The Difference Among Cannabis, Marijuana, and Hemp – PotanyPros

The Difference Among Cannabis, Marijuana, and Hemp

It’s all the same, right? Tomato, Tomahto? Not quite. 

Through a taxonomy lens, hemp and marijuana are the same plants

Yet, within the legal industry, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content found within Cannabis is the differentiating factor.

Marijuana typically refers to Cannabis plants that have a higher THC content. 

Hemp refers to Cannabis plants that have 0.3% or less THC.

A lot of the confusion among Cannabis, Marijuana, and Hemp results from these terms being used interchangeably or applied differently depending on the entity and/or industry. It’s important to note that the plant does produce both THC and CBD; it just depends on the subspecies, hybridization, and strain of the plant. 

If you’re confused, you’re not alone. The intricacies within this topic can and do spread confusion. To be able to break down the nuances, it’s beneficial to gain a better understanding of each of the subjects previously mentioned. 

Cannabis Subspecies and Strains

Starting with Cannabis, many industry experts consider Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa as the two primary subspecies within the Cannabaea family. However, some Botanical taxonomists would argue against this classification of subspecies. Yet, biologically and chemically speaking, sativa and indica do have contrasting components. Through the indica and sativa subspecies, experts indicate over 700 strains of cannabis exist. For the purposes of simplicity, sativa and indica are going to be the primary focus going ahead.



Cannabis Sativa

Cannabis sativa is known to have a higher concentration of  THC that typically has lower concentrations of CBD. Consumers explain the sativa provides a more energetic type of high. Sativa plants grow taller but have thinner leaves. 


Cannabis Indica

In contrast to Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica is described to have darker, broader green leaves and doesn't grow as tall.. Indica is known more for its calming effect. Many attribute the calming effect due to the high concentration of CBD within Indica. However, Dr. Russo, a board-certified neurologist and psychopharmacology researcher, explains that this is a false attribution. Instead, Dr. Russo explains that it is Mycenae, a monoterpene, that helps produce the calming effect many users experience. 



At this point, it’s important to note that experts state that there is no simple way to categorize strains based on effect. Some even suggest avoiding indica and sativa nomenclature altogether. One reason is that each user of cannabis may be impacted differently. The other reason is that it’s nearly impossible to know the biochemical content of a cannabis plant based on looks alone. Due to constant hybridization and interbreeding techniques, Cannabis has undertaken some large changes. What once was simply a sativa and indica plant isn’t anymore. 

For the sake of accuracy and informed decision, growers should be in the practice of conducting and presenting biochemical assays (which growers outsource). This way, a consumer can reflect on their experience with regard to what they have consumed. If the user experience was underwhelming, overwhelming, or just right, they have a more accurate idea of what and how much to use in the future. 

From a medicinal perspective, this appears to be a highly beneficial feature. If a user can dial into the contents of the strain they are consuming, they in turn, are also able to optimize their treatment.



With user experience in mind, we can take a deeper look at cannabinoids, THC, and CBD. 


The Cannabis plant contains more than 100 different cannabinoids. THC and CBD are just two of the hundred cannabinoids. These cannabinoids are said to interact with our endocannabinoid system. For the sake of simplicity, the endocannabinoid system has cannabinoid receptors that THC and CBD can bind themselves to. It’s these receptors that mediate the psychoactive effects of cannabinoids. These binding processes on these receptors have been compared to dimmer switches that impact neurotransmission. 

Within our brain, we have over 8 cannabinoid receptors. Each receptor has the potential to induce a variety of effects on the user. Some are responsible for slowed reaction, euphoria, and even altered pain sensitivity. This could be explained why and how many individuals can have a different user experience. 

We’ve already touched on some of the potential benefits of cannabis here. 



Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is one of more than a hundred cannabinoids found within the 

Cannabis genus. THC binds with the cannabinoid 1 (CB1) receptor and cannabinoid 2 (CB2) which is predominantly found within the central nervous system and brain. THC binding to CB1 and CB2  receptors are exemplified as one of the primary reasons why people get the sensation of being high.   



Cannabidiol (CBD), unlike THC, does not bind to the CB1/CB2 receptors unless there is THC present. This process is known as the Entourage Effect, something we can talk about at another time. Instead of binding with CB1/CB2, CBD interacts with non-cannabinoid receptors, ion channels, and receptor-independent pathways. Some of these receptors include the serotonin, vanilloid, orphan, and nuclear receptors that are not part of the endocannabinoid system. 

The interaction between CBD and the serotonin receptor confers an anti-anxiety effect. CBD and the interaction with the vanilloid have been shown to mediate pain reception and reduce inflammation. The orphan receptor helps regulate blood pressure and the nuclear receptors help with Anita-proliferate effects, like tumor regression. 



There is a difference between hemp and marijuana, both chemically, and legally speaking. Relaxed use of nomenclature, hybridization, and conflicting expert opinions have only perpetuated the inability of the layman to draw a clear line of distinction between what is and what is not. Legally speaking, marijuana refers to Cannabis plants that have THC greater than .03%. Cannabis plants less than .03% are considered hemp. Cannabis indica and sativa plants produce THC and CBD, just in different ratios. THC and CBD interact differently with each user, especially in relation to its biochemical content and ratio. You cannot guess the biochemical makeup of a cannabis plant by appearance alone. This is why experts are starting to suggest that growers start producing and presenting assays, which will benefit growers, the medical community, and the consumer.


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