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Differences Between Hemp & Marijuana: A Guide for CBD Users

An exciting range of CBD products now graces the shelves of pharmacies and health-food shops across the UK, and you’ll have no trouble finding quality cannabidiol online, either. 

Authorised CBD products are legal and available over the counter in Britain, but many people continue to see CBD oils, gummies, tea, vape pens, and tinctures as “a little naughty”. In fact, the uninitiated might not have a clue what CBD is beyond “something to do with weed”. 

If you’ve looked into using cannabidiol to support your general health and wellbeing, you’ll know that CBD is one of the main non-psychoactive compounds in the Cannabis sativa plant. While you’re shopping around, you may stumble on references to (industrial) hemp as well as marijuana.

Not sure what the difference is? This guide will clear up any confusion you may have.

Meet Cannabis Sativa: The Mother of Hemp and Marijuana

People have been cultivating Cannabis sativa, an annual herbaceous herb thought to be native to central and west Asia, for millennia. Settled farming communities weren’t the only ones to grow Cannabis sativa —  research describes its role as a “camp follower” among nomadic peoples looking for fertile plains. 

Why did our ancestors consider this famous plant so attractive, you wonder? For the exact same reasons we remain fascinated with it today. People have historically used Cannabis sativa to make textiles and fibres with various applications. They also used it for medicinal, spiritual, and recreational reasons.

Just like many other plant species, however, Cannabis sativa evolved into distinct sub-types with marked genetic differences over time. These genetically unique biotypes have their own specific properties. 

People historically harnessed the power of the biotype we now call “hemp” for its fibres. The other biotype, which we now commonly call “marijuana”, was reserved for medicinal and spiritual use — owing to its psychoactive potential. 

The long and short of it? Marijuana and hemp plants are both Cannabis sativa, just like Maine Coons and British Shorthairs are both cats — but there are important differences between the two.

Those differences became especially significant during the early 20th century, when lawmakers became concerned about recreational marijuana use. Growing Cannabis sativa was banned across much of the western world as a result. Hemp’s potential in textile production eventually led to clear distinctions between hemp and marijuana.

Understanding the Legal Differences Between Hemp and Marijuana

Marijuana gets you high. Hemp doesn’t. While there are other substantial differences between hemp and marijuana plants, this particular difference comes down to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). 

THC is the main psychoactive component in marijuana. Hemp plants are low-THC strains of Cannabis sativa, while marijuana plants are high-THC strains. 

When scientific research determined that only Cannabis sativa plants with a THC content of one per cent or above have intoxicating potential, that became the basis for legal distinctions between hemp and marijuana. 

The rules have shifted over time — and it’s no surprise that different rules have also been adopted in different jurisdictions. 

The European Union originally classified any Cannabis sativa plant with a THC content of 0.8 per cent as industrial hemp, for example, and gradually brought it down to 0.2 per cent. However, north American countries like Canada and the United States have stuck with a threshold of 0.03 per cent for years now.

How Does UK Law Define the Difference Between Marijuana and Industrial Hemp?

The UK first defined the difference between industrial hemp and marijuana in the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971). The Home Office offered updated guidance in 2020 in direct response to the rising popularity of CBD products. 

This guidance on cannabis, CBD, and other cannabinoids notes that “the Home Office only issues licences for cultivation of plants from approved seed types with a THC content not exceeding 0.2%”. 

UK authorities use this threshold to determine which CBD products can legally be sold over the counter. The same rule also applies to CBD products imported from other countries, which can get tricky as US laws allow for slightly higher THC content.

Are CBD Products Made with Marijuana or Industrial Hemp?

Cannabidiol is overwhelmingly extracted from Cannabis sativa plants classified as industrial hemp — the same ones used to manufacture textiles. 

That makes sense because:

  • THC and CBD are the primary active components of Cannabis sativa plants. Hemp plants primarily produce CBD, while marijuana plants mainly produce THC — so each plant is valued for its primary component. 
  • CBD can be extracted from legally-cultivated hemp plants. 

THC in CBC Products: What Do Consumers Need to Know?

While hemp plants are extremely low in THC content compared to marijuana plants, they do contain traces of THC. Companies manufacturing and selling CBD products can never lose track of this. 

In the United States, all legally-sold CBD products have a THC content of 0.03 per cent or less. In the UK, it’s even less at 0.02 per cent. In practice, that means consumers can choose from CBD products that may contain trace elements of the psychoactive compound THC and cannabidiol products that contain no THC:

  • Full-spectrum CBD products include all parts of the hemp plant and have a maximum THC content of 0.02 per cent in Britain.
  • Broad-spectrum CBD products incorporate various components, including terpenes and flavonoids, but they can only contain trace elements of THC.
  • CBD isolates are the purest form of CBD. Manufacturers take additional steps to purify the CBD to ensure no other components are present.

Consumers shopping for CBD products benefit from deciding which type is right for them before they add cannabidiol products like CBD gummies, oil, or capsules to their shopping carts. Some prefer pure products, while others seek out the terpenes found in full- and broad-spectrum CBD products.

No matter which choice you make, none of the legally-available CBD products sold in the UK have an intoxicating effect.

The Differences Between Hemp and Marijuana: A CBD Perspective

Consumers who use CBD products for general health and wellness, or those who’d like to try  cannabidiol, should know that:

  • CBD products sold in the UK have a maximum THC content of 0.02 per cent. CBD will not get you high. 
  • Cannabidiol is usually extracted from industrial hemp plants. These plants are naturally high in CBD while containing very little THC.
  • Differences in the legal definitions of hemp vs marijuana mean that buying CBD products online from the US or Canada may potentially be problematic because those countries allow a maximum THC content of 0.03 per cent in cannabidiol.



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