Cannabis vs. Hemp – do you know the difference?

By J.S. Haven

Cannabis and hemp. Similar plants with very different uses. The U.S. government lumped them together decades ago under the Marijuana Tax Act (1937) and classified them as Schedule I drugs under the Controlled Substances Act  (1970).

Let’s set the record straight about their differences and usage.

Hemp and corn field, Picture courtesy of Gordon Scheifele

Hemp and cannabis originate from the same plant, but through breeding, evolution and hybridization, modern cannabis now comes from the plant Cannabis Sativa – a female, branchlike plant that grows up to six feet tall. Its dried flowers and seed pods produce marijuana. Hemp comes from the plant Cannabis Sativa L. (or Cannabis Indica), a tall cane-like plant that grows up to five meters (16 feet) tall. While cannabis is enjoyed for its medicinal, recreational or spiritual use by smoking its flowers, commercialized hemp uses the plant’s stalk, fiber and seed for textiles, foods, papers, body care products, detergents, building materials and other things. Its hard wooden core can even be used for carpentry!

Marijuana, on the other hand, has a low tensile strength and breaks easily. It’s not practical to use in making other products like hemp is.

There’s another big difference between cannabis and hemp – one that the government has been slow to officially recognize, That’s the THC factor.

THC(tetrahydrocannabinoid) is the intoxicating ingredient that triggers the “high” pot smokers strive for. Marijuana contains from 5 to 25 percent or more of THC. Hemp, however, only contains about 0.3 to 1.5 percent THC, averaging around 0.5 percent.

It’s interesting to note that Colorado (where marijuana is legal) and Canada define industrial hemp as having no more than 0.3 percent THC dry weight. Above that, it’s considered marijuana.

You’d need to smoke ten or twelve hemp cigarettes over a very short period of time if you wanted to get high. And it might not even work.

Industrial hemp has something that cannabis has little of – Cannabidiol (CBD). Hemp’s concentration of CBD negates the effect of marijuana’s THC and reduces its mind/mood altering effects.

Hemp has advantages that cannabis doesn’t.

Cannabis thrives growing in warm, humid areas. Hemp is more flexible and can be grown in a wide range of areas and environments. And because it has both male and female parts, it also helps promote a higher yield when planted with other crops like corn.

Cannabis’ growth cycle is short – 60 to 80 days – and plants are grown about 6 feet apart. Although hemp’s growth cycle is longer – 108 to 120 days – it grows well in large, mufti-acre plots, planted only 4 inches apart.

Until the 20th century, industrial hemp was the world’s largest crop and perhaps the most important industry. Today, it’s grown in over 60 countries. Although growing hemp isn’t illegal in the U.S., growing it requires a special permit from the DEA. Rarely given out, if and when they are, growers must have the crop surrounded by tight security like fences, razor wire, security guards, or dogs.

It is legal to import hemp products into the U.S. Millions of dollars worth of these products are imported here annually.

Innovation is tied to the hemp industry too.

Researchers at the University of Alberta (Canada) recently created a supercapacitor using raw hemp material. This breakthrough makes manufacturing of cheap, fast-charging batteries from hemp a possibility.

Think renewable materials when you think of hemp. Hemp fiber is being used to develop new forms of renewable plastic, making it a common material in the car parts industry (think Ford and Toyota).

Hemp has thousands of practical applications versus cannabis’ limited options. Perhaps it’s time for the government to acknowledge the differences and bring back what could be a cash cow industry for this country.

It could happen. An amendment in the Farm Bill of 2014 opened the door to U.S. based research into the possible use / cultivation of industrial hemp. It legalized hemp production for research purposes. BUT it only applies to states where industrial hemp farming is already legal under state law.

Still, it’s a start.

Cannabis and hemp each have their merits. It all depends on your perspective as to which will be the most valuable to you.

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