Difference between hemp & cannabis

What’s the difference?

As a CBD brand based out of the Pacific Northwest (where recreational cannabis consumption is legal and dispensary storefronts can be found as easily as coffee shops), one of the questions we are asked most frequently is, “What’s the difference between hemp and cannabis?”. The short answer: it’s really just semantics.

In an industry like ours, transparency and honesty are so important. While there is no shortage of brands claiming that their CBD products are “not from cannabis” this is, unfortunately, a misleading statement. There is no hemp plant that is not a member of the cannabis family. So, if all CBD products are in fact derived from cannabis just like their high-THC counterparts, why are they given different names?

When it comes to the cannabis plant genus, there are three known species:

  1. Cannabis Sativa
  2. Cannabis Indica
  3. Cannabis Ruderalis

Each of these subspecies carries its own genetic makeup, produces its flowers in different ways, and is naturally made up of different cannabinoid concentrations, terpenes, and more. And while Indica and Sativa are words used commonly when it comes to discussing the effect profiles of different cannabis chemovars (or strains), the difference between them lies more in the genetic makeup of the plants themselves. There’s plenty of great information available about each of these unique species, so let’s break this down a little bit further…

1 – Cannabis Sativa

Cannabis Sativa plants tend to grow wild in warmer, more tropical climates – such as Jamaica, Central America, etc – and generally require a longer time to mature before they are ready to be harvested. Sativa plants will have narrow, thin fan leaves and will usually grow much taller/lankier than their Indica cousins. Generally speaking, cultivars harvested from this species of plant will produce terpenes (flavonoids; the essential oils of cannabis) with more euphoric, uplifting effects – hence why people will ask for “Sativas” when shopping for cannabis that provides more daytime-oriented or energizing effects.

2 – Cannabis Indica

    Cannabis Indica plants are just about the polar opposite of their Sativa cousins when it comes to appearance, and are not always similar in effect, either. Indica plants tend towards wild growth in colder climates – the mountain ranges of India and Nepal are known for producing some of the finest cannabis in the world not grown by human hands – and grow bushier, shorter, and more stout than Sativas. Usually, Cannabis Indica cultivars will produce terpenes that lean towards a more calming, sedative effect – this is why shoppers will frequently ask for “Indicas” when seeking cannabis that may be geared more towards end-of-day use.

3 – Cannabis Ruderalis

    Cannabis Ruderalis, more commonly referred to as the hemp plant, is the third and final member of the cannabis plant family. Ruderalis plants grow natively in Central/Eastern Europe and parts of Russia, and were used originally for their fiber production. These hardy, fibrous plants rarely grow larger than two feet tall in the wild; however, due in part to trading along the Silk Road and genetic drift, you can find taller, lankier versions of this species growing in mountainous regions to which they aren’t originally native! While there has been some debate over whether Ruderalis qualifies as its own species or is a member of the Sativa species, the fact that Ruderalis plants naturally produce THC in such minimal quantities (a plant must produce 0.3% THC or less to qualify as hemp or Ruderalis) has helped to secure its position as a separate species.

If all CBD products come from cannabis plants, then where does the term “hemp” originate from? Why are these products treated and regulated with such drastic differences if they essentially come from the same place?

All genetic differences and species variation aside, a cannabis plant only qualifies as “hemp” if it produces less than 0.3% THC by volume. This quantity concentration of THC is completely arbitrary – in the 1970s, Canadian scientist and researcher Ernest Small published a book called The Species Problem With Cannabis where he discussed the fact that there is no real, definitive cannabinoid concentration at which to separate the “cannabis” plant from the “hemp” plant. It was decided that a potency of 0.3% THC (or less) by weight equating to “hemp” would work as a temporary solution – yet this randomly-decided number has held for the past 4, nearing 5, decades. And despite the ever-growing appreciation for and acceptance of CBD products, many people are still not at all comfortable consuming products with the word “cannabis” in the name for fear of getting high.


Coming from the Washington retail cannabis market, another question we often receive is, “Is this product made using cannabis? I don’t want to get high”. While we do create many completely THC-free products, we also fully understand and appreciate the value of the entourage effect – which very much includes at least trace quantities of THC (though never more than 0.3% total). From our experience as well as from clinically-conducted research, there is nothing comparable to the power of the full plant. We believe that people deserve and can have it all: the complete truth about the science and chemistry behind their products, as well as the confidence that something they try has the potential to help them, without leaving them feeling intoxicated.