Cannabis & Hemp: What's The Difference?

Alternaleaf Team
Written by
Alternaleaf Team
Aug 25, 2023
Last updated:
May 2, 2024

The differences between hemp and cannabis can be confusing, especially when we consider the many different names for products derived from the Cannabis sativa plant.

While the differences are subtle,  once some common misunderstandings are cleared up it’s easy to understand the biological differences between hemp and cannabis, the different uses they have and whether cannabis or hemp is legal in Australia.

What’s The Difference Between Hemp And Cannabis?

You may think that hemp and cannabis are a different species, but both are variations of the Cannabis sativa plant. Essentially, hemp and cannabis are sourced from different chemotypes, meaning a subspecies of a single species of plant that produces different amounts of certain chemicals.

The primary difference between hemp and cannabis is the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) they contain. Cannabis plants with a THC content of above 0.3% on a dry weight basis are legally classified as cannabis, while plants with less than 0.3% THC are classified as hemp.

In terms of appearance, hemp plants are typically taller and skinnier with fewer leaves and branches at the top, while cannabis plants tend to be shorter and bushier. Hemp leaves also tend to be narrower and have less pronounced serrations than cannabis leaves.

Since cannabis plants are bred for maximum cannabinoid content, their flower clusters (buds) are also denser, bigger and more resinous compared to hemp flowers. You’ll also find less trichomes on hemp plants – the small white resin glands with a sugary appearance that produce cannabinoids such as THC and CBD, as well as terpenes, flavonoids and other minor cannabinoids.

Finally, hemp plants are often grown packed together in fields, while cannabis plants are grown spaced apart, allowing their branches and flowers to flourish more.

What Is Hemp Used For And What Benefits Does It Have?

Along with the different legal classifications, hemp and cannabis also have very different uses. Hemp is primarily used for making rope, paper and clothing, while cannabis is cultivated for its medical and recreational properties.

Hemp stalks are known for their durability, and are even used for building materials similar to cement or insulation. Cannabis is one of the fastest growing crops in the world and its fibres are biodegradable – some believe it could even be a sustainable alternative to plastic.

Hemp also has medical and nutritional benefits. Hemp seed oil is rich in antioxidant vitamins, amino acids and essential fatty acids, and is made by cold-pressing hemp seeds which also provide a lot of nutrients when eaten. Hemp seeds and oil are predominantly used as dietary supplements for their omega-3 content. Omega-3s may have neuroprotective properties, improve skin conditions and heart health and reduce inflammation.

While hemp is bred to contain as little THC as possible, it still contains cannabidiol (CBD), the second most prominent cannabinoid in cannabis. CBD may have a variety of health benefits, including anticonvulsant and anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) properties. CBD is also non-psychoactive, making it a popular choice for people who can’t or prefer not to experience THC’s psychoactive effects.

CBD is generally extracted from the flowers and leaves of hemp plants much like THC is from cannabis plants, then made into a variety of products including CBD oil, capsules, creams and lotions. CBD creates its therapeutic effects through its interaction with the body’s endocannabinoid system, specifically the CB2 receptors that are found mostly in the peripheral nervous system and particularly in immune cells.

Are Hemp Products Legal In Australia?

The short answer is yes, but laws around cannabis products in Australia can be complicated. Hemp is used to make both hemp seed oil and CBD oil. Hemp seed oil is legal for over the counter sale in Australia, with the caveat that it must contain less than 1% THC, which hemp does by definition. Since hemp seed oil is primarily used for its nutritional benefits and contains limited CBD and very limited THC content, laws around its sale are less strict.

CBD oil, despite also technically being legal to sell over-the-counter, requires a rigorous approval process from the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG), which no company has yet achieved. It’s expected there may be CBD oil products available to purchase at your local chemist by the end of 2023.

In the meantime, you’ll need a doctor’s prescription to access CBD oil in Australia even if the THC content is below 1%.

What Is Cannabis Used For And Where Did It Originate?

While cannabis plants also contain CBD, they are mostly known for their THC content. People have used THC for medical purposes for thousands of years, with evidence of its use dating all the way back to  2800 BC, in the writings of Emperor Shen Nung, who is known as the father of Chinese medicine.  

Cannabis was widely used across the ancient and pre-modern world, from China to Rome, for a variety of health conditions. However, with the demonisation of cannabis in the 20th century, much of this history was lost and we’re only now witnessing its revival as a medical compound.

Cannabis has much of the same medical uses now that it did for the ancient Romans, but we now better understand the compounds in cannabis, such as THC, and how they affect the body and mind.

THC is the most prominent cannabinoid in cannabis and the most widely researched. THC is responsible for cannabis’s psychoactive effects and, like CBD, interacts with the endocannabinoid system. However, THC affects the CB1 receptors instead of CB2, which are located in the central nervous system.

In Australia, THC products are prescribed for arthritis, chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, anxiety and sleep disorders. THC may also be an effective treatment for improving the appetite and reducing nausea and vomiting of cancer patients.

What Are The Side Effects Of Hemp Seed Oil And Cannabis?

All cannabis-derived products can have side effects, but they are usually mild. If you’re interested in hemp seeds or hemp seed oil for their nutritional value, you may want to be cautious if you are prone to allergies to nuts or seeds. It’s also recommended to moderate your intake as high quantities of hemp seeds might lead to digestive upset due to their high healthy fat content.

Hemp seeds may also interact with certain medications. Speak with your doctor if you are taking any medications, especially those with known interactions with fatty acids. Topical (applied to the skin) hemp products may also create skin irritation in rare cases – it’s good practice to first appy small amounts of any topical product to ensure you don’t have an adverse reaction.

Some other reported side effects of hemp seed oil include nausea, dry mouth, diarrhoea, drowsiness and appetite changes. These side effects can also occur with THC and CBD products, but they may be more pronounced since the cannabinoid content is usually low in hemp seed oil.

THC may also cause anxiety and potentially psychotic symptoms in vulnerable people, although this is usually (but not always) associated with higher doses.

Hemp & Cannabis: Key Takeaways

Cannabis sativa is an incredibly versatile plant. The strong fibres made from its stalks are used for environmentally friendly clothing, rope and even building materials, while the cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids and other cannabis compounds have several exciting medical properties.

Hemp plants and cannabis plants are differentiated based on their THC content, but the two also have some visual distinctions. Hemp is also prized for its nutritional seeds and CBD content, while cannabis is mainly cultivated for THC’s medical and recreational applications.

Whether you’ll benefit most from hemp seed oil, CBD oil or a THC-dominant product will depend on your symptoms, medical history and comfort level. Generally, hemp seeds are good for supplementing your nutritional intake, while CBD and THC are prescribed to help manage several physical and psychological conditions.

As always, your doctor is the best person to offer advice and guidance through the world of hemp and medical cannabis.

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