by Scarlet Palmer on 31/01/2018 | Consumption

What’s the difference between cannabis, marijuana and hemp?

cannabis, marijuana and hemp Discover the differences between cannabis, marijuana, and hemp – both the botanical and folk taxonomical – in this beginner’s guide to the wonderful world of names for our favourite plant!


What is the difference between cannabis, marijuana and hemp? This has to be one of the most frequently asked questions heard in our shops, the Cannabis College, and the Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum. Just as with all the other questions that have arisen basically because of prohibition, people who don’t know the answers should never be afraid to ask, and people who know the answers should always be graceful about answering. Unfortunately, and again thanks to prohibition, there is also the confusing middle ground where people who think they know the answers are communicating with people who aren’t even quite sure what they’re asking.

A rummage through the dumping ground of random information, misinformation and disinformation that is Yahoo Answers (a guilty pleasure, especially if you have been consuming sativas) demonstrates this only too well. Questions about the differences between marijuana, hemp and cannabis yield up some factual answers, but also such gems as “You smoke marijuana and you bake with cannabis”, “I think one is the plant in the nature and the other is the plant with all the chemicals”, “cannabis is just a certain type of marijuana”, and the instant classic “hemp is paper made from the marijuana plant”. In order to hopefully clear up some of the numerous misconceptions about the differences between hemp, cannabis, marijuana and the many names it also goes by, here’s our handy basic guide to the definitions and the reasons behind them.

A photograph of an indoor cannabis greenhouse with a large amount of cannabis plants, held in place by wire.

What is the difference between cannabis and hemp?

The main difference between cannabis and hemp is in our perception of two different expressions of the same species. That species is Cannabis sativa L.. One of the most successful plants in terms of diversity and global spread, it’s the ability of cannabis to adapt to its environment that has given us two such very different yet equally useful primary forms. The easiest way to understand the difference is to know that in folk taxonomy, ‘hemp’ is used to refer to the non-psychoactive variety, and ‘cannabis’ to the psychoactive variety. At Sensi Seeds we’re mainly concerned with the latter, and our sister company HempFlax focuses on the former. Hemp has been used since time immemorial to provide humanity with fibres, fuel and food. Cannabis has been used for about the same amount of time to provide us with altered states of consciousness, medicine, and entertainment.

Is there a visible difference between cannabis and hemp?

Yes, if you know what to look for. Because the two types are grown for different purposes, hemp for fibre is usually very tall – up to four metres! – and with very little lateral branching. Hemp grown for seed is often a bit shorter and fatter with plentiful lateral branches. Cannabis, grown purely for the unpollinated female flowers which bear the psychoactive substances known as cannabinoids, is generally less than two meters tall and can be as short as 50 cm.

An infographic explaining the differences between Cannabis, Hemp, and Marijuana. A simple illustration in solid green shows a potted hemp plant on the far left. A list of bullet points as well as coordinating lines break down the characteristics of a hemp plant. To the right is a small illustrated, inn solid green, potted cannabis plant. This too has a list of information explaining the plant. In the centre of the infographic is an image of a globe with orange map indicators showing the different countries hemp is grown in. To the right of the globe is an icon of a cannabis leaf with an orange circle and a slash through it. Above is written that “Cannabis remains illegal in most”. At the bottom of the image a question mark is written with negative white space in a green circle. From the question mark are three lines pointing to the bottom left, bottom middle, and bottom right. Three silhouette figures are represented holding different signs: an anti cannabis poster, a cannabis sativa L. sign, and a cannabis leaf beside a trophy sign.

What is the difference between marijuana and cannabis?

Again, this comes down to perception. Marijuana and cannabis are more or less synonymous, although ‘marijuana’ has more negative connotations (see below). Marijuana is the name given to both the whole plant, and its dried flowers. So is cannabis, although strictly speaking it should be capitalised and italicised when referring to the plant. This is best explained in the book ‘Cannabis sativa L. – Botany and Biotechnology’:

“Italicised, Cannabis refers to the biological genus name of the plant (of which only one species is commonly recognized, C. sativa L.). Non-italicized, “cannabis” is a generic abstraction, widely used as a noun and adjective, and commonly (often loosely) used for both cannabis plants and/or any or all of the intoxicant preparations made from them.”

Marijuana is also sometimes spelt ‘marihuana’, which is considered more archaic. The reason for the move from the ‘h’ to the ‘j’ spelling is unknown, but there is speculation that as more people got used to the Spanish language, the need for the ‘h’ spelling to give the correct pronunciation diminished.

Why is cannabis called marijuana?

A photograph of a hemp field in the sunshine. The plants are thin, bright green, and tall.

Whichever spelling is used, ‘marijuana’ is considered to be both a slang term, and pejorative. It came into popular usage as what is now known as the ‘Reefer Madness’ era, and the precursor to the War On Drugs, got into gear. Persuading people that cannabis, which was the second most commonly used medicinal ingredient right up to the beginning of the 20th century, and hemp, which was widely known as an industrial farm crop, should be made illegal, would have been a lot harder under their familiar names. So in possibly the world’s first rebranding exercise, cannabis and hemp became marijuana – and thereby, a “weed with roots in hell”, “the devil’s harvest”, and a threat to all civilised people. Linking ‘marijuana’ to the anti-Mexican sentiment rife in the US following the Spanish-American war of 1898 made it easier to demonise. Dr David Nutt recently made the point that the same thing is currently happening to nitrous oxide. With the rise of its recreational use, tabloid papers have stopped calling it ‘laughing gas’ and rebranded it as ‘hippy crack’; one obviously sounds far, far worse than the other, although they are the same substance. Marijuana also gives us another popular slang term for cannabis, ‘Mary-Jane’.

Why does cannabis have all these other names?

Depending on which name you are referring to, the answer to this question is either prohibition, marketing, or botany. Trying to stay one step ahead of law enforcement eavesdropping on your activities gives rise to drugs having ‘code names’ among users. Opponents use rebranding to create fear of a known substance, as discussed above. Breeders, both professional and amateur, name new varieties to distinguish them from existing strains. Since it’s a worldwide phenomenon, the many names of cannabis spread from country to country, consumer to consumer. And botanists are continually researching the scientific taxonomy of cannabis and its correct classifications.

Why are there so many links in this article?

Because Cannabis sativa L. is such a diverse and fascinating species, and it wasn’t possible to go into depth about all of the different facets of it without making this into a book! We hope you enjoyed this introduction to the world of cannabis nomenclature, that it has cleared up any basic misconceptions you may have had, and that you will find plenty of further reading on this blog to answer new questions and satisfy your curiosity. Did you find this article useful? What’s your favourite word for cannabis? Did we miss a difference? Let us know in the comments below.

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Dinah

Very good expleation. I live in Curacao

30/06/2018

Patricia Conant

I am frequently asked if hemp is the Male plant and if marijuana is only female. Wish this had been clarified.

05/08/2018

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