With around half of U.S. states now allowing the sale of medical marijuana, and a handful even allowing the sale of marijuana for recreational use, more and more individuals are interested in the potential health benefits of this plant.

While science on its medical use continues to advance, many people are now interested in how they can access the plant’s health benefits without experiencing its well-known negative psychoactive effect. This is entirely possible with marijuana’s close relative, hemp – but it’s important to know the difference so you can be a smart consumer.

One cultivars of the same plant

Fundamentally, both hemp and marijuana are the same plant: Cannabis sativa. There is evidence of Cannabis sativa L being grown in Asia thousands of years ago for its fiber and as a food source.1
Humans eventually realized that the flowering tops of the plant had psychoactive properties. Over time, as humans have done with so many crops, Cannabis farmers began cultivating specific plants to enhance specific properties.
Today, although some might argue the true number of plant varieties, there are really two simple distinctions:

Hemp – A plant primarily cultivated outside the United States (although a few U.S. states allow it to be grown for research purposes) for use in clothing, paper, biofuels, bioplastics, dietary supplements, cosmetics, and foods.Hemp is cultivated outdoors as a large crop with both male and female plants being present to foster pollination and increase seed production.

Legally imported industrial hemp contains less than 0.3% of the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). In fact, legally imported hemp will usually specifically eliminate any extracts from the plant’s dried flowering tops.2

Marijuana (Marihuana)Cannabis sativa specifically cultivated to enhance its THC content to be used for medicinal or recreational purposes. Marijuana plants are typically grown indoors, under controlled conditions, and growers remove all the male plants from the crop to prevent fertilization since fertilization lowers the plant’s THC level.3 

Legality of medical marijuana

The medical use of marijuana is an increased area of interest for consumers and researchers alike. Although not quite half of U.S. states have legalized the medical use of this plant, it remains illegal under federal law, and thus its use remains controversial despite the fact that there does appear to be genuine benefits for various serious health conditions.4

Those who are seeking marijuana for medical use should discuss its benefits versus its risks with a qualified health-care professional before using it. In addition, many consumers who have an interest in its health benefits don’t want the psychoactive side effects of THC or the risk of a positive drug test.

Hemp: health benefits without the risks

Imported hemp, which has an extremely low (almost absent) level of THC, can be a solution for consumers who are seeking the plant’s health benefits minus the effects of THC.

Although THC does have some health benefits, hemp contains more than 80 bioactive compounds that can offer excellent support for a number of health concerns, including stress response, positive mood, and physical discomfort.*Hemp can also benefit gastrointestinal health, help maintain a healthy inflammatory response throughout the body, and support normal immune function.*

If you are considering the use of a nutritional supplement product that contains hemp, then it's best to buy a product from a trusted source. Read our tips on buying a hemp product.

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  1. .Ancient Origins. Cannabis: A Journey through the Ages. http://www.ancient-origins.net/history/cannabis-journey-through-ages-003084. [Accessed March 19, 2018]
  2. Johnson R. Hemp as an agricultural commodity. Library of Congress, Washington DC, Congressional Research Service, 2014.
  3. https://www.leafscience.com/2014/09/16/5-differences-hemp-marijuana/ [Accessed March 27, 2018]
  4. Mead A. The legal status of cannabis (marijuana) and cannabidiol (CBD) under U.S. law. Epilepsy Behav 2017;70(Pt B):149-153.
  5. Borgelt L, Franson K, Nussbaum A, Wang G. The pharmacologic and clinical effects of medical cannabis. Pharmacotherapy 2013;33(2):195-209.