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What’s the difference between CBD derived from hemp and cannabis?

November 22, 2019
(Dmitry_Tishchenko, tjasam/iStock)
What’s in a name? When it comes to CBD products derived from hemp, CBD products derived from cannabis, and what’s considered legal, a lot. Understanding cannabis nomenclature and the chemical difference between the two plants is essential to making informed choices about CBD.

Cannabis refers to a genus of plants which has three species: indica, sativa, and ruderalis. Hemp is not a different species of the cannabis plant. The above classifications have been devised to differentiate intoxicating cannabis from non-intoxicating cannabis. Hemp is a sativa species, while cannabis can be sativa, indica, or ruderalis.

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Although hemp and cannabis look (sort of) similar, from a functional and chemical perspective, they are distinctive. Here’s how you can distinguish the two.

(Leafly)

Hemp:

  • In order to be federally legal, it must contain 0.3% THC or less. For the uninitiated, THC is the cannabinoid that causes a high. With so little THC, hemp doesn’t have intoxicating effects.
  • Can be used to create products such as textiles, building materials, industrial products, paper, foods, and body care.
  • Is typically grown outdoors to maximize the size and yield of the plant. Hemp doesn’t require the same rigorous attention to lighting, humidity, and temperature that cannabis requires, and it can be grown in a range of different climates.
  • Tends to be tall and skinny with skimpy foliage, having an appearance similar to bamboo.

Cannabis:

  • Can contain 0.3% THC or more. Some high-THC strains can have 30% THC or more.
  • Is used for recreational or medicinal purposes. You won’t find cannabis plants being used to create hempcrete or denim.
  • Is generally grown in carefully managed and controlled conditions. Photoperiodic cannabis requires precise exposure to light in order to flower—its buds contain the valuable, potent compounds cannabis is famed for.
  • Tends to appear bushy, with large, full foliage.

Here’s the tricky thing: Both cannabis and hemp produce CBD. The CBD molecule is identical regardless of its cannabis source. However, from a legal perspective, CBD products derived from hemp and CBD products derived from cannabis are entirely different.

Hemp-derived CBD and cannabis-derived CBD: A legal perspective

According to federal law, cannabis—with 0.3% THC content or higher—is classified by the DEA as a Schedule I drug with no accepted medical use. CBD products sourced from cannabis, even those with 0% THC, are illegal at a federal level by virtue of their plant origin.

Here’s the tricky thing: Both cannabis and hemp produce CBD. The CBD molecule is identical regardless of its cannabis source.

However, at a state level, the law changes. There are 33 US states which have medical cannabis programs, and CBD derived from cannabis is available from a licensed dispensary to eligible patients. The recreational use of cannabis is also legal in 11 states. In these states, cannabis-derived CBD products are available to those of age.

Industrial hemp, on the other hand, is no longer considered a Schedule I controlled drug. Following the 2018 farm bill, hemp was reclassified as an agricultural commodity. Since then, there has been an explosion of CBD products onto the market, prompting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to issue a statement that a regulatory framework for CBD products is still in the pipeline, and foods containing CBD, dietary supplements, and products making health claims are considered illegal.

CBD products sourced from hemp, such as oils and tinctures, are legal at a federal level, so long as they conform with other applicable laws. That said, certain states have their own legislation and regulations regarding CBD oil.

If you want to purchase CBD and err on the right side of the law, verify the legal status of hemp-derived CBD and cannabis-derived CBD in your state, so you know what you can or can’t purchase. Generally, hemp-derived CBD represents the more legal option.

Other differences between hemp-derived CBD and cannabis-derived CBD

CBD concentration

Cannabis represents a richer source of cannabinoids and terpenes than industrial hemp because it contains significantly more resin. Resin is the sticky, gooey substance found on female cannabis flowers, and to a lesser extent, on its leaves. Hemp contains resin on the flowers and leaves too, but much less. Most industrial hemp cultivators need to grow large quantities of hemp to produce CBD oil, although there are now more CBD-rich hemp strains being cultivated.

Safety

Hemp is a bioaccumulator, so it can absorb toxins such as residual pesticides and heavy metals from soil. When CBD is extracted from large quantities of industrial hemp cultivated in non-organic conditions, there is a possibility that contaminant residue will be passed into the final product. CBD products sourced from tainted hemp can compromise safety and efficacy.

Regulation

The hemp-derived CBD market is not yet subject to a widely enforced regulatory framework. For this reason, it’s essential to do your homework when buying hemp-derived CBD.

Look out for hemp-derived CBD that has been third-party tested. Products that have undergone this have been checked by an independent group outside of the producer using industry-approved techniques. The tester verifies the cannabinoid content of the product, along with heavy metals, pesticides, or microbes.

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A hemp-derived CBD product that has been third-party tested also guarantees you are getting what you paid for. Leafly’s investigation on CBD tested 47 products and found that almost half of them didn’t come within 20% of the labeled dosage. Third party testing confirms that the promised CBD content is present.

You can also look for hemp-derived CBD products with a USDA organic certification. This affirms that the growing conditions meet official USDA organic standards, and also provides assurance that the hemp extraction process was free of synthetic chemical additives.

In states where cannabis-derived CBD products are available from licensed dispensaries, there is greater regulation of these products. All are subjected to stringent testing from licensed facilities.

Effectiveness

Cannabis tends to have a wider terpene and cannabinoid profile than hemp. Cannabis-derived CBD from whole plant extract contains a range of beneficial terpenes and cannabinoids, including THC. These compounds work in concert with each other to provide additional benefits. This phenomenon is known as the entourage effect, and many cannabis experts assert that whole plant extracts offer greater therapeutic potential.

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Cannabis’ entourage effect: Why whole-plant medicine matters

Hemp also contains some cannabinoids and terpenes, but not the range nor concentration of compounds present in cannabis. Hemp-derived CBD can be made into an full-spectrum extract that offers natural terpenes alongside minor cannabinoids. Broad-spectrum CBD is also available and contains minor cannabinoids and terpenes, but without the THC content.

However, full-spectrum and broad-spectrum hemp-derived CBD products may not have the potency of CBD derived from cannabis because trace amounts of THC appear to be less effective in treating certain symptoms.

CBD isolate

CBD can also be extracted from both hemp and cannabis to become an isolate. Isolates are identical whether derived from hemp or cannabis because they only contain CBD molecules. As there is more CBD in cannabis than hemp, it requires more hemp by dry weight to produce the same amount of CBD isolate.

CBD isolate is most commonly used in clinical trials to prove that results are linked to CBD rather than other compounds from either plant that may be present. Isolates may also be favored by those who wish to avoid THC entirely.

Emma Stone's Bio Image

Emma Stone

Emma Stone is a journalist based in New Zealand specializing in cannabis, health, and well-being. She has a Ph.D. in sociology and has worked as a researcher and lecturer, but loves being a writer most of all. She would happily spend her days writing, reading, wandering outdoors, eating and swimming.

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  • Mark

    Clear as mud. How about this: It’s all cannabis (that’s the name of the genus), with some stains having little to almost undetectable amounts of THC (what the powers that be are legally defining as “hemp”), and some strains have more (whatever else you want to call it, just don’t call it “cannabis” as if it’s substantially different.)

    Here’s the other question: “Less than 0.3% THC” is something we read and hear a lot. Is this less than .3% per plant? Per aggregated amount of flower? A Sativa plant can grow up to 3 meters tall. And most extracts are highly concentrated concoctions of phytocannabinoids from the plant.

    I’m all for cannabis normalization in society, and I’m aware that there are still a lot of people unaware of the potential for the plant. Intellectually dishonest labelling and framing is not in my opinion the best way forward because again, it’s all cannabis.

    • JR

      agreed…
      at this point it would be like the alcohol industry saying beer or Vodka…really its just the bubbles and a few % point ABV…make sense?

  • Gino Stubbs

    The word you’re looking for is marijuana, not cannabis. Hemp and marijuana are both cannabis, differentiated by all of the things you have said here. Unfortunately, everything here is wrong and misleading until this simple mistake is fixed.

    • khelsea

      ff

  • GoWiThaFlo

    With all due respect, Ms. Stone, the vast majority of plant species on Earth are “monoecious,” meaning they do not require any external pollinators to propagate future generations.

    Here’s the key scientific term to understand Cannabis plants: “dioecious.” For propagation, they naturally develop pollinating MALE and seed-bearing FEMALE flowers on separate plants. When both flower types are grown together in a field, either for seed or stalk production, THAT is a true “hemp” crop (you are 100% correct in saying Cannabis sativa makes for the best hemp yields).

    In late 2018, the U.S. Congress once again undermined public knowledge of cannabis by passing the so-called “Farm Bill,” through which it arbitrarily imposes a NEW definition of hemp as “less than 0.3 percent THC.” Despite this legislation, the natural fact remains that ONLY seedless female flowers yield the medicinal “cannabinoids,” including CBD, THC and dozens more. Female cannabis flowers are grown best in isolated, preferably air-tight indoor spaces, where they can be protected from pollination by male flowers. Pollination drastically reduces the cannabinoid content of female flowers. However, the seeds from pollinated females are loaded w/very nutritional oils.

    For no valid scientific reason whatsoever, our corrupted U.S. Congress has labeled ALL seedless female flowers of cannabis plants as “marihuana” since 1937 (actual spelling in law). The 2018 Farm Bill did NOT change that basic fact (hence the confusion of police officials nationwide who can’t tell the difference between CBD and THC flower).

  • Hemp is cannabis brainiacs. Indica is usually more CBD heavy and is not used for hemp generally too. ALL cannabis can be used as hemp fiber. Cannabis is a blanket word for everything to do with the plant. This has got to be the most stupid article I have seen you post yet.

  • Les Neilon

    So Emma Stone , what is the truth? I read your article expecting to learn something about a very confusing topic and now find Gino and Mark below both questioning the validity of what you have written. Help! Please.