Marijuana vs Hemp
Cannabis has been used by humankind since before the written word, providing fiber for cordage and cloth, seeds for nutrition, and roots, leaves and flowers for ritual and healing. During the Neolithic period, our ancestors discovered uses for every part of cannabis, which was one of the first agricultural crops to be cultivated and harvested some 12,000 years ago.
In the botanical world, there are, broadly speaking, two kinds of cannabis – hemp plants and drug (marijuana) plants. Hemp plants include plants grown for fiber and plants grown for seed oil and non-intoxicating CBD-rich plants. Drug plants include intoxicating THC-rich plants
The main difference between hemp plants and drug plants is resin content. Industrial hemp plants are low-resin plants. Drug plants are high-resin plants. “Marijuana” (spelled with a ‘j’ or ‘h’) is the colloquial name for the flower tops of high resin cannabis.
Industrial hemp varieties are typically grown from pedigree seed, yielding as many as one hundred tall, skinny, bamboo-like plants (with skimpy foliage) per square meter. These plants are machine harvested and manufactured into many different products like paper, cloth, and edible oil.
Drug plants, in contrast, are typically grown from asexually reproduced clones, one to two bushy plants per square meter, and its flowers are hand-harvested, dried, trimmed and cured. The flowers are then consumed for their intoxicating and medicinal effects.
U.S. federal law originally defined marijuana in terms of resin content. Resin was mentioned no less than three times in the two-sentence definition of “marijuana” encoded in the 1970 Controlled Substances Act (CSA), which was copied word-for-word from the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, the legislation that made cannabis effectively illegal:
'The term “marihuana” means all parts of the plant Cannabis sativa L. [sic], whether growing or not; the seeds thereof; the resin extracted from any part of such plant; and every compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of such plant, its seeds or resin. Such term does not include the mature stalks of such plant, fiber produced from such stalks, oil or cake made from the seeds of such plant, any other compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of such mature stalks (except the resin extracted therefrom), fiber, oil or cake, or the sterilized seed of such plant which is incapable of germination.'
The CSA asserts that certain parts of the plant (“mature stalk” and “sterilized seed”) are exempt from the legal definition of marijuana. But the flowers, the leaves, and the sticky resin were not included in this exemption. The resin and its derivatives were explicitly forbidden wherever they are found on the plant.
The bottom line: the resin from any part of the cannabis plant, or any preparation made from the resin, was illegal. Fiber produced from hemp stalk and oil pressed from unfertilized hempseed got a pass, but not the resin.
But as far as medicinal and recreational cannabis goes, the resin host the most important parts of the plant. Cannabis resin is contained within the heads of tiny, mushroom-shaped trichomes, found mainly on the plant’s odiferous female flowers (the buds) and to a lesser extent on the leaves. The resin, which is sticky, contains THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol), along with hundreds of other secondary plant metabolites (primarily other cannabinoids and terpenes) that are thought to augment human brain chemistry and ease physiological and psychological distress.
Hemp seed oil, it should be noted, is not the same as CBD-rich oil extracted from the flowers and leaves of the plant. Oil pressed from hemp seed contains no CBD, no THC, no plant cannabinoids to speak of, but it’s excellent for making varnish, paint, soap, protein-enriched food supplements, and carrier oil for CBD oil products.
The resin content is the key factor that distinguishes marijuana from industrial hemp. Today, however, federal law includes a recently added caveat that officially characterizes industrial hemp as having no more than 0.3 percent THC by dry weight. These small amounts of THC do not have an intoxicating effect.
Where did the 0.3 percent THC figure come from? It stems from a 1976 taxonomic report by Canadian plant scientists Ernest Small and Arthur Cronquist., who never intended for 0.3 percent THC to function as a legal demarcation between hemp and other forms of cannabis.
But that’s exactly what happened. According to current federal law, cannabis is considered hemp – not marijuana – as long as no part of the plant (including the leaves and flowers) exceeds a THC concentration of more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis. Any plant that tops 0.3 percent THC is considered marijuana and is therefore federally illegal to grow.
The passage of the Agricultural Act of 2014 (otherwise known as the Farm Bill) defined “industrial hemp” for the first time in U.S. history and distinguished it legally from marijuana. The ‘0.3 percent THC or less’ qualification for hemp was enshrined in Section 7606 of the Agricultural Act and renewed when Congress approved the 2018 Farm Bill.
It is now legal for American farmers to cultivate hemp as a commercial crop on domestic soil.
On the day it became law (December 20, 2018), the Farm Bill removed hemp, but not all cannabis, from the list of controlled substances. The Farm Bill also explicitly removed hemp products, including hemp-derived CBD, from the purview of CSA – but not from the purview of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which maintains that hemp-derived CBD is neither a legitimate food supplement nor a medication approved for off-label use.
Meanwhile, CBD oil derived from any cannabis plant with over 0.3 percent THC remains a Schedule 1 substance under federal law. It’s unclear how regulators will tell the difference between illegal cannabis-derived CBD oil and seemingly not-illegal, hemp-derived CBD oil given that the actual CBD molecule is the same.
Prior to the 2018 Farm Bill, most of the CBD products available in the United States were derived from low-resin industrial hemp grown in Europe and China. Now that cultivating hemp is legal again in the United States, it should be easier to obtain better quality CBD products made from hemp grown in Colorado, Kentucky, Oregon, Montana, Vermont and other states.