Understanding the Difference between Hemp, CBD and Marijuana

This article serves to distinguish between three words that are thrown around in the Cannabis Industry quite a bit: CBD, Marijuana, and Hemp. After reading this, you will understand how these terms relate to one another and how they differ from one another. Let us start with simple definitions to set the groundwork. Then, we’ll need to entertain some historical and scientific background in order to better understand how these terms started and how they can be used in intelligent conversation.

The FDA defines the three terms like this:

Cannabis – Cannabis is a plant of the Cannabaceae family and contains more than eighty biologically active chemical compounds known as cannabinoids.

Cannabidiol (CBD) – a commonly known cannabinoid found in the cannabis plant.   a crystalline, nonintoxicating cannabinoid found in cannabis and hemp that is sometimes used medicinally

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – a commonly known cannabinoid found in the cannabis plant

Hemp – Cannabis Sativa L plants and any of their derivatives (such as seeds and extracts) that have less that have equal to or less than 0.3% THC.  Hemp was expressly made legal by Congress in 2018.

Marijuana – parts of the cannabis plant that contain more than 0.3% THC. Marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 substance by the federal government.

These definitions will make much more sense after we unpack some of the words used.

Firstly, it should be noted that while CBD and THC are both cannabinoids found in hemp and marijuana,  one of them is responsible for most of the negative stigma around cannabis: THC or Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol. THC is the psychoactive cannabinoid that’s responsible for your mom and dad’s distaste for the “devil’s lettuce.” THC is what gets a user “high.”

CBD benefits our health through our endocannabinoid system, an important bodily regulating system like our nervous or circulatory system. You may have never heard of this system, and that is because it is not just related to CBD, it also has a relationship to THC. Because of the negative stigma created around cannabis, this important system has been left of much of the modern medical education literature we’re taught.

But, in today’s progressive society, we look to the medical community and science before popular culture. These cannabinoids are powerful, as is their potential effect on the human body. According to an article published by the US National Center for Biotechnology Information, the endocannabinoid system is, “an important modulatory system in the function of brain, endocrine, and immune tissues. It appears to play a very important regulatory role in the secretion of hormones related to reproductive functions and response to stress”. 3

It also plays a role in energy production and weight control, as it “controls energy homeostasis and mainly influences the function of the food intake centers of the central nervous system and gastrointestinal tract activity”. 3

We understand that the endocannabinoid system is important for regulating healthy human functions. We understand why we’ve never heard of this system, and we understand that having a high-functioning endocannabinoid system can help us handle stress, maintain good health, and even control weight. But, that doesn’t answer our main question: what’s the difference between CBD, Marijuana, and Hemp?

In order to understand the real difference between CBD, Marijuana, and Hemp – we must take a little time-trip back to 6th grade Biology. As this is a naming exercise, we start to explore taxonomy, or the scientific study of classifying organisms.1 You remember the “kingdom”, “phylum”, “genus”, and “species” thing that Mr. Poindexter was ranting about in 4th period? Maybe you were sick that day, but we’ve got the abbreviated version right here from broad to specific:

Family – Cannabaceae

Genus  – Cannabis

Species – C. Sativa and C. Indica (Cannabis Sativa and Cannabis Indica)

The Cannabaceae family consists of 170 species. One interesting fact about the plant species in this family is that they all use fungus or bacteria to grow more efficiently. While some species use rhizobial bacteria to form nitrogen-fixing nodules, others create a symbiotic relationship with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi that serves both organisms. In other words, some plants in this family give nitrogen back to the soil, and some promote the growth and function of healthy bacteria.2

The genus “Cannabis” is well agreed upon, but debate remains about the “Species” distinction – whether the distinctions between C. sativa and C. indica are at the species level or the sub-species level.

In any case, there are 3 main differences between the two species:

  • Morphology – C. sativa is taller with a fibrous stalk, whereas C. indica is shorter with a woody stalk. Therefore, C. sativa is better for making hemp products that need strands of long, strong fibrous material.
  • Phytochemistry – C. sativa has a cannabinoid ratio of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)>cannabidiol [CBD], whereas C. indica has a ratio of THC<CBD. This means that true Sativa can get you “high”, whereas the true Indica species has more CBD and other, non-psychoactive cannabinoids.
  • Geographic Natural Range – C. sativa originated in Europe and C. indica in Asia

Many casual marijuana users and buyers in legal states will then ask, “Why does my budtender offer me Sativa and Indica, both with psychoactive ingredient THC?” The answer comes from John M. McPartland, an endocannabinoid system researcher and osteopathic doctor from the University of Vermont. He explains that the problem created in Cannabis taxonomy (the science of naming organisms) stems from the psychoactive drug trade. Dealers and sellers have used the terms loosely and without scientific rigor. McPartland says, “Categorizing cannabis as either “Sativa” and “Indica” has become an exercise in futility. Ubiquitous interbreeding and hybridization now renders their distinction meaningless.”2


In the modern cannabis business, the distinction between Hemp and Marijuana is understood in terms of the FDA and USDA regulations around the amount of THC that is legal in a certain species of plant. Generally, if the THC content of an individual plant is less than 0.3%, that plant is considered Hemp. If the plant contains a higher THC concentration than 0.3%, that plant is classified as Marijuana.4

This distinction based on THC content is much more organized and reliable than the old practice of using strain names and breeding history to distinguish cannabis plants of the C. sativa and C. indica species or sub-species. It creates one, singular number and measuring system to distinguish between the two, and allows for better, more accurate conversation around the topic.

Beneficial Blends sources our CBD from Hemp plants, not Marijuana plants. This is because it’s more, compliant, efficient, and safer to do so. Marijuana plants are primarily used for their flowers and sold with as high THC content as can be cultivated. Hemp plants are raised for various reasons, including CBD-content.

So, to recap: Both Hemp and Marijuana plants produce CBD extract, but Hemp is defined as cannabis with less than 0.3% THC. Understanding the definitions and uses of these industry buzz words allows Beneficial Blends not only to join in the intelligent conversations happening in our industry, but also to educate our customers and consumers.  After all, they are the reason we’re in the edible oils business in the first place – to create greater benefits and happier lives for those who we serve.


  • Cain, A.J., “Taxonomy”, Encyclopædia Britannica, January 17, 2020 LINK
  • McPartland JM (2018) Cannabis systematics at the levels of family, genus, and species, Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research 3:1, 203–212, DOI: 10.1089/can.2018.0039. LINK
  • Komorowski J, Stepień H., [The role of the endocannabinoid system in the regulation of endocrine function and in the control of energy balance in humans]., US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, Postepy Hig Med Dosw (Online). 2007; 61:99-105. Review. Polish. LINK
  • Schiller, Melissa., International Hemp Industry Hopes to Change U.S.’s 0.3-Percent THC Limit, Cannabis Business Times, June 12, 2019 LINK