a long time, hemp was subject to the same public distrust as cannabis, and restricted under the same laws. In the U.S., hemp wasn’t legalized as an agricultural crop until 2018, while in Canada hemp cultivation has been legal since 1998. While hemp is one of the oldest human-cultivated plants, it is only recently that it’s been reintroduced in the West.
While we have a way to go, we’re looking forward to seeing how hemp changes many industries moving forward, and helps bring us into a more sustainable future.