Position the average person between one cannabis plant and one hemp plant and they’ll unlikely be able to differentiate between them. Cannabis and hemp share the same basic lineage, have a very similar physical appearance and that quintessential cannabis fragrance.
Nevertheless, the two plants have very different classifications when it comes to their legality and potential usefulness. Despite the fact that they at least appear to be borderline identical, there are significant differences between cannabis and hemp plants.
But what exactly is it that separates these ‘close but distant’ cousins?
A Question of Cannabinoid Content
The biggest and most important difference between hemp and cannabis is the way in which the latter contains significantly more tetrahydrocannabinol - aka THC. This is the psychoactive compound that gets you high, which in hemp is present in microscopic amounts, or not present at all. By contrast, conventional cannabis plants can produce the kind of bud that contains more than 25% THC.
As a result, cannabis has become a popular recreational resource, whereas hemp is ultimately more practical. But the question remains as to how and why these two very similar plants took two very different paths.
Why is it that hemp contains next to no THC, while cannabis is absolutely loaded with the stuff?
Selection and Breeding
Evidence would seem to suggest that the human factor has played the biggest role in creating two very different types of plants. Over the years, decades and generations, various types of cannabis have been selectively bred and enriched with different purposes in mind.
On one side of the spectrum, you have the cannabis that’s been engineered over time for recreational, religious and medicinal purposes. Rich in THC and capable of knocking you into kingdom come with a single hit.
On the other, there’s the ‘industrial’ hemp that’s been bred with a firm focus on industry and manufacture. The final product being used to manufacture everything from baskets to ropes to fabrics. As those producing and working with industrial hemp have no interest in THC, they’ve no reason to attempt to boost THC concentrations.
Not to mention, the fact that doing so would be legal.
Cannabis and Hemp Characteristics
As mentioned previously, cannabis and hemp plants tend to look and smell very similar to the uninitiated. Nevertheless, there are several defining characteristics that can be used to identify one type of cannabis from the other.
For example, it is practically impossible to cultivate hemp indoors. This is because typical industrial hemp plants have the potential to reach more than five metres in height, with very little lateral branching. By contrast, cannabis strains engineered for THC production tend to be much more compact. The result of which being the capacity for growers to produce more weed per square metre of grow space - indoors or outdoors.
In addition, the stem of the hemp plant tends to be much thicker and has ‘woodier’ properties than the stem of a cannabis plant. This is necessary to support what often turns out to be an enormous specimen. Hemp plants produce some of the same terpenes that give cannabis its signature fragrance, but not typically in the same quantities or concentrations. Hence, hemp doesn’t smell nearly as dank as cannabis.
Equally Important Plants
For obvious reasons, hemp isn’t quite as popular among recreational or medicinal cannabis users. But this doesn’t make it an unimportant plant. Far from it - hemp has been used for generations for producing paper, a variety of materials and textiles, biodegradable plastics, recyclable construction materials and any number of valuable oils and supplements.
It’s not going to get you high, but the humble hemp plant can actually do a lot more than any comparable cannabis plant ever could.