If you find yourself confused between weed (marijuana, pot, grass) and hemp, rest assured, you’re not alone. Weed and hemp belong to the same genus, and they look quite similar, which is why they are lumped together in conversation (and legislation) alike.
Digging a little deeper, you’ll find that the differences between these two plants are anything but subtle. From their effects to how they’re cultivated, processed and used, similarities almost entirely end at the fact that they’re both plants.
In light of changing global conversations surrounding both hemp and weed, this article highlights essential differences of weed vs. hemp. By the end, you should be able to be the pretentious person at the coffee shop who unwantedly corrects the person next to you for using the wrong word.
Hemp is just one variety of the species Cannabis sativa L. It is often confused with weed as their leaf shape is similar, though not identical. It is a dioecious plant, meaning the male and female parts grow on separate plants.
Hemp plants serve various purposes, including, providing fiber (stems), protein (seeds), and oils, among others. The whole plant, from stalk to seed, can be used for making feedstock and fuel.
Conversely, marijuana, weed or pot is a common term used to describe a mixture of shredded, dried leaves and flowers from the Cannabis genus. It can be rolled into a joint and smoked like cigarettes, smoked in a pipe, brewed as a tea or mixed into food. Lately, it has been used in electronic vaporizers (vaping) or as oils that can be smoked (dabbing).
Differences between Weed and Hemp
So, how is it distinguished from weed vs. hemp? Weed refers to the psychoactive strains of the Cannabis plant which induce euphoric feelings when consumed. Hemp has such low quantities of the euphoria-inducing compound (9 delta-tetrahydrocannabinol, THC) that it cannot induce euphoria when consumed. This table highlights the major differences between weed and hemp:
Brief World History of Hemp
Hemp is believed to be one of the oldest plants to be grown, dating back over 10,000 years to 8,000BC. Since the 1960s, global production declined due to legality and regulatory restrictions, but production has significantly increased over the last decade. The North American production market is young compared to its peers like Canada which legalized hemp in 1998.
Where Did It Come From?
Hemp was the first domesticated plant in Ancient Mesopotamia (Turkey today) around 8,000BC. Around 6500BC, it was recorded being harvested in central Asia. In China, centuries later, it was grown and used medicinally and by 2700BC, it was used in Africa, most of Asia and the Middle East for medicine, food, rope and, fabric-making.
About 400 years later, hemp made its way into Europe. The oldest surviving Chinese paper made from hemp dates to 770AD. From 1000BC to 1900, hemp was the most widely-grown agricultural crop. Well-known books, including Alice in Wonderland and the Bible, were printed on Hemp paper, and renowned artists painted using hemp canvas.
The first hemp plant in North America was planted in Nova Scotia in 1606 by a French botanist. The US Declaration of Independence was drafted on paper from hemp that Thomas Jefferson had grown himself. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 and other anti-dope legislation stopped cannabis cultivation and instated tax on hemp manufactures.
Can Hemp Get You High?
The short answer is no. As defined, hemp refers to Cannabis strains which have 0.0.3% of THC, the compound which has a psychoactive effect. Hemp varieties are rich in Cannabidiol (3.5-20% CBD), which works against any THC in the strain. The only thing you’re likely to get from smoking hemp is a bad migraine, even if it has a little THC.
Most strains of hemp have just 3-5% CBD concentrations, which is why hemp is grown industrially to provide enough raw material for extraction. Luckily, hemp grows as tall, skinny plants which can be grown close together. As a result of industrial growth and deregulation, consumers can enjoy CBD oils and products in a variety of forms.
Chemical Structure of Weed vs. Hemp
The first pure compound to be isolated from the Cannabis plant was cannabinol (CBN) in 1899, and it was initially assumed that CBN was responsible for psychoactive effects. CBD was the second compound isolated in 1964 and THC was isolated in 1965. Their chemical structure is shown below.
Weed vs. Hemp Cannabinoid Concentrations
Cannabis plants contain over 100 compounds, called cannabinoids. These compounds react with the endocannabinoid system to initiate signals that regulate many bodily functions. THC and CBD are the most abundant cannabinoids. Hemp has very little THC and high CBD while weed has very high THC and low CBD.
There are different weed strains, and they vary considerably in the amount of THC they contain. However, average strains have about 12 percent THC, but they are strains which contain as high as 25-30 percent THC – over 100 times of the most potent hemp.
What Is Hemp Used For?
Weed is a horticultural crop grown for its THC content, while weed is an agricultural crop, which is grown for oil, seed, and fiber. The hemp plant is extremely versatile; the whole plant can be used to make thousands of different products. Hemp advocates assert that it can be used to make more than 25,000 products.
Farmers use hemp as a rotational crop that grows as it can be substituted for any harvest. It doesn’t need any pesticides and it aerates the soil effectively. It takes only 90 days to grow and hence yields four times more paper than redwood trees over the same two-decade window.
Interesting uses include replacing fiberglass with hemp in automotive components and using hemp to make fabric for window dressing, upholstery and shower curtains. Other uses are making horse stable bedding, paper, cardboard, newsprint paper, twine, yarn, rope, fiberboard, particleboard, insulation, textiles, and composting. Hemp seed is used for food and to make heating oil and methanol, salad oil, soaps, ink, pharmaceuticals, and paint.
On the other hand, weed is specifically grown for its flowers, which have the highest concentration of THC in the plant. THC can be used for recreational or medicinal purposes, and some strains can be bred to make more potent Cannabis strains. Only its flowers and leaves are harvested; the rest of the plant is often discarded.
Growing Process of Weed vs Hemp
Weed and hemp are also grown differently, as the table above indicates. Hemp is a fast-growing plant that thrives under natural conditions. It is naturally pest-resistant, and you can plant male and female plants together to allow for wind cross-pollination.
Weed, conversely, takes 3-5 months to mature, and it needs the carefully-controlled conditions of a greenhouse or indoor garden. Weed is grown under carefully-set lighting, temperature, and humidity.
Male weed plants must be removed to prevent female plants from getting fertilized because fertilization lowers the THC concentration. Farmers are trying to look for more natural solutions to pesticides, but weed isn’t as pest-resistant as its hemp cousin.
How Is Hemp Processed?
The hemp plant is ripe for harvest 70-90 days from planting, and it is harvested using specialized cutting equipment. This equipment is especially necessary for hemp harvested for textile uses. For the seed, modified combine harvesters are used to prevent bast fiber from getting caught in machine parts.
After cutting, hemp is exposed to the air for 4-6 weeks to allow for pectin removal (retting). Pectin is a binder, and retting loosens the fibers. The leaves will decompose, allowing nutrients from the plant to return to the soil. Stalks will be baled using the hay harvesting equipment and they can be stored in dry places, such as covered sheds.
For the grain, hemp seeds are cleaned and dried before storage. A mechanical expeller under a nitrogen atmosphere is used to attract oil in a process called mechanical cold pressing. The process must be free of oxygen, heat, and light to create a tasty oil with extended shelf life. Solvent extraction methods are also being researched to give higher yields.
For fibers, the woody core is separated from the bast fiber using a sequence of rollers or hammer-mill. Bast fiber is cleaned and carded according to desired core fineness and content. It may be cut and baled depending on the application. Then secondary steps follow depending on the finished product e.g. matting for non-woven mats and fleeces, pulping for paper-making and steam explosion for woven fibers.
Legality and Regulations
With the Farm Bill of 2018, industrial hemp is now legal in the US, but it still has heavy restrictions. Many states have legalized medical marijuana usage (CBD), and 10 others have legalized all forms of Cannabis.
With the global conversations around industrial hemp changing, we’re certainly looking forward to a time when hemp again becomes the global cash crop it once was. Considering its short lifespan and low-production costs, it may just replace trees for making paper – good news for the environment!
Hopefully, you now have a clear understanding of the difference between weed vs. hemp. And above all, before venturing into cultivating or using either weed or hemp, it’s important to first understand the unique regulatory framework of your state or province.