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The difference between Hemp and Cannabis

July 28, 2020
What is the difference between hemp and cannabis and on which scientific findings is this difference based? Results from biology and linguistics will answer this question. With illustrations and several examples the question of differences and similarities between hemp and cannabis will be explained scientifically and catchy.
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Colloquial language

At first glimpse colloquial language seems to be an odd way to investigate the difference between hemp and cannabis. But the language "used in conversation but not in formal speech or writing"1 influences our perception of the world and implies what is most relevant to most people. Often times it is one of the most important questions to answer, because it clarifies the topic of the discussion.

An example:

Probably you have heard that a tomato is actually a fruit, not a vegetable. For certain scientists and some of your friends this may be a topic of high importance. Nonetheless, supermarkets will not change their categorization of the tomato as a vegetable and for most people it is utterly irrelevant. This is why a tomato stays a vegetable in colloquial language even though genetically it is a fruit.

Hemp in colloquial language

Generally every product that cannot be used as an intoxicant is called a hemp product. This is clearly visible in the example of hemp seeds, hemp oil and sealing hemp. What counts is the result. If the used oil is made for consumption and cannot make you 'high' it is called hemp oil regardless of the actual genetic origin of the plant.

Cannabis in colloquial language

Products associated with psychoactive effects are often called cannabis. Although the intoxicating effect is only found in a specific part, namely the flower of the plant. However, not only the flower of this plant is called cannabis, but also the whole plant. In common language cannabis is a plant with a flower that has a psychoactive effect. These two are linked. If the flower is not psychoactive, the flower is not called cannabis but aroma flower. If the plant does not have a psychoactive flower, it is not called cannabis, but hemp.

Some examples for the use of the words Hemp and Cannabis:

The term "cannabis seeds" refers exclusively to seeds used for the cultivation of plants with mind-altering abilities, but not to seeds made for human consumption. The seeds used as food are called "hemp seeds". Also, "cannabis oil" stands exclusively for oil with medicinal or intoxicating effects, but not for edible oil which is called "hemp oil". "sealing hemp", hemp threads used to seal pipes, has no counterpart called "sealing cannabis". This is because "sealing hemp" is used purely for industrial applications and there is no mind-altering version of this sealant.



The biological perspective is less clear-cut than one would wish. This is due to the fact that the hemp plant has been cultivated in many parts of the world for several millennia for various purposes. Most cultures did not know or need every possible use of the hemp plant. Consequently, the plant has been cultivated for different purposes all over the world. And so, through a mixture of selective domestication by humans and natural selection by nature, many different subspecies of the plant were created.2-5 As a result, individual plants are difficult to distinguish and difficult to categorize. For this reason, there are some exceptions to each of the following classifications. When used together, however, the categories presented here provide reliable orientation and are therefore also used in research and in courts of law.

Biological systematics

Biological systematics is a way to array Flora and Fauna. Hemp is the name of a genus whose scientific name is "cannabis". From there on there are two different categorization approaches. One after Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the author of a Darwin preceding theory of evolution and Linnaeus, the inventor of the modern biological systematics.



Lamarck described hemp (cannabis) as a genus with two species: Cannabis Sativa and Cannabis Indica, which are the scientific names of the species.6 The first species is Cannabis Sativa which normally cannot produce an intoxicating effect and is called hemp in colloquial language. Cannabis Sativa is characterized by a higher CBD content and high industrial usability. The second species is Cannabis Indica, which normally carries psychoactive flowers and is called cannabis in colloquial language. Cannabis Indica is characterized by higher THC levels and low industrial usability.


Picture: Hemp in biological systematics after Lamarck

The multiple assignment of the names cannabis and hemp in the "Biological systematics" can be quite confusing. Therefore, for illustration a comparison:

We all belong to the species Homo sapiens. But we call ourselves humans in colloquial language. But Human, or with scientific name Homo, is the name for the whole genus of humans. Thus, human being (Homo) designates all other extinct species of humans as well as us. Nevertheless, we call other humans, such as Homo Neanderthalensis, not human, but Neanderthal.


Picture: Human in biological systematics



In the categorization proposed by Linnaeus, the genus Hemp has only one single species: Cannabis sativa L.. The L. stands for Linneanus, which is a label to distinguish it from the two species system propagated by Lamark. The species Cannabis Sativa L. has two subspecies. Namely: Cannabis sativa sativa and Cannabis sativa indica.5,6 The differences between Sativa sativa and Sativa indica are the same as in the first classification by Lamarck. Indica is called cannabis and is associated with the intoxicant while Sativa is called hemp and describes plants with industrial use and food production.


Picture: Hemp in biological systematics after Linnaeus


Differences in THC content

One characteristic in which hemp differs from cannabis is the content of THC and CBD and the ratio in which the two are present.5-7 This ratio of THC and CBD content varies from plant to plant. It is influenced by different growing conditions, but mainly by genes. In order to find out whether it is hemp or cannabis, one can measure the content and ratio of CBD and THC in the plant. It is also possible to examine the genes that lead to this difference.

There are genes that determine the production of THC and CBD and their ratio. These genes determine how much THC and CBD is produced.7 It is therefore possible to study the corresponding genes in the plant, which is possible at each stage of growth. It is difficult to explain in a simplified way, but if certain genes are present, it probably is a cannabis plant and if other certain genes are present, it probably is a hemp plant. These genetic studies go beyond the genes associated with THC and CBD production. So there are many genes that can be used to determine whether you are dealing with a hemp plant or a cannabis plant. With a few exceptions, cannabis and hemp can be successfully distinguished by gene analysis, but hemp and cannabis have much more in common genetically than they differ.

What is the diffenece between Hemp and Cannabis?

Cannabis is cultivated to produce flowers for medicinal or recreational use while hemp is grown for medicine, remedies, food and fiber production. Products made from cannabis can produce a 'high', products made from hemp cannot. Cannabis plants belong mostly to the Cannabis Indica species and hemp plants belong mostly to the Cannabis Sativa species. Cannabis has a high content of THC and can therefore make 'high', hemp has a high content of CBD and therefore can not make 'high'. Hemp is legal in most countries, cannabis is illegal in most countries.




    1. Oxford Learner´s Dictionaries, “colloquial adjective - Definition | Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary at OxfordLearnersDictionaries.com,” 2020.
    2. Clarke, R. C., and Merlin, M. D., “Cannabis Domestication, Breeding History, Present-day Genetic Diversity, and Future Prospects,” Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences, V. 35, 5-6, 2016, pp. 293–327.
    3. van Bakel, H., Stout, J. M., Cote, A. G., Tallon, C. M., Sharpe, A. G., Hughes, T. R., and Page, J. E., “The draft genome and transcriptome of Cannabis sativa,” Genome Biol, V. 12, No. 10, 2011, R102.
    4. Small, E., “Evolution and Classification of Cannabis sativa (Marijuana, Hemp) in Relation to Human Utilization,” Bot. Rev., V. 81, No. 3, 2015, pp. 189–294.
    5. Small, E., and Cronquist, A., “A Practical and Natural Taxonomy for Cannabis,”.
    6. Hillig, K. W., “Genetic evidence for speciation in Cannabis (Cannabaceae),” Genet Resour Crop Evol, V. 52, No. 2, 2005, pp. 161–180.
    7. Shannon L. Datwyler & George D. Weiblen, “Genetic Variation in Hemp and Marijuana (Cannabis sativa L.) According to Amplified Fragment Length Polymorphisms*,”.
Tim L. Groschke is a writer with major interests in market development, biology and cognitive neuropsychology. His studies range from international political economy to historical and classical texts. Often writing for the Arvaloo and WeBelieve team he uses his comprehensive yet detailed knowledge to give insight in the biological processes of hemp products and the industry surrounding it.

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