What is the difference between industrial hemp and cannabis?
One of the most frequently asked questions about CBD is whether it’s the same as ‘weed’ or ‘skunk’ types of hemp, or if it’s derived from the same kind of hemp you find for sale on the street, known as cannabis hemp or marijuana. The answer is the two plants that are grown for hemp used for CBD and cannabis hemp are noticeably different. One contains more illegal compounds, whereas the one used for CBD does not contain much else but CBD.
The difference between the two plants concerns the main two families of hemp - indica and sativa. Whilst industrial hemp is very much from the taller, skinnier sativa side, marijuana or cannabis hemp is more compact, the result of careful selective breeding between the tall sativa and stockier indica families to make a finished product of high psychoactive content. Other desirable marijuana traits include flowering faster, having less seeds, and more of an enjoyable and flavorful ‘smoke’ for the end user.
To put it another way, industrial hemp is more of a classical crop which hasn’t changed all that much since hemp first began to be planted in fields, whereas smoking cannabis is more of a special case which has been selected for its traits as an intoxicant, in the same way humans have crossbred wild vegetable species to be more succulent and useful for the end consumer. Cannabis can be recognised by its tighter, stickier ‘buds’ which are selected for their density and high THC resin content.
On the flip side, industrial hemp from the sativa family generally grows much taller, with looser flowers with many seeds inside them, as well as a particularly low content of illegal THC and resinous compounds. It still conceals a decent amount of CBD though, which is why it’s preferable to grow for production of CBD to avoid any contamination with illegal compounds.
It’s important to note that even in selectively bred cannabis hemp, plants are bred to still have a noticeable CBD content alongside the psychoactive THC content - which changes the final profile of how the plant affects the user. CBD is known for counterbalancing the effects of THC and makes it less intoxicating, so for cannabis connoisseurs in countries where smoking marijuana is legal, CBD has an important role in cannabis too.
But industrial hemp also produces two other products apart from the flowers that are made into CBD. Its height, the tallest out of most types of hemp, means the fibers in the stem are longer and more useful. All hemp plants have extremely fibrous stems which easily break down into long strands, which have proven to be excellent for rope and textile making. This is what hemp was most widely used for prior to the criminalisation of the plant.
The numerous seeds of industrial hemp are also prized for their high mineral content, and for being able to be crushed into a milk substitute - as well as for their oil. Industrial hemp is overall a more practical plant as a crop in terms of materials, as well as for supplements - whereas marijuana is more useful for well, getting high. The problem with the getting high part is that all hemp has been criminalised, leading to the taller more useful cousin of cannabis being sidelined.
Hemp is extraordinarily easy to grow and requires little water and fertiliser, plus grows readily in arid environments. As CBD becomes more widespread we will likely see industrial hemp make a bit of a comeback - along with all the benefits its seeds, fibers and flowers have to offer us.