What’s in a Name? – Cannabis vs. Marijuana vs. Hemp

I was recently researching some new regulatory changes online and decided to post a question in a cannabis-related social media group. While I didn’t get a straight answer to my actual question, what I did realize is that there is a lot of confusion and controversy surrounding the most commonly used words in the industry: cannabis, marijuana, and hemp.

Briefly summarized, cannabis refers to the whole plant including hemp and marijuana, hemp refers to the type of cannabis with LESS than 0.3 percent THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive compound that causes a “high”), and marijuana refers to the type of cannabis with MORE than 0.3 percent THC. These words are often used interchangeably, but that is completely incorrect. Sounds pretty simple, right? Well, it’s not, so keep reading.

History and politics have a way of muddling up the scientific side of things sometimes, so while most people take these words at face value, there are some longstanding negative implications with some of these terms that can make things confusing for everyone. Let’s dive deeper in the meaning and history behind the words: Cannabis, Marijuana, and Hemp.

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Cannabis, Science and Plant Biology

To fully understand what cannabis is, we’ll need to look at the biology of the plant. First, the word “Life”, which refers to any being that undergoes some sort of biological process. Then, it’s further broken down into the following categories: domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species. A “plant” is a multicellular, typically photosynthetic organism of the kingdom Plantae.

Each plant has its own classification and the taxonomy of the cannabis plant, according to the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), is as follows: Kingdom Plantae (Plants) à Subkingdom Tracheobionta (Vascular plants) à
Superdivision Spermatophyta (Seed plants) à Division Magnoliophyta (Flowering plants) à Class Magnoliopsida (Dicotyledons) à Subclass Hamamelididae à Order Urticales à Family Cannabaceae (Hemp family) à Genus Cannabis L. (Hemp) à
Species Cannabis sativa L. (Marijuana).

For this article, we will zero in on the last two categories, hemp and marijuana. Now remember, the word for the entire plant and all of its parts is Cannabis, and (to put it bluntly) marijuana is the type of cannabis that gets you high, while hemp is the type of cannabis that doesn’t get you high. From this point, Cannabis can be broken down into three additional subtypes: Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis. These subtypes can apply to both marijuana and hemp.

Marijuana – An Important Word with a Controversial History

As discussed above, Marijuana is used to describe the Cannabis subtype with more than 0.3 percent THC. It’s the most common way to differentiate between cannabis types at this cutoff point. However, the word itself, “marijuana“, is a loaded one historically.

marijuana hemp cannabis
Smoking cannabis recreationally was a newer concept in the U.S.

Before 1910, the word “marijuana: did not exist in American culture. Instead, “Cannabis” was used when discussing the plant as a medicinal or therapeutic remedy. Back then, Bristol-Meyer’s Squib, Eli Lilly, and other current pharmaceutical giants used to include cannabis extracts, and sometimes even whole plant matter, in their medicine formulations. After 1910, the United States started getting an influx of legal immigrants, mostly from Mexico, who were seeking refuge post-war. It was during that time that the idea of smoking cannabis recreationally was becoming ingrained within the American mainstream culture. Up until then, it was used only medicinally.

Fast forward to the 1930s, when Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the newly established Federal Bureau of Narcotics, launched his war against “marijuana”. Although “cannabis” was part of United States history since the beginning, “marijuana” was viewed as this new dangerous substance that lurked in the shadows of America’s counterculture. During his numerous public appearances, some of which were to promote his trademark film Reefer Madness, Anslinger made sure to use the term “marijuana”, to keep people from making that connection with medicinal cannabis.

To sum it up, the word itself is not racist, it’s actually Spanish. But the word “marijuana” was adopted by a racist individual who used it alongside targeted fear mongering and prejudice against Hispanic immigrants, as the central focus of his campaign against the Cannabis plant. Today, the industry is taking the word back, using it in a professional manner that’s more rooted in science, not politics.

Understanding Hemp

Hemp is a term used to classify certain varieties of cannabis that have less than 0.3 percent THC (by dry weight). This is the legal standard by which hemp is defined in the United States and throughout most of the world, although some countries are leaning now towards a 1 percent cutoff. Generally speaking, Hemp is used to describe Cannabis that is non-intoxicating and harvested for its industrial purposes.

marijuana, hemp, cannabis
Outdoor hemp farm

There is evidence of hemp cultivation and use that dates back roughly 10,000 years, leading many to believe that hemp was the first crop ever grown and harvested by man. Because hemp is so versatile and can be used to create a multitude of essential items like food, textiles, housing material, plastic, and even biofuel, one can presume that hemp has been a catalyst for some of our most important inventions throughout history.

Hemp isn’t used only for industrial reasons though. Smokable hemp/CBD flower is growing trend that has really gained a lot of traction in the U.S. market these last couple of years. Feminized Cannabis sativa flower that produces low levels of THC, also produces smokable buds that taste, look, and smell just like the marijuana you would find at a dispensary or on the street. The main, glaring difference is that hemp/CBD flower has no psychoactive effects whatsoever. It’s great for curbing anxiety and depression, relieving pain, treating neurological disorders, or just relaxing without the high if that’s what you’re into.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, terminology is of utmost important when trying to communicate a point, and the cannabis industry is no exception. The interchangeable use of these terms is not only confusing, but downright incorrect. And while it’s important to be politically correct when possible, as far as the word “Marijuana” goes, it no longer has the racist and controversial undertones that it once had, so for the sake of clarity, we’ll stick to the following parlance:

  • Cannabis = the whole plant, including marijuana and hemp
  • Marijuana = the subtype of cannabis that has MORE than 0.3 percent THC (intoxicating)
  • Hemp = the subtype of cannabis that has LESS than 0.3 percent THC (non-intoxicating, industrial)

Thanks for stopping by CBD FLOWERS, your hub for all things hemp and cannabis-related. Stop by regularly and make sure to subscribe to the CBD Flowers Weekly Newsletter to keep up-to-date on all the most interesting industry topics.

Alexandra Hicks
Alexandra is the managing editor and lead writer at CBDFlowers.co. She has always been interested in alternative and natural remedies, and the versatility of cannabis as a healing plant is something that greatly appeals to her. It's for this reason that she decided to work as a cannabis industry journalist and editor, to help spread accurate information about the benefits of this plant.


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