Cannabis vs. Marijuana vs. Hemp 

Cannabis vs. Marijuana vs. Hemp 

What’s the difference? 

Related words like hemp, marijuana and cannabis can seem interchangeable. It is often misunderstood that they come from the same plant. Their chemical components and physical attributes are what differentiate them.  

How is Hemp different from Marijuana? 

In the United States, the level of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the legal defining line between hemp and marijuana. Cannabis sativa L. plants, which contain 0.3% THC or less, are hemp and plants exceeding the 0.3% THC limit are marijuana. The Farm Act of 2018 removed all hemp and hemp derived products from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act while Marijuana remains federally illegal under the U.S. Controlled Substances Act.   

The first distinguishing definition of Hemp vs. Marijuana can be found in “The Species Problem in Cannabis: Science & Semantics” published in 1971 by Ernest Small. This text describes the need for the classification of the Cannabis plant. 

“Drug strains have been thought to contain an excess, usually substantial, of Δ9 trans-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9 THC) in comparison with the amount of cannabidiol (CBD)…. non-drug strains have been held to have the reverse ratio. The former compound is considered psychotomimetic (psychosis-imitating), whereas the latter is not…. In examining the above cannabinoid ratio to decide in which phenotypic group a strain belongs, some investigators add the amount of cannabinol (CBN) to the amount of THC. The former seems to be an oxidation product of Δ9 THC (4) and is not considered to be psychoactive” (Small, 77

Where did the term ‘Marijuana’ originate? 

The exact origin of the word marijuana is uncertain. However, the term marihuana is speculated to have originated at the end of the 1800’s. Mexican immigrants in the United States allegedly began using the word after hearing Chinese American immigrants calling the plant ma ren hua, which translates to “hemp-seed-flower”. 

Historically the Mandarin word ma (麻) translates roughly to mother or hemp when spoken with a rising tone inflection. Chinese medical texts and literature from 200 CE discuss individual terms for ma, including máfén (麻蕡), máhuā (麻花), and mábó (麻勃), each referring to specific parts of a cannabis plant. Máfén (麻蕡) and mábó (麻勃) often refer to the spike-shaped headings of the plant while máhuā (麻花) refers to the flowers of the plant.  

Pairing the Chinese word Dà, meaning big or great, with Má forms the word Dàmá (大麻), the term today we know as marijuana. 

Where did the term ‘Hemp’ originate? 

The Old English term hænep, meaning hemp/cannabis sativa, is the origin for the Modern English word ‘hemp’. Hemp is described as the fiber-type materials of the cannabis plant.  

Other languages such as Old Saxon refer to this plant as ‘hanap’, in Old Norse as ‘hampr’ and in Old High German as ‘hanaf’. These terms are all derived from the Proto-Germanic word “hanapiz”, which was infused by the Greek word, ‘kannabis’.  

Are these plants biologically the same? 

Just as the terms marijuana and hemp are not considered the same, the question of biology is also complicated. All hemp and marijuana plants are part of the Linnaean family Cannabaceae and genus classification Cannabis. 

The Cannabis genus may be divided up into three species – Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis. There is debate within the taxonomic community regarding species vs subspecies based upon phenotypic versus genotypic traits. These external appearance and inward genomic differences are documented indicating that the plants are not always biologically alike. 


With the legal differences between hemp and marijuana, a manufacturer must choose their testing laboratory with care. States have different licensures for laboratories to be approved to test hemp or marijuana. The State of New Mexico Cannabis and Hemp Bureau is available to help aid producers and manufacturers in identifying an appropriate laboratory to suit their needs. 

Addendum: There has been much consideration of the origins of the word marijuana and why this term should be deleted from our vernacular. This blog post is not attempting to convince or change anyone’s mind about word choice. In 2022 New Mexico legislature passed HR 3617 replacing all statutory references of marijuana and marihuana with cannabis.   

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Written by Dana Neverdousky, MT(ASCP) & Veronica Martinez: April 2023